Will David Chase’s return to the ‘Sopranos’ be able to square itself with America’s racist past as well as its own?
Why create anything if not to recreate it over and over again? If the incessant negative press that a movie like Ready Player One is getting without even being seen is indicative of anything, it’s that the ’80s might, finally, be over. Nostalgia culture has turned elsewhere. Forward even. Websites everywhere are suddenly, and for a limited apparent reason, ruthlessly celebrating the year 1998. Mr. Rogers is getting a biopic. And David Chase has emerged, his HBO series about silent film cowboys still lost to the foggy mist of time, with a script in his hand for a Sopranos movie.
This particular Sopranos movie, a prequel to the events of the Chase-run TV series that also aired on HBO, has been gestating in the showrunner’s mind grapes for some time. First, sometime in 2012, there was ‘talk at HBO’ about another show taking place “long before any of the other characters we know now.” Later, Chase told Deadline that he “rejected the idea” and also that he “certainly wouldn’t do it as a television show.” Now, it has returned in the form of a movie, tentatively called The Many Saints Of Newark. Chase has penned the script with Lawrence Konner, another Sopranos writer. Excitingly, it has been purchased by New Line Cinema and the premise, per Deadline, is:
A prequel to ‘The Sopranos’ set in the era of the Newark riots in the ’60s, when the African-Americans and the Italians of Newark were at each other’s throats, and when among the gangsters of each group, it became especially lethal.
The Sopranos has a fuzzy, if resonant, hold on the pop culture world it left behind. Watched by youths today with all the joy of a homework assignment, it floats above, like a Citizen Kane or Infinite Jest of the television, living on the lips of the golden age of television’s first round of white, male and then-worshipped demigods. Both Matthew Weiner of Mad Men and Terence Winter of Boardwalk Empire made names for themselves in The Sopranos’ writers room. Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan once proclaimed “Without Tony Soprano, there would be no Walter White.” For those who had actually watched The Sopranos, the show holds strange currency as a vaguely pre-internet, pre-Twitter cultural phenomenon. A large cult would gather, in homes with HBO subscriptions (it was the network’s then most-watched show until Game of Thrones) on Sunday nights and eat cannoli and wait to see who James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano would whack next. Would it be whichever of his five business partners was secretly talking to the feds? That weasel-faced cousin? Or would it be his soul? At some point, Hillary Clinton reenacted the show’s infamously unsatisfactory finale to amp up her first presidential campaign.
The success of The Many Saints Of Newark feels doubtful, however, as an exercise of pure nostalgia money. While rebooting mass pop cultural fares like Star Wars and The Jungle Book is an empire unto itself, less collectively revisited targets like Blade Runner and Baywatch, revisited last year by directors Denis Villeneuve and Seth Gordon respectively were notably unable to entice the millions not passionate about the original material to become significant hits.
And Chase, despite his TV prowess, has proved unable to be a significant moneymaker in the time since. His only post-Sopranos project to ever be executed was a feature film called Not Fade Away. He also directed the film, which paired Gandolfini along with the pretty-unknown John Magaro. Like the pitch for The Many Saints Of Newark, the film was set in ‘60s New Jersey, albeit concerned with novice rock and rollers and their wary fathers. Released in the midst of the winter of Zero Dark Thirty and Jack Reacher, it received neither Oscar nominations nor much of a wide release. Not Fade Away failed to recoup even a significant fraction of its $20 million budget. While this didn’t seem to bother Chase very much, it has all the bearings of a personal film, though perhaps it bothered his financiers. A later feature film project, Little Black Dress, which Chase had sold to Paramount with the intention of directing, has still to see the light of day.
What is more interesting about this Chase script is its other subject matter: a dive into the history of American racial politics. The scant details about the film’s plot nod at the script’s interest in the riots that occurred in Newark and other American cities in 1967. Remembered now as a collective reaction to the failures that a nonviolent civil rights movement had achieved, Chase’s decision to potentially place characters like Junior and Livia Soprano (originally played as beloved grumps by Dominic Chianese and Nancy Marchand, respectively) inside this world suggests the potential of a project that examines the complicity of the institutions that The Sopranos portrayed in the creation and protection of a suppressive and racist police state.
Chase’s show can be remembered for being notoriously spotty in that regard. By selectively segregating itself to the white flight New Jersey suburbs, The Sopranos used the post-history ennui of the ’90s to position the show as the ultimate exploration of post-mobster life. Yet, it also rarely shrunk away from the genre’s long history of denigrating the, often unseen or uncharacterized, presence of black people in the criminal life being given the warm glow of the cinematic spotlight.
To sell the life of mobsters as a glamorous and sympathetic to the armchair fantasies of largely white audiences, mobster movies often evoke a clear separation between the“organized” crime being celebrated and the dehumanized crime appearing on local news stations. To this end, minorities often play the part of untrusted distributors or criminals unworthy of being a real part of mobster families being welcomed into the homes of millions. When Jackie Aprile Jr. (Jason Cerbone) needs to hide after he shoots a made man in the show’s third season, where does he head but the projects (filmed in Patterson, New Jersey, a historic center of American black culture)? There, he is found and killed by Vito Spatafore (Joseph R. Gannascoli), and his death is handily blamed on “blacks” and “drugs.”
At other times, the show betrayed clear discomfort in depicting the black social life that had developed around its Italian-American enclaves. In an earlier episode, (“A Hit Is a Hit”), a generic hip-hop figure (billed as “a famous gangsta rapper” in the HBO episode description) named Massive Genius (Bokeem Woodbine) appears, who Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) turns to in order to get an atrocious hair metal band, that he is briefly managing, signed. Todd VanDerWerff’s designation of Woodbine’s character as “a well-meaning caricature” feels charitable, and his repeated hitting on Christopher’s girlfriend feels like a racist stereotype doing the work of establishing what little personality the script is able to muster. In a later season, in “Watching Too Much Television,” Tony takes his son (Robert Iler) to Newark, where he bemoans the city’s large black population: “This neighborhood used to be beautiful, 100% Italian.”
And it is precisely to that city that Chase returns. The city was the site of the most violent of the riots that struck American cities in ’67, a year whose violence was most recently revisited in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. The events also coincided with a city under practically overt mob rule; the mayor at the time, the Italian-American Hugh J. Addonizio, was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison for taking $1.5 million in kickbacks. the golden years that each character on Chase’s show would copiously pine for coincided with an era of overt and violent racism.
A vision of America at the end of the ‘90s, The Sopranos had always been a TV show about the past. Its popularity tapped into a collective notion that America had been a better place in some before time and Chase teased at the flaws of this vision in a way that, say, Goodfellas, didn’t. The honor and dignity of the past were ceaselessly revealed to be merely less efficient or obvious machinations of our more recognizable conflicts. But it also captures a past that, then, did feel better: the show’s best characters were its elder statesmen who had the luxury to poke fun at themselves and speak in gregarious accents and dynamically contrast with annoying and much hated twerps like Christopher. In an arena where that worldview feels, at any rate, politically ascendant, The Many Saints Of Newark has the chance to be, if not very profitable, a way of giving us a different angle to look at the age of mobster chic. I have the feeling we’ll find some ‘some very fine people‘ in Newark too.