Monday, June 11, 2007

The Sopranos: Farewell to a Racist Minstrel Show with Guns

The Sopranos had its last episode yesterday after being hailed for eight years as "television drama" at its best, winning award after award, as its absurd soap opera was hailed as "realism" and its caricatures praised as characters. It's true that Italian-American civil rights groups have long denounced the show for its crude stereotyping of Italian Americans (law suits were even launched around this issue).

It's true even that yesterday the local news shows in New York, as the mentioned the "suspense" building up around the last episode of the Sopranos were bantering in Soprano language, smirking "batta bing" and
in general capturing the essence of the shows "realism," that is, buffoons and murderers are symbolically Italian-American and live in New Jersey and have many of the "same" family problems the the rest of us have in the "modern" and "post modern" world, seeing therapists, coping with dysfunctionalisituations in and out of family relationships, and developing the same self-realization that one finds in the Bush administration when it invades a foreign country.

I must say that I have not consistently watched the Sopranos and have seen it for sociological purposes at friends" homes since it appeared on "premium" pay TV, HBO, which I and much of the "general" pay TV cable subscribers don't have. It is now in rerun on A and E, a major network of general pay TV, and I have greater access to it.

Everything that I have seen on the Sopranos reminds me of the "classic" racist comedy show Amos and Andy, where the accents and the verbal malapropisms of the major characters were the heart of the humor Andy was friendly and stupid, the Kingfish was a conniving comical con man, Algonquin J. Calhoun was the ridiculous lawyer, etc. The message was that Blacks trying to act like normal successful people in careers and professions was itself an absurdity, which was the theme of the minstrel shows before and after the Civil War. In my youth I have memories of arguments and fights breaking out as whites and Latino youth angered African-American youth by mimicking the Amos n Andy accents and situations they had seen on television. Although the NAACP and other civil rights organizations protested Amos n Andy's shift from radio to television in the early 1950s without success, the later success of the Civil Rights movement assured that it would be taken out of reruns by the late 1960s and it has not re-appeared any network or cable channel since (although one can find the old episodes and there are even "art for arts sake" critics who praise the quality of its writing and acting, which for me is very much beside the point).

Like Amos n Andy, the Sopranos are a bunch of buffoons pretending to be normal successful people, although they are living in suburban New Jersey, not in Harlem. They have created their own "ghetto" of criminal associations and their scams are much more brutal than the harmless adventures of Andy and the Kingfish, who were often set upon and scammed by tricksters.

Recently I saw a Sopranos episode which was pure Amos n Andy. To make a long story short, a couple of gangsters are ordered to murder a Russian mobster who escapes from their clutches and leaves them wandering in the wilderness. When after endless dumb chatter among themselves they contact Joey Soprano, the big boss and he tells one of them that "the package" (since he expects his phones to be tapped) is dangerous and murdered 24 Chechens, he then tells the other that "the package" murdered 24 "Czechoslovakians." Much of this is funny, but at whose expense and for what purpose?

In the last episode, according to the very sympathetic story in today's New York Times, Tony's daughter announces that she plans to be a Civil Rights lawyer because of the injustices that minorities face at the hands of the state and Tony says "New Jersey"? and we can all laugh. In an episode years ago Tony visits a college for his daughter (good middle class professional father that he is) and commits a mob murder in the area. Just when you think that the Sopranos will act in a way that will earn respect, the stereotype hits you in the face, as it is supposed to according to formula.

You can like some of these characters but never empathize with them. Realism, which the Sopranos have been praised for over the years, is about social relationships in a credible social context, not about white people dressing up as Blacks or middle class Italian-American actors talking like fictional Italian-American gangsters and giving us stereotypic formulas of Sambos (stupid friendly characters to be controlled) "coons" (buffoons pretending to have education and skill but showing their ignorance in everything they do) and violent bestial characters whom we are expected to fear.

What minstrel shows teach whether they are live or on radio and television, whether they are about African-Americans or Italian-Americans or any other group as that "we" the intended audience are superior to the characters, even if they express some of our darker fears and desires, and must keep apart from them, denying them the right to integrate into the larger society because that would threaten the larger society.

Italian-Americans have been integrated into the arts, sciences, and professions in the United States for a long time and are considered "white" so what is really the point of portraying them endlessly as frightening and laughable gangsters. What is the point of portraying Jewish-Americans as wealthier than the general white population and often the "representatives" of liberal and radical ideas and policies. To maintain, I would say, a world of negative stereotypes that keep people of various ethno-cultural and religious groups from developing the understanding that their differences are minor and largely cosmetic, from uniting on both their common class interests, their larger cultural bonds, and their common humanity.

While such stereotypes are most virulent and destructive in the United States in their portrayal of African-Americans, Latinos, and others regarded as people of color, the routinized stereotypic portrayals of non Anglo groups in the United States are also part of that larger picture that sustain racist institutions and ideology. In that regard, the Sopranos richly deserve the condemnation that the show has received form Italian-American civil rights activists, not the praise that it has received from establishment media.

Let me conclude by saying that it would be a victory against racism in the media if, in the not too distant future, The Sopranos would be taken off the cable rerun circuit the way Amos n Andy was taken off the free television rerun circuit forty years ago, seen in the conventional wisdom as an embarrassment, even among those who continue to praise it on aesthetic grounds.

Hopefully, they would not be replaced by some other ethnic group, in a media game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

--Norman Markowitz

1 comment:

Chris Stevenson said...

Good Essay,

The few Italians I've known in life were just hardworking honest people. Some of them however got off on the "Godfather," that was their movie, they connected to it as if it was a film about their own family. But thats the way many are with ethnic-themed series.

TV traps us because if Amos and Andy is the only black thing on the air, then it will be watched by blacks (even if the actors are white in some instances with the show). The main fault lies with the producers. It became important to them to cast blacks as buffoons instead of airing a series about the true adventures of the Tuskegee Airmen or black tank battalians that helped save WWII for example.

It was a deliberate slight. No shows featuring black detectives or doctors or lawyers or newspaper publishers or businessmen-which surely existed in the real world back in the '50's-we were just portrayed as the Hollywood suits wanted us to be seen. Very powerful. very suggestive and very damaging.

And so though there were blacks living normal lives and performing occupations the same as whites in the north right in front of your eyes, there was no characters to identify them with on TV when they got home.

It let me know how sensitive the white Hollywood producer was way back and still is today. Because they know how powerful TV and motion pictures are and they only seek to abuse it.