Going Nowhere: Italian-American Portrayal

Many changes in the American film industry have taken place over the years. Gone are the days of short silent black-and-white productions with title cards for dialog. Along with these changes in technology have come evolving depictions of people.  Well…most people, anyway.

One has to look no further than the images of African Americans in D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1916), and compare them to the depictions we see today. The changes started occurring in the 1930’s and 40’s. Just have a look at anything starring Nat King Cole or Lena Horne. Then check out Sidney Poitier in 1960’s, TV shows like the wise-cracking Sanford and Son (starring Redd Foxx) in the 70’s, or Avery Brook’s great portrayal of Captain Benjamin Sisko for the long running series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in the 90’s.

 STE2Star Trek Telephone by Alex Kerhead used under CC License


Have you noticed that within the total canon of Star Trek, there are very positive images of African-Americans, Hispanics, women, Asians, Native Americans, and aliens of all sorts, but you will not find any character sporting an Italian last name?


Yes, you’ll still find questionable depictions of different ethnic groups these days in film and television. But these have become few and far between. Of course, African-Americans are not the only group to progress from horrid portrayals to something positive. Asian and Native Americans have also been given a boost in their image, along with Hispanics and women.

The fact is that if you want to find positive imagery of most minority groups, you’re going to find it quite easily. And I have no problem with that at all; I’m glad that we as a nation are dropping old prejudices and nonsensical stereotypes. But what I do have a problem with is this: if you attempt to find any positive imagery concerning Italian-Americans, be prepared to do a lot of searching.

Italian stereotyping began in 1906 with Skyscraper, from Biograph (Thomas Edison’s movie company). In this 12-minute reel, the character of “Dago Pete” gets fired for making trouble and fermenting ill will among the other workers. He takes revenge by thieving and planting evidence to make false accusations against his former boss.

NYSkylineNew York City Skyline by Hyun Lee used under CC license

Since then, Italians have always been portrayed as either criminals or loveable dupes. From gangster films like Scarface (1932) to minor characters (like Mrs. Manicotti from the Honeymooners), the imagery is always the same. 1972’s The Godfather created a tidal wave of new gangster films like Honor Thy Father, The Seven-Ups, The Untouchables, and Goodfellas to name a few. Once again the criminal stereotyping was being firmly established.


Italian-American authors like Mario Puzo and Nick Pileggi could only find success when they wrote Mafia tales. Otherwise, it’s possible these talented authors never would’ve been able to get anything published.


Take notice of the minor character of Antonio Scarpacci played by Tony Shalhoub from the TV show Wings (1991-1997). Hopes for a modern and better look at Italians were dashed yet again. Antonio speaks English with an accent, he’s uneducated, and therefore does menial work as a cab driver.

Except for the addition of color and sound, are we really seeing anything different today? The HBO series The Sopranos ran from 1999 to 2007, and the dry old stereotyping continued to be cemented in the psyche of the American public. In 2013 the series was even given an award for the best writing ever on American television (golf clap from me).

The only positive portrayals that I could find were Daniel J. Travanti’s character of Capt. Frank Furillo on Hill Street Blues (1981-1987) and Columbo (1970’s).  Of course, this was about the time when Ragu ran that infamous commercial that caused outrage. I’d love to provide a link but I simply can’t find it.

Italian-American imagery has gone from “Dago Pete” in 1906 to Tony Soprano in 2007. They say that time heals all wounds and slow gradual change is best. So far, the Italian-American relationship with mass media seems to be frozen in time. I’m still waiting for that first step.


Ernesto San Giacomo is the author of Ragged Souls – Click the pic to go to this Amazon listing


Why I’m Not a Liberal

Growing up as an Italian-American has given me a special point of view on American society. When I was in college I was far more to the left than the average liberal. Therefore, I spent a lot time with other dyed-in-the-wool left-wingers. I suggest you do the same at some point in the future. It will be the best education you’ve ever received.


Italian Flag in Castelletto by Elliot Brown used under CC License

For my more liberally minded readers, I’d tell you to go hang out with your local Tea Party or other similar group. You may find that the stereotype labels attributed to conservatives just aren’t true.

I know those were wasted words. If you’re a liberal, then you think of yourself as too enlightened or superior to those conservative “cave men.” It’s a great excuse that most liberals use to prevent themselves from hearing a different opinion (something else that I’ve noticed over the years).

I do prefer the term Libertarian rather than conservative. I don’t consider myself either a Democrat or a Republican. However, most liberals will paint me with the same wide brushstrokes that they use on conservatives. Therefore, I have to tolerate the conservative stereotypes brandished and distributed by the “lamestream” media.

The following paragraph is not true.

As a conservative I like to get my baseball bat and beat on anyone trying to enter or exit a Gay Bar. I also like to burn crosses if a black family makes the mistake of moving into the neighborhood. If I meet a guy named José at church, I immediately ask him for his green card. My wife is barefoot and pregnant all the time. She’s not allowed out of the house alone, and spends most of her time kneeling at my feet (next to the dog) waiting for my next command. When I’m tired of kicking puppies or clubbing baby seals to death (bludgeoning gets old in about ten minutes), I go to the local firing range because their targets are old department store mannequins dressed up to look like Cherokees and Asian businessmen. After dispelling a few rounds of ammunition, my fellow conservative neanderthals and I throw some pork chops at a Mosque and then spray paint swastikas in front of the Synagogue. Now we’ve worked up a thirst and it’s over to the local pub. It’s a great place where anyone (as long as they are white and protestant) can relax amongst friends.

A student was so sick and tired of his liberal professor’s stereotyping rants that he took this video. As I searched YouTube, I found that there were many such examples.

And here’s the difficult truth.

Gay couples attended my wedding. I’ve been friends with them for years. I’ve dated black and Asian women. I volunteer at the church, sweating in a kitchen and serving food to guys named José and others. My wife wears camouflage and combat boots. From time to time she gets deployed to the other side of the world. She doesn’t do the cooking and serving, I do. My cats are quite spoiled. I don’t go to the firing range because I don’t own a gun. I own a copy of the Koran. I’ve taught myself Biblical Hebrew, because I was obsessed with all things Judaica in my youth. I thought it was a better way to understand Catholicism. Did I say Catholicism? I guess I can’t hang out at the pub now. Well, I do anyway because it really is a place where everyone is welcomed.

So what do the liberal / conservative labels have to do with being an Italian-American?

Well, remember I used to hang out with them a lot in my younger days. Also, I’ve had to associate myself with liberal writers in critique groups, or coexist with them on the job in my teaching career. Here are a few anecdotes about what liberals have done and said to me over the years. Just for the record, no “cave man” conservative has ever said or done anything like the following to me.

“Wow like you’re Italian. Are you going to open up a pizzeria or something?”

“Um…no, I’m pulling a double major in Cinema Studies and History, because I’d like to be a professor.”

“Jane told me that you’re Italian. Is that true?”

“That’s right.”

“You got any mafia connections? I really need to get out of a speeding ticket.”

I’ve lost count of the amount of liberals who always wanted to talk to me about the latest episode of The Sopranos. Why did I have to constantly remind them that I’ve never watched and will never watch one minute of it? Then they preach to me that the show shouldn’t upset me because it is a true depiction of Italians.


My all-time favorite (and I just experienced this one yet again a few weeks ago) is when someone who speaks Oxford and Cambridge English switches their speech pattern upon discovery that I have an Italian heritage. They start with “Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?” and gravitate toward “Hey yo, howudoin’ fuhgeddabowdit,” in just a few seconds.


This is a blog post not a novel. But If I wanted to write about all of the things I’ve had happen to me at the hands of rabid-politically-correct “tolerant” liberals, it would turn out to be a book….hmmm now there’s a novel idea. O.K., color me convinced, it’s time to start making notes for a new novel. Perhaps it will be a family saga about the Italian-American experience and how the stereotyping and prejudices have not changed over the years.


I know that my examples are personal. But believe me I know the history of the Italian-American experience. I’ve read books, took classes, attended lectures, and have done research at university libraries and at The Center for Migration Studies.


There will be much to come in the next few weeks. I felt it necessary to start this blog category with an introduction which clearly defines where I stand, and a few reasons for my particular position.


My next post in this category will concern ethnic representation in film and television.