The Legacy of the Mafia Minstel Show
After my Grandfather died in the late 1960's, my Grandmother came to live with us for a short time. It was a wonderful way to learn about my heritage and I got to listen to her stories about when my Father was growing up in San Francisco. I remember a story she told me about when my Dad was around eight years old, about the same time Little Caesar was in the movie theaters. One day he came home from school and told my Grandmother that some kid at school told him that all Italians were cutthroats. My Grandmother got very upset and told him to ignore comments like that, that all it did was reveal the ignorance of the person making that remark, and to always take pride in who you are and your Italian heritage. My Dad looked at my Grandmother and very innocently asked her, "Ma, what's a cutthroat?"
Zoom forward around 70 years. My daughter comes homes from school, about the same time The Sopranos was released on HBO, complaining that some kids at school were teasing her and calling her "Mafia Girl." I wish I could say that things have gotten better for Italian Americans and how they are portrayed in popular television and film in the last 70 years, but unfortunately I think it has actually gotten worse. What I call the Mafia Minstrel Show, actors in olive skin face playing mobster for the benefit of those people who lust for violence and racism, is now as insidious as lice. Thanks to our friends at HBO, the Mafia Minstrel Show has been legitimized as a mainstream genre, not unlike westerns or love stories. So why has the Mafia Minstrel Show survived for the past 70 years? It is very simple, IT MAKES MONEY!!!!! I remember reading the obituary for Mario Puzo. It listed the sales of his books, his wonderful novel about Italian American immigrants, The Fortunate Pilgrim, had sold maybe 10,000 copies and The Godfather, a novel that featured the Mafia Minstrel Show, had sold 15 million copies. Mario Puzo, a man who admitted he had never known a gangster before he wrote The Godfather, obviously was given a lot of cash to write a novel about the Mafia Minstrel Show.