James Gandolfini Jr.
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Rizzo, Strub in WaPo: The Newark history missing from ‘Many Saints’

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. 

 

Read more at the Washington Post