The Many Feints of The Sopranos – The American Prospect

Posted: October 15, 2021 at 9:12 pm

When it was announced that The Many Saints of Newark, David Chases return to The Sopranos, would be set during the 1967 Newark riots, and would feature prominent Black characters (most notably Leslie Odom Jr.), I was intrigued, but a little bit nervous. No one had asked David Chase to take on race. No one had said, Do you know what television show can really speak to the Black Lives Matter moment? The Sopranos!

This is not to deny that The Sopranos was always about race. When the focus wasnt on violence and crimeor on large stupid men eating salted meats and stewing in their pettinessthe show explored what happens when a certain Italian American subculture moves to the suburbs, when ethnic pride becomes melting-pot patriotism. As critics and academics observed, it was a show about how Italians became white. Tony Sopranos anxiety that he came in at the end was about his fear that his mode of ethnic whiteness was losing its coherence in an increasingly multicultural and multiracial America. I think about my father, he famously laments in the closing minutes of the pilot episode: He never reached the heights like me, but in a lot of ways he had it better. He had his people, they had their standards, they had pride. Today, what do we got?

As critics and academics observed, The Sopranos was a show about how Italians became white.

But if it was damning in its exploration of the psychic underbelly of patriarchal ethnic whitenessleading to more than a few Did The Sopranos predict Trump? think piecesthe show could be cringingly ham-fisted when it came to other races and ethnicities. Its Jews were moneylenders or mystics, its Native Americans were academic frauds or casino moguls, and its Black characters, perhaps the most offensively served, were invariably thugs, rappers, and grinning hustlers. They all play the race card, a phrase encapsulating the belief that minorities are less oppressed than capitalizing on exaggerated claims of oppression. In other words, it wasnt just that the protagonists themselves were enthusiastic raciststhough they certainly were that, and it can be hard to watchit was that the show so often portrayed the world as they saw it. Tonys anger at political correctness often seemed endorsed by the show itself.

Of course, the Italian protagonists of The Sopranos were also a caricature of superstitious and money-hungry Italian American stereotypes. In The Sopranos, shamelessly cashing in your identity might be the most American thing of all: Every race and ethnicity is portrayed as cynical frauds, addicted to violence and chained to a desire for money. But the shows racism (or meta-racism) has still aged very poorly. As we go through a renaissance of interest in The Sopranosassisted by its availability on streaming platformsits not groaningly clichd characters like the rappers Massive Genius or Fabolous, or the many caricatured Black gangsters who invariably die stupidly, that viewers are rediscovering. For its well-read fans, the show they love was simply not about Black people, or about any other ethnic minority. Its about white people.

Which leads us to the million-dollar question: Does The Many Saints of Newark have anything to say about Black people? After all, this movie wasnt just made in a different time than The Sopranos was, it has been released during a very particular moment of historical resonance. Though filmed in 2019, were watching it a year after the historic protests against the murder of George Floyd. The Sopranos was unmistakably of its dot-com-bubble, Y2K, and 9/11 moment, but the timeliness of this movie is inescapable.

Its almost shocking, then, to discover how little this movie has to say about the historical material it plays with, how careless it is with its Black characters, and how strangely caught in narcissistic nostalgia it turns out to be.

It must be said that The Many Saints of Newark is simply not a very good movie: busy, unnecessary, disappointingly ordinary as Manohla Dargis put it. On the Sunday after the movies release, the Sopranos Twitter group Im in (which will tell you something about my level of fandom) briefly changed its name from no spoilers until Monday to spoiler: its bad.

Sometimes a piece of entertainment just doesnt work, and theres nothing else to say. Maybe something as distinctly of its moment as The Sopranos cant be made today; maybe a Sopranos reboot without James Gandolfini was always going to be doomed. However, I would propose that the movies problem runs deeper, that its basic structural problem also illustrates a particular failure of imagination.

Its almost shocking to discover how little this movie has to say about the historical material it plays with, how careless it is with its Black characters.

The structural problem is simple, and many have pointed it out: The movie tries, in only two hours, to tell two very different and difficult stories at once, but because it lacks the time to let either plot breathe or develop, it fails at both. On the one hand, this is a movie about the insulated white community of the show, telling the story of Tonys family before they fled to the suburbs. On the other hand, its a movie about the Black people that they fled from, about the rise of a Black gangster who would take over the inner-city spaces that whites were fleeing.

But while it would be a tall order to tell a coherent story across the American color line at one of the moments of its most heightened tension, the movies inability to integrate these two worlds is more than just a screenwriting failure, or something that you could have fixed by expanding it to miniseries length. Its a refusal to look closely at how integrated these worlds once were, and how increasingly segregated this country became after the civil rights era.

Ask yourself this: If Leslie Odom Jr.s Harold McBrayer were removed from the movie, and if every scene that takes place in Black Newark were excised, how different would Tonys story be? How different would the rest of the movie be? The answer is simple. Dickie Moltisanti would still kill his father to take his stepmother as his mistress; Tonys beloved uncle would still be killed by his less beloved uncle; and Tonys mother would still blame him for everything (and vice versa). If this is the story of how Tony became a gangster rather than a football player, his tragedy is that no one in his familyexcept dead Uncle Dickiewants him to be good. Nothing in Black Newark alters or even touches that story.

In the film, Black people are a spectacle, a useful red herring to cover up crimes. Dickie burns his fathers body in his car dealership as the city is in flames, holding the rioters responsible. Juniors killing of Dickie presumably goes unremarked because everyone assumes Harold had him whacked. Paulie and Pussy steal a TV because they know it will be blamed on the Harlem Globetrotters, as Paulie puts it. Black Newark is a place you stay out of, and flee from, as when Dickie accidentally finds himself in a riot or when the family flees to the suburbs because a Black doctor bought a house. Black people are the orange sky they stare mutely up at, a baffling reflection of riots whose causes and meaning they find utterly mysterious.

We see Harold McBrayer reflect on his exploitation by his white colleagues, listen to Black Power poetry, turn against his onetime high school football buddy Dickie, and begin to build an empire. Unlike virtually every character in The Sopranos, he seems like a real hero. He is capable, thoughtful, cautious, and his grievances are real. More than just handsome, hes exactly the kind of man Tony Soprano would claim to revere, the strong silent type. He is, in short, one of the least Sopranos characters David Chase has ever written. He should be incompetent, unattractive, and short-sighted. He should harbor bizarre delusions of grandeur and an unfounded persecution complex. He should spontaneously make narcissistic choices that ultimately ruin him. The point of his character should be his self-deceptions and pettiness.

But Harold doesnt just come from a different part of Newark; he comes from a different show. And if the great thing about The Sopranos was that it demystified the mafia, showing them to be lazy, violent slobs, the strange thing about The Many Saints of Newark is that it seems to be doing the opposite in Harolds world, not a deconstruction of the gangsters self-image, but a glorification of it.

The missed opportunity was for the movie to connect these two story lines. Dickie Moltisanti should have been that point of connection, and that should have been what made his death meaningful. But we see no indication that Tony knows or cares that Harold was supposed to have been who killed his uncle; Dickies death is not made meaningful to him in racial terms.

What if it was? What if Dickies death didnt just shed light on Tonys strained relationship with Junior? What if Tonys origin story was his (false) belief that his avuncular father figure had been murdered by a Black man? It would not only resonate with his racist insistence in the show that you stay with your own people, it would explain why that box of Uncle Bens rice knocks him out in Season 3. And what if the movie had explored the time before Tony learned to be a racist, his path not taken? It could have been jazz records that Tonys dead uncle gave him, rather than the JBL speakers he listens to white rock n roll through. But the movie doesnt go there. Its left to our ghostly narrator to relate the Sopranos flight from the inner city, as an interstitial afterthought, between scenes: That fall, Johnny moved to the suburbs, the Black thing. Its impossible to tell what Tony makes of the Black thing (or even if he makes anything of it at all).

The Sopranos was about Italian whiteness, but what if Many Saints had been about Italian non-whiteness? The history embedded in a slur like guinea, as in the Guinea coast of West Africadirectly asserting that Italians are Blackis strangely absent from this story. Cops might not have been pulling Italian cab drivers out of their cars, but its strange to do a historical drama about race in the 60s and not address the extent to which Italians really were less white, with much fresher memories of real grievances.

Theres a reason that Junior Soprano reveres the Kennedys, after all; today, its a moderately interesting piece of trivia that our Supreme Court has a Catholic supermajority, but in 1960, a Catholic president was a big deal. And while there is some playful banter in the movie about how Sicilians have Black bloodto which one Sicilian takes great offenseimagine a version of this movie in which Dickies mother-in-law was explicitly coded as having North African heritage. Sicily is a lot closer to Tunisia than Rome, after all, a geographical fact that could have been made into a thematic one. What if the movie explored a lost interracial desire and solidarity, instead of simply white flight? (Instead, shes from Ariano, a short drive from Tonys own Avellino.)

The movie were left with tells a story about the civil rights struggle in Newark, Black Power, and white flight that rhymes strangely well with what white people often tell themselves.

Im not just asking David Chase to have made a different movie than the one he did. This much better movie he didnt make is implied throughout, as when the movie seems to be building toward the reveal that Giuseppina will turn out to have been Christophers real mother. But after much is made of the fact that Dickie cant seem to conceive with his wifeand he takes up with his Italian mistressthey suddenly, without explanation, are able to have Christopher. You can almost smell the much more interesting movie this could have been if these plots had connected.

Theres even an early scene in the movie when Harold jokes that Dickies skill as a football player was his hypothetical Black blood (Thats Sicilians, Im Napoletano, Dickie corrects him), but at that moment, the camera cuts to Junior Soprano, who looks up, interested. Its just a tiny moment, easily lost, but it might be that in that one quick shot, we finally get an answer for Juniors dogged insistencein both the show and the moviethat Tony never had the makings of a varsity athlete. Just as Christopher suggests, from the grave, that moving to the suburbs is what made Tony a pussy, is there something buried here about Tonys fear of, or lack of, or distance from Blackness? Is that why he lacked the makings of a varsity athlete?

Unfortunately, connections like this remain buried, barely implied. When its revealed that it was Junior who had Dickie killed, Dickies entire struggle with Harold is rendered moot, revealed as a massive misdirection. But the same is true for what had seemed like the movies effort to say something about race, about the Black thing. The orange skies above Newark are picturesque, as the flames of downtown looting reflect across the city to where a young Tony Soprano (and a young David Chase) could see them. But those riots turn out to be as inconsequential as Harold is to the story, just a means of camouflaging a murder that no one seems to care about anyway.

The movie is just as disinterested in the era of re-segregation that followed the 60s, as white families not only fled the prospect of living beside Black people, but erected new structures of discrimination to keep them from following. After the credits, we see a strangely triumphal scene of integration, as Harold cheerfully greets a (hostile) white neighbor, and then turns to making some kind of criminal payoff. He has won, the movie implies; the city is his. Is this a triumph? That would be a strange takeaway for a movie about the world we live in, where we are more segregated now than weve been in decades.

Instead, the movie that were left with tells a story about the civil rights struggle in Newark, Black Power, and white flight that rhymes strangely well with what white people often tell themselves about where racial strife comes from: Black people. After all, the story of civil rights is of Black people demanding social integration, equality, and an end to racial segregation; white flight is a story of whites abandoning their cities rather than allow all of that. But if the mob story in The Many Saints of Newark is a microcosm of racial history, its striking that Harold turns out to be the source of that division, with Dickie its victim. Its superficially easy to understand Dickies confusion when Harold turns against him, after having treated him quite wellalmost a brother!in every scene we see of the two together. How, after all, could he ever understand what drove Harold, or what its like to be Black in Newark? All of that happened in a completely different movie.

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The Many Feints of The Sopranos - The American Prospect

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