The Many Saints of Newark, the prequel to the beloved TV series The Sopranos that opened last week in theaters and on HBO Max, is the biggest film disappointment of 2021 so far. If The Sopranos paved the way to a new cinematic art form—the multipart, multi-season TV drama—the prequel seems to want to bury an entire genre: the ethnic mafia film.
Early Hollywood attempts at portraying Italian mafia were unimpressive. Francis Ford Coppola revamped the genre in 1972, with his first installment in The Godfather trilogy, a film he intended to be so authentic that the audience would “smell the spaghetti.” He succeeded in much more than that. Coppola’s villains, painted in intense chiaroscuro, put a new twist on the perennial American interest in outlaws. This time, the malefactors were bound by ancient tribal loyalties into criminal organizations whose very existence spread like a cancer on American institutions. Many mobster films were made in the decades that followed—films about the Cubans, the Jews, the Irish, the blacks, and, of course, more films about the Italians. All amoral men of different lineages, assembled on American land to do as they please.
It was the cinema of multiculturalism—and assimilation. The storylines twist and turn around the process of integration, whether they showed Michael Corleone feeling discriminated against, and not without reason, by the WASP political establishment in Nevada, or the Irish-Italian sub mafioso in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas living in troubled marriage to a nice Jewish girl. The very existence of the genre requires a degree of tolerance and openness.
It also relies on a fairly sophisticated audience, one that understands that while antiheroes are interesting, and every culture has its own, the majority of Americans of all ethnic backgrounds are decent human beings. Ethnographic detail might be accurate, and the events portrayed in the film might be based in historical fact, but these characters don’t represent the typical Irish-American or Cuban-American experience. Rather, it’s a dramatic rendering of a culture, devoid of patronizing overtones.
For a red-blooded American male, the target audience, these films were a natural way to learn about the various traditions that melted into the United States: show me your villains, and I’ll show you mine. This project was premised on the idea that we all can get along if only we learn more about one another; to the extent that it worked, it was thanks to cultural phenomena largely independent from politically correct bureaucratic initiatives like Italian American Heritage Month or diversity trainings.
The meeting of cultures was reflected in the plot lines of the genre: the Irish mobsters making deals with the blacks and the Jews in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, for instance. A certain respectful distance and purity of bloodlines was typically observed, as Frank Pentangeli suggests in The Godfather Part II: “Your father did business with Hyman Roth; your father respected Hyman Roth; but your father never trusted Hyman Roth.”
The films showed tight-knit tribes zealously guarding their traditions in strange lands, but back in the real world, the rate of intermarriage was skyrocketing. Part of the appeal of this type of cinema was that it was dramatizing iconic characters from quickly disappearing ethnic enclaves. “This Sicilian thing that’s been going on for 2,000 years,” in the words of Kay Corleone—the ethnic culture, tracing its roots to antiquity, whose heirs look, feel, and think in ways so different from the Albion’s seed that populated the North American plains, was merging into the Anglo-American democratic capitalist republic.
E pluribus unum is a tough sell in the post–1619 Project America. Amid the Covid-19 lockdowns imposed in early 2020, our institutions abandoned multiculturalism in favor of wokeness. The woke view the United States as irredeemably racist, a nation founded to perpetuate the enslavement of blacks, and, after slavery was eradicated, determined to keep its citizens of African origin down at all costs.
There are plenty of reasons why the Sopranos prequel fails so miserably. Set in 1967, it shows the downfall of don Dickie Moltisanti, played by Alessandro Nivola. Michael Gandolfini, starring as the young Tony Soprano, mirrors his father’s deliberative side-eye perfectly, but the screenplay is a mess. Composed of a handful of poorly integrated chains of events, it gives the impression that the filmmakers jammed together a season’s worth of episodes into a single feature-length movie. The characters are poorly developed, and plot lines fumble.
Worst yet, the visceral realism and cultural fidelity that made the genre what it was feels absent. Nothing about the film smells like spaghetti; the only inspired parts portray the black liberation struggle. This is not a revolutionary breakthrough in mob films. Black-liberation themes have taken center stage before, including in Coppola’s 1984 classic The Cotton Club.
What’s new is the uncharacteristically unselfconscious self-righteousness. Dickie Moltisanti has a black business associate Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) who gets involved in race riots. It’s impossible to read a man so engrossed in the most fashionable moral cause of the day as a villain. With a character arc that reverses that of Michael Corleone, who started as a war hero and ended destroying his daughter, McBrayer simply does not belong to the genre. In the world of the irredeemables, he is redeemed. If in the late twentieth century it was possible to show indisputably evil people occasionally doing something worthwhile, perhaps out of loyalty to their own tribe, or, in any event, elevating tribal loyalty to a virtue (see the Irish mob’s arming of the IRA), in the moral universe of Black Lives Matter any and all tactics are justified in pursuit of racial equity. Multiculturalist cinema might have been morally relativist, but BLM cinema has its own moral compass. What’s good for black liberation is good for all humanity.
There is no room in this universe for peaceful coexistence of equally fascinating villains. Working-class sons of illiterate peasants who arrived to the New World speaking no English are seen as privileged whites who can’t legitimately occupy a central position in any narrative. Under the 1619 mandate, there is no justification for making films about the Italian-American experience, let alone a film seemingly designed to showcase a new member of an Italian acting dynasty and extend the plot of a long-running series.
The 1619 idea is a jealous one. Not having much to offer aside from mass-produced silhouettes of a raised fist—itself a Warholean derivative of early Communist propaganda—cultural revolutionaries cannot admit that Western civilization is great. The Godfather trilogy could not be conceived today, and neither could The Sopranos original series, which began with Tony proudly showing his daughter the church for which his father created baroque style sculptures.
I have yet to see woke filmmakers create convincing characters. So far, they excel at taking previously developed roles, usually played by white men, and assigning them to women and minorities. Special attention is paid to “defying stereotypes,” for instance, showing women as buff warriors. That approach can’t work for mobster pictures.
In The Many Saints of Newark, black criminality is a product of historical circumstance, not malevolence. Typical mobster drama painted a far more nuanced picture of ethnic minorities. History and social pressures played a part in the formation of personalities, but so did the human capacity for evil. Coppola wasn’t too concerned that he might be creating a stereotype of an Italian; he thought of the Corleone family as archetypal villains, and so did his audience.
What passes for villainy in 2021 hardly makes for compelling story. In our inverted moral universe, casual racism is the greatest sin. Thus, the family of the mafia don Dickie Moltisanti is scandalized by his use of the N-word. Meantime—spoiler alert —the man is guilty of patricide.
With the zealous racialism of the BLM era supplanting multicultural calls for tolerance, the imperative to celebrate diversity has abated. American institutions outlived the Italian mafias: Las Vegas was once the plaything of criminal masterminds, but now it’s corporate-controlled. Critical Race Theory might be a more formidable enemy.
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