Tony Soprano became an iconic figure in American culture because of James Gandolfini’s searing performance, but also because “The Sopranos” tapped into key American mythologies — especially the myth of White ethnic upward mobility by sheer force of will. The show’s opening credits sequence visualized this trajectory, as Tony drives through the shabby, working-class ethnic towns of Northern New Jersey before parking in the driveway of his suburban McMansion. When the show returned to the homeland — Newark — it was either through flashbacks to Tony’s traumatic childhood or present-day trips to bemoan the state of the old neighborhood.
As a prequel set between 1967 and the early 1970s, “The Many Saints of Newark” offers an examination of this psychogeography. Setting the young Tony (played by Gandolfini’s son, Michael) against a backstory of his Italian American not-quite-uncle Dickie Moltisanti (played by Alessandro Nivola) and rising Black upstart Harold McBrayer (played by Leslie Odom Jr.), it promises Soprano family lore and a vivid setting signaled by its title. However, its failure to grapple with the real history of Newark at a moment of intense upheaval marked by a pitched battle between Italian Americans and Black Newarkers hollows out the story. It offers few saints — but even fewer historical insights.
The film enters Newark’s history at a particularly volatile moment, but the city had long lurched through tumultuous changes. At the forefront of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, Newark was a site for the rising class tensions those transformations wrought. Indeed, the city was a destination for many radical German immigrants who brought some of the first Marxist ideas to the country. Later, as immigration flows shifted, working-class Jews battled Nazis in Newark’s streets. In the 1930s, these “New Minutemen” were closely aligned with the Jewish gangster Abner “Longy” Zwillman, Tony Soprano’s own ancestor in local crime.