The Sopranos As Race Realism

I’m rewatching The Sopranos. I detect nothing PC in it. It seems race realist. I don’t detect any liberal Jewish propaganda. I don’t see any white bashing. What am I missing?

A Jewish friend replies: “You are missing nothing. It is as you say.”

Essay: In fact, in taking aim at the show’s treatment of ethnic minorities, Sopranos critics miss the mark entirely. Want to know which ethnic minority groups’ reputations the show does horribly deface? Jewish and African-Americans, that’s who.

Don’t believe me? The show is actually breathtaking in the audacity with which it portrays Jews as shifty, mercenary hucksters and blacks as simple-minded, petty criminals. The main Jewish character on the show is Herman “Hesh” Rabkin, who plays a loan shark in league with the Sopranos. Tony and his uncle Corrado both have Jewish lawyers who embody the stereotype of Jews as money-grubbing shysters. And the Sopranos constantly do business with archetypal “niggers” – ignorant, deadbeat and usually incompetent thieves, murderers and “street pharmacists” from the ghettoes of Trenton, Newark and Jersey City. When Tony and his fellows come into contact with blacks, it’s usually with carjackers and stick-up artists, muggers and cocaine addicts, not to mention the occasional gangsta rapper—racial caricatures as deeply offensive as any World War II propaganda cartoon and clownish minstrels that would turn Al Jolson green with envy.

Mafia movies, of course, have shat on racial minorities – mainly African-Americans – for decades now. Remember the Mafia Don convention in The Godfather, when one boss argued that the heroin trade should be restricted to “the dark peoples, the coloreds…they’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls?” Or Sonny Corleone’s casual comment that “Niggers are having a good time with our policy banks up in Harlem, drivin’ them big new Cadillacs?” Or in Goodfellas, when Henry Hill told his wife, “Jail is for nigger stick-up men who don’t have their shit organized?” The Sopranos simply continues in this tradition. Witness Tony’s apoplexy upon seeing his daughter dating a half-Jewish, half-black fellow student – “Jamaal Ginsberg, the Hasidic homeboy,” as Tony called him – or his blaming an injury caused by a panic attack on a mugging by a gang of black men – or as he calls them, “fuckin’ jigaboo cocksuckin’ motherfuckers.” And crucially, this uniform hatred for the eternal nigger is not only shared by the actual mobsters in the show, but also frequently echoed by the legitimate Italian-American characters who share the screen with them.

BOSTON GLOBE MAY 11, 2004:

No television show is as provocative in dealing with race as “The Sopranos.”

That’s saying a lot, especially since the acclaimed HBO drama has never had any actors of color among its regular cast members. Yet throughout its five-season run, the disconnects, misunderstandings, and suspicions underlying this nation’s tinderbox racial dynamics have been as much a part of the series as mob violence and family acrimony.

In this week’s episode, Janice (Aida Turturro) was forced by her husband Bobby (Steven R. Schirripa) to attend anger management classes after she was arrested for assaulting a snippy parent at her stepdaughter’s soccer game. During her session, Janice at first presented herself as racially enlightened – she claims to have participated in the civil rights movement – then says the bitter result of her noble activism is the sight of black folks riding around in SUVs and blasting rap music.

It was almost a throwaway line, delivered as still more proof of Janice’s temper. And the black woman to whom the comment was directed confronted Janice, not about her casual prejudice, but her inability to control her anger and address its real source. Yet amid the evening’s beatings, excavation of several long-dead adversaries and jokes about Tony’s ever-expanding midsection it was another one of those little “Sopranos” moments revealing how bigoted thoughts or opinions are never far from the surface.

An even better example came in last week’s show, one of the best of the season. Among the various story lines — from Carmela’s futile attempts to find a divorce attorney to Vito’s apparent, and shockingly revealed, homosexuality — was a single thread running through the episode. Four characters — Tony (James Gandolfini), his cousin, Tony B. (Steve Buscemi), Meadow (Jaime-Lynn Discala) and Vito (Joseph Gannascoli) — blame various crimes on black men.

In each instance, a different term is used:

Tony B. claims his limp was the result of a mugging by “black guys.” Vito drops an N-bomb to describe the phony assailants in a concocted story about another mobster’s vicious beating at a construction site. Meadow tells her boyfriend that her former paramour, Jackie Jr., was murdered by “African-American” drug dealers. And Tony continues to tell everyone that he missed a big heist — the one that sent his cousin Tony B. to prison for more than a decade — because he was jumped and beaten by “jigaboos,” who stole his shoes and split his head open. (The episode’s title was “Unidentified Black Males.”)

Each mention conjured age-old images of black bogeymen, faceless and dangerous, lurking around every corner, and in every shadow, waiting to do damage to unsuspecting white folks.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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