Sopranos Prequel Goes Squishy on the Sixties

Last weekend, I went to the theater to see the Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark. I watched with the kind of critical eye an astrophysicist might have brought to Star Wars.

At the time of the 1967 Newark riot, the foundational event of the movie, I was a 19-year-old living in Newark with my siblings and widowed mother. My late father had been a Newark cop, and my Uncle Bob, also a cop, was in the thick of the riot from the initial assault on the Fourth Precinct to its bloody end 26 deaths later.

Of note, too, Bob had married into a large Newark Italian family. As a kid, I spent considerable time in the family compound. I knew how that world turned. David Chase should have. An Italian American a few years older than I am, Chase created the stellar HBO series, The Sopranos, and was the creative force behind the movie. In the series, which ran from 1999-2007, there was scarcely a false note. In the movie, alas, scarcely a note rings true. 

Not surprisingly, given the times we live in, race is at the heart of the movie’s misfire. As Chase told a friendly interviewer, he was living in a Newark suburb when the riot erupted. Watching from afar, he and his suburban friends told each other, “I hope they burn that place down, those motherf**kers. Corrupt, c**k-sucking white people.” The “white people” Chase refers to here included not only my family and me but also -- to the detriment of the movie -- the characters who people it, cops and gangsters alike.

In the scene that sets off the riot, a gangster compels a black cab driver to drive the wrong way on a one-way street. After the gangster leaves the car to attend to some business, two white cops gratuitously pull the driver from the car and beat him in the street. They do so for no apparent reason other than that he was driving the wrong way.

In 1967, that didn’t happen. When I was old enough to understand, my father talked to me in some detail about how and why cops exercised extralegal force and for whom it was reserved. He would have been appalled if he had seen the movie cops do what they did. This was Newark, not Birmingham. By 1967, the Police Department was 20 percent black. In three years, the city would elect a black mayor.

My uncle would have been dismayed at just how much Chase gets wrong about Italian American life circa 1967. For starters, the gangsters would have long since left for the suburbs. My uncle and his in-laws had departed for nearby Union, where, as it happens, Bob’s son started high school in the late ’60s with one of the movie’s stars, Ray Liotta, who was himself born in Newark.

When my family moved in 1953 to the block on which I would grow up, several black families already lived there, including a dentist with an office. That Johnny Soprano, Tony’s father, would express disgust at finding a black doctor living on his urban block in 1967 makes no sense on any number of levels.

By 1967, most stable families, black and white, were gone. My block had become unlivable. The momentum that created the Great Society was busily destroying families and leaving the financially immobile behind to deal with the wreckage, the most lethal symptom of which was a homicide rate nearly triple that of a decade earlier.

Novelist Philip Roth knew the score. He set many of his novels in Newark, his hometown as well. Roth’s primary storyteller is Nathan Zuckerman, a successful novelist and Newark’s best-known fictional native son other than Tony Soprano.

Like the real-life Chase, Zuckerman watched Newark’s implosion largely from outside. In Zuckerman Unbound, Alvin Pepler, a deranged fan from Newark, calls out Zuckerman for his elitism and ignorance, his failure to acknowledge the “barbarian hordes and the Fall of Rome!”

“What do you know about Newark?” Pepler asks. After discounting Zuckerman’s nostalgic reminisces, Pepler spells out the reality circa the late 1960s:

Newark is a n****r [actual word in the original] with a knife! Newark is a whore with the syph! Newark is junkies shitting in your hallway and everything burned to the ground! Newark is dago vigilantes hunting jigs with tire irons! Newark is bankruptcy! Newark is ashes! Newark is rubble and filth.

By ignoring this evolving dynamic, Chase turns his protagonists -- the extended Soprano family -- into everyday racists. What made the HBO series watchable was that Tony and crew almost inevitably did battle with people who deserved pushback, not just other gangsters but also the petty tyrants and corrupt politicos that manage our institutions. Against our better judgment, we liked the Sopranos, and we rooted for them.

In Many Saints, young Tony and crew seem poised to do battle with an emerging black gang to whom Chase gives a sympathetic back story. In that the plot unfolds like that of a series pilot rather than a stand-alone movie, a sequel is likely in the works. Chase and writing partner Larry Konner will use Tony Jr. to teach us lessons, I fear, much the way Norman Lear used Archie Bunker. In the ‘Race-Pandering 20s,’ it cannot be otherwise.

“We had both grown up in that period and had what I guess would be called ‘revolutionary consciousness’ at that time,” said Chase of Konner and himself. “We felt that people needed a refresher course. And it really turned out to be true. There were young, Black people who didn’t know anything about the Newark Riots. We just felt that was wrong and people should know about it.”

The late Amiri Baraka, a New Jersey poet laureate and father of the current Newark mayor, went to my neighborhood high school, Barringer, the school the Soprano kin would have attended. In his 1984 memoir, The Autobiography of Leroi Jones, Baraka said of the white kids he lived among, “I often wonder what these guys and girls carried away from that experience with us and what they make of it.”

He had cause to wonder. Although liberals have been keen to learn what the Newark experience meant to Baraka and other African Americans, the “experience with us” of Baraka’s white friends has gone largely undocumented. It remains thus. Chase and Konner blew their chance. As Alvin Pepler might have asked of them, “What do you know about Newark?”

Jack Cashill’s latest book, Barack Obama’s Promised Land: Deplorables Need Not Apply, is now widely available. See www.cashill.com for more information.

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