"Many Saints" Misses Chance to Tell Key Moment of Newark HistoryRoundup
tags: New Jersey, Newark, urban history, organized crime, Italian Americans
Mary Rizzo is associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark. She is the author of Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and The Wire.
Whitney Strub is associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark. He blogs about films shot in Newark.
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.
Meanwhile, Italian immigrants began arriving in Newark in significant numbers in the last quarter of the 19th century, leaping from 407 residents in 1880 to over 27,000 in 1920. Living in neighborhoods like the East Ward (“Down Neck,” today the Ironbound) and the North Ward, they were stereotyped by Irish, German and other neighbors as loud, uncouth and prone to criminality.
“Many Saints” takes this last stereotype and enlarges it as the full picture of Italian American identity. But this vision ignores how Italian Americans, like other ethnic groups, wove the criminal and straight worlds together.
Italian Newarkers gained power through the intersection of their efforts to control the civic, political and economic spheres. In 1927, the Italian American community erected a statue of Christopher Columbus in downtown Washington Park, marking this important public space with a proclamation about Italian contributions to the United States. (The statue was removed in 2020.) Building power through clubs and mutual aid associations, Italian Americans made it into city government, aided by the fact that previously established ethnic groups were leaving the city for the suburbs. In 1949, Ralph Villani was elected mayor, reportedly carried on the shoulders of his supporters among a crowd of 1,000 people to city hall.
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