For those who haven’t seen the film, it’s about Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian American bouncer from the Bronx who is hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) — a world-class Black pianist — on a concert tour from NYC to the Deep South. The pair relies on “The Green Book,” an underground roadmap of establishments deemed safe for African-Americans in the 1960s.
Here, in an excerpt discussing the film, Iaconis pulls no punches:
“…Whereas Mahershala Ali’s Don Shirley is an erudite African-American pianist, Mortensen’s Tony “Lip” Vallelonga comes across as a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal whose surname ends in a vowel.
How ironic that the servile Italo-American chauffer’s heritage — which boasts the likes of Antonio Stradivari, Gioachino Rossini, Giuseppe Verdi, Enrico Caruso and Bartolomeo Cristofori (the inventor of, yes, the pianoforte) — is treated with undisguised contempt.
Despite Green Book’s formulaic buddy-flick denouement, many viewers will long remember Tony “Lip” as a loathsome vulgarian. For this, Mortensen earned a best actor nomination.
While the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has made great strides in repudiating racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, anti-Hispanic intolerance, Islamophobia and anti-Asian bigotry, Hollywood revels in the socially acceptable schadenfreude of Italophobia…”
You may disagree with some of the author’s sharp criticisms, but he has a point: as Hollywood blazes new paths with diverse and complex characters, the industry just can’t let go of its stereotypical fixation on brutish and mafia-related roles.
And let’s face it, it’s not just Tinsel Town–audiences eat up gangster flicks, and yearn for a glimpse into the notorious crime families that came to define La Cosa Nostra.
Problem is, there isn’t much to see these days. The Italian American mafia, a once highly influential and violent current that flowed through several U.S. cities, is now — thanks in large part to the FBI — a fading enterprise.
Consider the following analysis from mob expert Scott Burnstein, who spoke to Vice at length about today’s Italian American mafia:
The Mafia in America today is still surviving, however, [it’s] not thriving like it once was. Serious mob activity still exists, although not as “greased in” to the high levels of political power and the country’s infrastructure as in the Mafia’s golden era of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Traditional mob hotbeds like New York, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, and New Jersey are still operational and functioning at a consistent level (some have been hampered by legal assaults in recent years), while other cities with a rich mob history like Cleveland, Milwaukee, Kansas City, St. Louis, LA, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay are either defunct altogether or heading quickly in that direction. The Mafia lineage is not being passed on down to the younger generation as it had been in the past, and a lot of members of the Mafia—unlike in the mob’s heyday—are refraining from bringing their sons into the “family business.”
To be fair, there have been a handful of great films and TV shows that used organized crime to ingenuously peel away at the human condition. The Godfather (Part I & II), Goodfellas, The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, these projects didn’t seek to glorify the mob; rather, they laid bare the calamitous effects of violence and the gradual descent into corruption.
Most mob projects don’t go nearly as deep, and it shows.
Let’s turn the page, and focus on Italian American contributions over the centuries, which have had a far better and far more substantial impact on the U.S. than the mafia ever could.
Wouldn’t it be a deeply refreshing and significant step forward if Italian and Italian American actors could play these figures in mainstream films:
Marco Polo (1254-1324) Polo was a Venetian traveller and explorer who made groundbreaking journeys to Asia and China. His explorations and writings helped to open up the Far East to Europe, and he is said to have inspired Christopher Columbus and other famous explorers.
Antonio Meucci (1808-1889) Meucci, an Italian immigrant, began developing the design of a talking telegraph or telephone in 1849. In 1871, he filed a caveat (an announcement of an invention) for his design of a talking telegraph. His role in the invention of the telephone was overlooked until the United States House of Representatives passed a Resolution in 2002, honoring Meucci’s contributions and work.
John Basilone (1916-1945) The only U.S. Marine in WWII to be awarded both the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Battle of Henderson Field, and the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism during the Battle of Iwo Jima, our nation’s two highest military awards. Gen. Douglas MacArthur praised Basilone as “a one man Army.”
Nancy Pelosi (1940- ) The first woman in U.S. history to hold the office of Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. And, Antonin Scalia (1936-2016): the first Italian American Justice to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Julia Mancuso (1984- ) Olympic skier who won gold, silver and bronze medals in the giant slalom in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Olympics. She has also climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise money for charity.
These figures just scratch the surface of Italians’ collective impact on America.
Let’s move forward.