‘The Many Saints of Newark’ is a ‘Sopranos’ prequel that Italian Americans don’t need

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It’s an offer millions of “Sopranos” fans can’t refuse: a prequel exploring Tony Soprano’s early days. This movie, “The Many Saints of Newark”, hits theaters in the United States and hits HBO Max on Friday.

The better the quality, the deeper this image of Italian life and culture sinks into the American psyche.

The hit TV series the prequel is based on ran from 1999 to 2007, ending in an enigmatic finale that frustrated millions of viewers. Many were hoping that series creator David Chase would continue the saga, possibly on the big screen. James Gandolfini, who made Tony Soprano memorable, died in 2013. But his son, Michael, was just the right age to play a young Tony for the prequel.

Whatever the merits of the prequel, the last thing many Italians need is a new generation of viewers who see our experience through the prism of violent mobsters, even with complex personalities.

Chase said his original goal for “The Sopranos” was to “make a really good gangster movie,” and that continues to be his goal for the prequel. The film, set in 1967 during the Newark Riots, adds an element of racism to the many sins of the Mafiosi.

But exploiting a Mafia family for drama and social commentary is in search of fruit at hand. It’s a story that will provide opportunities for violence, strip clubs, and the inevitable tension between the old and the new generation as the heirs to the Mafia bosses must choose between legitimate upward mobility or remain loyal. to the family business. The metaphors about the pursuit of the American dream and the moral dilemmas that this quest presents are virtually self-explanatory.

It would have been nice if Chase had aimed higher. The Italian-American experience is richer and more varied than the sagas of mafia families. These are people like my grandparents, complicated men and women who made huge sacrifices to give their families a better life without breaking a single law.

I didn’t watch the show when it first aired because my husband and I didn’t have HBO at the time. However, over the past few months I’ve taken a good sample of key episodes, and “The Sopranos” seems to deserve all the awards it has received and the huge following it has garnered. But the better the quality, the deeper this image of Italian life and culture sinks into the American psyche.

How deep? Let me give a personal example. I loved my Jewish husband’s parents, and they loved me. But Evelyn, my late mother-in-law, had a boring habit: every visit she made reference to the Mafia. When I finally mentioned this to my spouse, he asked him about it. She told him that she hadn’t realized how many times she had mentioned the crowd in my presence and that she was intrigued by her behavior. A follower of Freud, she remarked: “I wonder why I am doing this. (She never mentioned the Mafia again.)

She may have found an answer in a psychoanalytic theory, but to me it was clear: the connection between Italian Americans and the crowd was hard to break, reinforced by years of popular culture. It certainly didn’t start with “The Sopranos,” but the show took it to a whole new level.

Chase, an Italian-American himself, is said to have said that as an artist he couldn’t care about the self-esteem of people like me. But people like me have every right to say “basta” to these relentless portrayals of Italian Americans as criminals.

I am not alone in my frustration. In 2001, then-Rep. Marge Roukema, RN.J., also Italian-American, began to hear complaints from her constituents about the “Sopranos”. She sponsored a congressional resolution criticizing the series and citing statistics demonstrating how much the Mafia had dominated representations of Italian-Americans in popular culture. A striking fact: between the release of “The Godfather” in 1972 and 2000, more than 300 crowd films featuring Italian gangsters were made.

The Roukema resolution cited Justice Department estimates that only around 5,000 people were then involved in organized crime in the United States. Italo-Americans.

The resolution did not gain traction in Congress. But it took off among editors who couldn’t resist the use of crowd references, undermining the seriousness of Roukema’s point. Even the staid New York Times headlined “Congresswoman Takes on ‘Sopranos’ Stereotype.”

The damage this unfair stereotype inflicts on Italian Americans is most serious in politics. Take Mario Cuomo, elected in 1982 as the first Italian-American governor of New York. (He is also the father of Andrew Cuomo, himself Governor of New York until a sexual harassment scandal forced him to step down this year, and of CNN presenter Chris Cuomo).

The elder Cuomo, capable of skyrocketing rhetoric, was considered presidential material. But for years he was chased by unfounded rumors of mob connections. Media surveillance was relentless. It took a full investigation in 1987 by New York Magazine reporter Nicholas Pileggi to appease them.

But by then it was too late. The rumors and questions had hung on for too long. Cuomo has never publicly disclosed the reasons he never sought the ultimate political prize. But many political insiders felt he wanted to spare himself and his family all the malicious gossip a nationwide campaign would provoke and the unfair political ads that would mar their name.

For all the success and acceptance that Italian Americans have achieved, imagine if a certain businessman candidate called Donald Troppo threw his hat in the ring for the president in 2015. His experience in casinos and construction didn Wouldn’t she have raised a lot more questions than they did when a candidate named Donald Trump launched a campaign? Even though the media reported on Trump’s links to organized crime, it never really became a political issue with voters. Trump’s name didn’t end with a vowel, so why worry?

And that’s what is so unsettling about “The Sopranos” and its continuing hold on the American imagination. If Italian-American history boils down to the sagas of mafia families, we will never completely escape that mistrust – usually silent, perhaps even unconscious – that subtly shapes the way we are viewed.

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