The Legacy of the Mafia Minstel Show
Steve Antonuccio

After my Grandfather died in the late 1960's, my Grandmother came to live with us for a short time.  It was a wonderful way to learn about my heritage and I got to listen to her stories about when my Father was growing up in San Francisco.  I remember a story she told me about when my Dad was around eight years old, about the same time Little Caesar was in the movie theaters.  One day he came home from school and told my Grandmother that some kid at school told him that all Italians were cutthroats.  My Grandmother got very upset and told him to ignore comments like that, that all it did was reveal the ignorance of the person making that remark, and to always take pride in who you are and your Italian heritage.  My Dad looked at my Grandmother and very innocently asked her,  "Ma, what's a cutthroat?"

Zoom forward around 70 years.  My daughter comes homes from school, about the same time The Sopranos was released on HBO, complaining that some kids at school were teasing her and calling her "Mafia Girl."   I wish I could say that things have gotten better for Italian Americans and how they are portrayed in popular television and film in the last 70 years, but unfortunately I think it has actually gotten worse.  What I call the Mafia Minstrel Show, actors in olive skin face playing mobster for the benefit of those people who lust for violence and racism, is now as insidious as lice.  Thanks to our friends at HBO, the Mafia Minstrel Show has been legitimized as a mainstream genre, not unlike westerns or love stories. So why has the Mafia Minstrel Show survived for the past 70 years?  It is very simple, IT MAKES MONEY!!!!!  I remember reading the obituary for Mario Puzo.  It listed the sales of his books, his wonderful novel about Italian American immigrants, The Fortunate Pilgrim, had sold maybe 10,000 copies and The Godfather, a novel that featured the Mafia Minstrel Show, had sold 15 million copies.  Mario Puzo, a man who admitted he had never known a gangster before he wrote The Godfather, obviously was given a lot of cash to write a novel about the Mafia Minstrel Show.  Just like David Chase, a man who originally wanted to tell a simple story about his relationship with his Mother, was given a lot of cash to add gangsters, gratuitous sex, and gratuitous violence to turn his simple story into something completely different. Both men talented Italian American storytellers, both men seduced by the almighty dollar into selling out their heritage.

Thanks to The Sopranos and the 100 billion-dollar media corporation that benefits from its hateful and racist portrayal of Italian Americans, the battle to fight this type of racism is confined to the Internet and a rare panel discussion on CSPAN.  Do you think we would ever see an honest debate on this subject on CNN?  Of course not, instead we get a "I love you so much" Sopranos infomercial on The Larry King Show.

So what options do we do?    We promote the positive and we FIGHT the negative.  I wish all we had to do were promote the positive.  I wish it was that simple.  Unfortunately we have a 100 billion-dollar media corporation that is promoting the negative, and our voices will never be heard, unless we use every resource we have to show our outrage.  The first amendment is not the exclusive property of HBO; we have the right to use it as well.  Unfortunately today, whoever controls the electronic media, has greater access to the first amendment.  This means we just have to be resourceful, clever and creative; qualities our peasant heritage has prepared us for.

Probably the most destructive legacy to come out of The Sopranos, is how it has divided the Italian American community.  All you have to do is look at some of the posts on this website in the past month to realize the anger and the animosity this series has caused.  It has opened some deep wounds and the destruction this series has had on all Italian Americans is beyond repair.  The arguments have become so absurd, that the people who are in the position of defending The Sopranos, are actually making their point by defending all Italian American defamation.  The Sopranos is simply the worse thing to have happened to Italian Americans and Italian American culture since Little Caesar was released in 1930.  I wish it would just fade away from our popular culture, but I'm afraid that is not going to happen.

I would love to say that after The Sopranos finishes its final season, that it will fade away from our popular culture.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  Right now, The Sopranos is watched by around 10 million people.  That is a lot of people, but only a fraction of the total population of the United States.  If you think the negative defamation against Italian Americans is bad now, wait until The Sopranos makes the next leap into our living rooms.  After the last season has shown itself out on HBO, you will see The Sopranos leap into another 80 million households.  Remember my words, you will eventually see The Sopranos on basic cable in the next few years, most likely on AOL Time Warner owned TNT.  At that point, The Sopranos, will be in around 60% of the homes in America.  That little experiment on broadcast television in Canada was also a test on how The Sopranos should be released in the USA.  It was to see how much heat they would take in North America if they released The Sopranos on network television.  Obviously they liked the results and have gone for another season in Canada.  They will use the same words they used on the Canadians when the show is released on TNT.  They will say what an important program it is, that the language, violence, racism, and nudity need to be left in, in order to keep its artistic integrity.  They will gladly lower the bar of good taste almost to the floor, so television can justify showing this tasteless, hateful, racist program and make as much money as they can on our olive skin.  This is what we have to look forward to.  You won't be able to turn your channel on television, without seeing an Italian American stick a knife into someone.  This is our future, unless we are willing to take a stand and fight.

I wish I wasn't such a thin-skinned Italian American.  My life would be so much simpler.  I've probably written a couple hundred letters and made a couple hundred phone calls fighting Italian American defamation in the past 20 years. I don't care; it is simply something I have to do because of my love and respect for my Father and my family.  I wish everyone could know my Father.  One of the finest people I have known in my life, he has sacrificed everything for his family.  The son of Sicilian immigrants, he volunteered to fight fascism during World War II in the Army Air Corp.  He was the first in his family to go to college on the G.I. bill and there was never a minute, never a moment, that I didn't know where he was when I needed him.  He is unselfish, honest, spiritual, loving, generous, gentle, respectful of women, and kind to a fault.   All the qualities that don't exist in Tony Soprano or the other players in the Mafia Minstrel Show that represents our culture on television and film.  But I would guess that the real life James Gandolfini is very similar to the type of Father I was raised by.  I'm very serious.  By all accounts James Gandolfini is a loving Father and husband who is devoted to his children, has a gentle non-violent nature, and respects women.  When I watch the Mafia Minstrel Show, I can't help but think of my Father, my Grandparents, and my own children.  These characters look like us, they have beautiful Italian names that are similar to our names, but their behavior doesn't resemble anything I recognize in my Italian American family or probably in James Gandolfini's Italian American family.

It has been the policy of HBO and AOL Time Warner to answer any controversy about The Sopranos with a no comment.  When they tried to bribe the mayor of Providence by offering to buy his Pasta sauce if he sanctioned their premiere a few years back, all they said to the controversy was "No Comment."  Their official policy is to disengage from any controversy.  That is how they fight the battle and it is a smart move.  In the case of The Sopranos, no controversy is good news.  They also have recruited respected Italian Americans in the community to promote their series.  Another smart moves.  Almost from the beginning, Rudy Giuliani has embraced the series publicly.  Call it a coincidence, but when the series was released he was actively campaigning for the Senate, and he made numerous appearances on Time owned CNN's Larry King show.  About a month ago, Larry King even did an anthology tribute to Rudy Giuliani.  What I want to know, is how could Rudy form an opinion on The Sopranos so early on that he was willing to embrace the show publicly so soon after it was released?  Especially since he was such a vocal opponent of art that could be considered obscene.  You would think the nudity, the violence, and the Italian American defamation would have bothered Rudy.  Apparently all those appearances on Larry King made the decision to embrace the show a little easier for him.

There is some good news my friends.  There appears to be a leak in the dyke.  James Gandolfini has questioned the violence on The Sopranos and has vowed never to play another mob figure.  A great actor, of humble hardworking Italian American roots, he seems to see The Sopranos now for what it is.  He was noticeably absent from the Larry King love fest and the Canadian press conference this past month.  I wonder what is really going on?  It sounds like he is tired of playing in the Mafia Minstrel Show, tired of putting on the olive skin face and playing buckwheat paisan.  I'm sure some guy from HBO, is sitting in a room with James right now, showing him a suitcase full of money, begging for him to come back to do a couple more seasons.  I hope he has the strength of conviction to say no.  The Sopranos without James Gandolfini is like All in The Family without Carroll O'Connor.  There is no Sopranos without James.  Stand firm James, you know the truth about Italian Americans and how we really live, better than anybody.  Celebrate the sacrifices your parents made by doing something positive about our heritage.

You know, I always thought James Gandolofini would make a wonderful Marty.  That brilliant film and teleplay about a lonely Italian American butcher who has been frustrated in his attempts to find love.  One of the most tender love stories I have ever seen, that shows Italian Americans for who we really are.  Compassionate, loving, kind, family oriented men and women who love their children, their parents, and their beautiful heritage.  Not the cold hearted murderer, pimp, drug dealer, and wife beater that we get in Tony Soprano, but someone who is more like the real life James Gandolfini.

Now that I have endeared myself to the writers, producers, and actors of The Sopranos, I wonder if I could ask them for one little favor.  Why not make the last season of The Sopranos substantially different than the past three.  Why not step out of the series and show the lives of the actors and producers.  Just like in the Larry Sanders show, say cut, and then tell the tale of the real people involved in the series.  I'm sure they have a thousand stories for all the flak they encountered from the many Italian American cultural organizations and individuals that have fought the series.  Why not tell the story of James Gandolfini being asked to speak at an Elementary Schools as Tony Soprano, as if a cold-blooded murderer should be considered as a role model for children.  If David Chase wanted to, he could even tell the story about his real life relationship with his Mother.  They could also talk about stereotyping and the real life angst that James Gandolofini feels about playing violent mobster roles.  It would be a creative switch at a time when the plot lines of the current series have become tiresome and repetitive.  Why not end the series on a positive note about the real hardworking, educated, and dedicated family oriented Italian Americans who are involved in the series.  Show the world that you can tell entertaining stories, without using the Mafia Minstrel Show as a crutch.  Oh was just an idea.

Steve Antonuccio

Return to Professor Rosa's English 187 Italian American Literature home page.