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


Indie Authoring: Art or Business?

I’ve heard a few indie authors over the years claim they are artists. Be careful, because when an author makes a statement like that, the word “artist” may denote a few veiled meanings. For example:

I am an artist and therefore

 …I may break conventional rules.

Sometimes indie authors think poor editing and grammar make them an artist working outside of the box, thumbing their noses at the bleakness of conformity. Wrong! A lack of editing and grammar means that as a communicator, you’re only contributing to the dreaded “Indie Author Stigma” and nothing else.


Photo by Megan used under CC License

The craftsmanship of the product that bears your name must be as good (if not better) than what the traditional publishing industry can produce. It’s a fine standard and it should be adhered to and strived for at all times.

I love it when authors excuse their lack of standards by comparing themselves to Picasso. Well, I hate to break the news, but Picasso paid attention to many standards. He used paint and applied it to a canvas. If he wanted green paint, he had to mix yellow and blue. He followed formulas concerning composition and color schemes. If I’m not mistaken, Da Vinci did all of that as well.

…I am unsullied by the pursuit of profit.

Now that’s a big fat lie! Like any other artist, we all seek an audience. And the only way to reach an audience is to sell your material. Many blogs discuss Author Branding and similar marketing concepts. Let’s face it, we’re all business competitors in this new vibrant field.

This leads to another potential problem: free downloads. An absolutely foolish thing to do that gets right under my skin. The only thing achieved by a free download is that the author has just told the whole world that the value of his creation is zero. Now there are legitimate reasons for putting free material out there – fan fiction for one, since you can’t legally profit from it. Or perhaps you want to do a promotion for a period, or put out a short story to get your name known.  But for the most part, making your work free is not the best idea.

…my work is an honest reflection of my world view and wasn’t generated by a marketing computer.

Ding! Ding! Ding! This is where the world of indie publishing and traditional publishing (thankfully) split apart. An indie author can explore themes and characterizations that traditional publishers shy away from.

The world of traditional publishing is a business. They will only invest the cogs of their machine into something based on a proven formula. They’re only hedging their bets for a payoff, and why shouldn’t they operate from that standpoint? They’re a business, making business decisions for the sole purpose of generating sales and profit.

This is the reason why most mass produced entertainment is nothing but a huge steaming pile of banal nonsense churned out for maximum appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Therefore, if you’ve got a great story about a teenage prostitute who gets addicted to drugs, and is then saved by a store front group of revivalist Christians, and from that group of Christians she finds a boyfriend, and they don’t have sex until after they’re married, you won’t be published traditionally.

However, if you make your Main Character a vampire, give her a zombie boyfriend love interest, who she met at an illegal vampire / zombie orgy, and of course set the story in a future post-apocalyptic dystopian society, you’ll have a better shot at a publishing contract.

So yes, indie writing can offer a freedom of expression and creativity that is unmatched anywhere.  However, to be successful, one must also follow the established rules of the trade.  So in my view, it’s really a mix of art and science.  What are your thoughts?