The Race Problem in Film
****Contains spoilers for The Many Saints of Newark****
For my money, The Sopranos is still the best show ever made. On its surface a series about life in the mafia, it’s truly one of the best explorations of depression, the mundanity of life and death, and the most accurate representation of late capitalism and the erosion of American empire you’ll find in media. It’s also hilarious, maybe the funniest show ever made. Some of the best jokes on the show were also some of its darkest and most offensive. My personal favorite is when Tony Soprano, ticked off by his daughter Meadow’s new half-black, half-Jewish boyfriend, refers to him as “Jamal Ginsburg the Hasidic homeboy.” Even to this day I laugh at it. Why that is—beyond my own personal demented sense of humor—is largely due to the fact that it is such a nakedly honest moment, capturing Tony’s deep-seated racism and cruelty using comedy. The Sopranos was great about showing the racism, sexism, homophobia, and hypocrisy inherent to the mob and really America. Now the show itself could at times struggle between reflecting character behavior and separating it from the creators’ perspectives, but it was always trying to shoot for the truth about life.
Watching The Many Saints of Newark, the new Sopranos prequel film from David Chase and directed by Alan Taylor, I enjoyed getting to be in this world again. The movie is at its best when you get to spend time with the generation that raised Tony: his father Johnny Boy, Junior, and of course Dickie Moltisanti, the titular “Many Saints” at the center. But the movie’s biggest swing and the storyline that is probably most significant to Chase’s vision is also the weakest part of it: the arc of Harold McBrayer (played by Leslie Odom) and the racial history of Newark, particularly around the riots of 1967.
It’s not that this portion of the film is bad, it wouldn’t be interesting at all if that were the case, it is just kinda disingenuous—and it suffers from many of the issues that film and television has in trying to grapple with America’s racial history over the past few years (more on that in a bit). Harold McBrayer is a gangster in Newark, running numbers on behalf of Dickie and the DiMeo crime family, who over the course of the film, has his racial awakening due to the race riots and the general black militant movement of the late 60s-early 70s and decides to go in business for himself by partnering with Frank Lucas and taking on the mob’s hold on the numbers racquet in Newark. That’s all fine and great and perhaps with more time there could’ve been a rich, fully realized story there. But with what we’re given, there’s really not much insight into McBrayer or the world he comes from. Even worse, because McBrayer is taking on a white crime syndicate that doesn’t see him as human in a country that also doesn’t see him as human, we are almost expected to root for him or at the very least sympathize with his plight, in spite of the heinous acts he himself also commits.
The thing about The Sopranos was that it went through great pains to underscore how deplorable its characters were. You enjoyed watching them and even empathized at times with them despite of this, because of the small moments of ordinary humanity and humor that came between all the evil; but make no mistake, the show did not let its audience ever forget their true colors. On the surface they were monsters but underneath all that you could identify moments of relatability. In Many Saints however, whether as a corrective to the racial problems of the original series or just a general overwrought sensitivity by the creators, is less willing to grapple with its black gangster’s morality with the same honesty. Harold McBrayer does deplorable things in Many Saints of Newark. He murders, he threatens, he cheats on his partner, but because he is juxtaposed against a white Italian mafia who hypocritically look down on him and all other black people, the movie seems to give him a moral high ground and spares no time to interrogate his sins the same way it does to the mob. On the surface, he is just a black man reacting to the systemic and personal forces set against him and only underneath that is he also just as monstrous as everyone else here.
At one point, McBrayer, after killing a young black man for Dickie, returns to Newark after hiding out for a couple years. Dickie is surprised to run into him and McBrayer makes a sly comment about the murder of a black kid not mattering much to the police. This is a pretty condescending moment from Harold: it is as though he’s disappointed to not be punished for his crime which rings as false. It might work if this is part of Harold conveying guilt about killing a young black man, but both the line and Odom’s delivery seems to be more about his personal animus against Dickie and the mob and America in general. Earlier in the film, Harold takes part in the Newark race riots and it sparks his resolve to go after the mob, but not out of any justice for black people or avenging of black neighborhoods. It is because he thinks it’s better for a black gang to run things where he is; perhaps that’s true but Harold isn’t some hero, he’s a capitalist. Harold is never shown to actually struggle with how he makes a living or deal with questions of whether or not black people running illegal operations is actually any better for black areas. There’s a little backstory about him wishing he had been a soldier, but that’s it. Instead his actions are seen as a form of power and militancy against a white establishment that has kept black people down and allowed the mafia to thrive, which is certainly understandable but is also very uncomplicated and kinda lets Harold off the hook.
It’s a similar issue to season 4 of Fargo, the television series by Noah Hawley, that uses its plot of Italian vs African-American gangsters to present a history lesson on race in America. While that show had more time to get into the thornier issues of crime and guilt and race, it works too hard to “say something important” about America and racism to the point of feeling like homework—down to a young black girl’s narration literally verbalizing this history. It similarly goes out of its way to show the “intelligence” of its black gangster characters and give them a moral high ground over the Italian counterparts, due to the racism of the world around them. Whether or not, they deserve that moral superiority is beside the point, it’s more about a very obvious “heightened sensitivity” by mostly white creators that just have very little feel for black people as just people but want to show that they “get it.”
Media about black people and race tend to not be written to black people as they are written about them for white audiences to “understand” the black experience, or maybe to just feel some sort of empathy. I’m sure there’s some value in that but none of this actually gets at portraying black people as just people in the world. For as much as Hollywood is claiming to try and tackle more diverse stories and casting actors of color, behind the camera is still extremely white. Whether they mean well or not, writing about black people with no understanding of them is going to cause a limited purview. And even in cases where there’s input from black writers, like HBO’s Watchmen, there is a focus on making black characters purely sympathetic due to racist circumstances that robs them of any complexity. Without nuance and dimension to black characters, they are still just thought experiments in all of these shows and movies, and whether the intent is positive or negative, it’s all worse because of this.
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