Italian-American stereotypes still persist in film

The late and great film critic Roger Ebert, a local boy who did good (in both senses), loved Italy, Italian culture and Italian-Americans. He visited the country frequently, admired filmmaker Federico Fellini, and felt a cinematic, Catholic kinship with an American filmmaker of Italian heritage, Martin Scorsese. In 1996, he also praised actor Stanley Tucci for trying to move beyond Italian movie stereotypes with his independent film “Big Night.” 

I had the pleasure of meeting Roger and his lovely wife, Chaz, after a screening of “Big Night.” I was a young film critic for Fra Noi, Chicagoland’s Italian-American newspaper, and was assigned to review it at a private, mid-afternoon screening in the Loop. As I waited in an elevator afterward, hurrying to meet my deadline, in walked Roger and Chaz. 

I introduced myself, praised Roger for his love of Italy and Italian culture throughout his work, and noted that “Big Night” was one of the few American films I could recall that viewed its Italian characters as complex and dignified, free of the usual Hollywood scorn. 

Roger paused, nodded, and replied, “You know, you’re absolutely right.” 

He then waxed nostalgic over how actress Isabella Rossellini, a star in the film, looked so much like her mother, Ingrid Bergman, and soon began naming all of the “great neorealist” movies made by her filmmaker-father, Roberto, in the 1940s. 

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DING! The elevator door opened and Roger and Chaz wished me a nice day.

It was, to use the title of a David Lean film, a very “brief encounter,” yet Roger’s personal warmth and love of movies made that elevator glow. 

A year after his passing, Roger’s introduction to a review of the 1993 film “Arizona Dream” is especially poignant: “Heaven, if I am given a choice, will include an Italian restaurant with an outdoor patio, shaded by a grape arbor, under which large plates of spaghetti are served while an accordion plays in the twilight (‘Arrivederci Roma,’ please).”  

So it doesn’t bother me that “Do The Right Thing,” directed by Spike Lee, one of the films to be screened at the this year’s Ebertfest, was one of his favorite movies — even though, from my perspective, it unfairly equates Italian-American culture with white racism. 

As stated, Ebert loved Italic culture.

A review of Lee’s career, however, reveals the total opposite — a consistent denigration of Italian-Americans, either as racists or low-lives (“Do The Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever” and “Summer of Sam”). Lee even carried this antipathy with him across the Atlantic when he filmed “The Miracle of St. Anna,” where he outraged the Italians by suggesting that World War II partisans were in cahoots with the invading Nazis whom they were fighting. 

But altering reality is a familiar pattern in Lee’s films, particularly when it comes to making Italian surnamed characters the antagonists. “Do The Right Thing” is a perfect example. Lee based it on a real-life 1986 incident in Howard Beach, New York, where a young African-American was struck and killed by a car while fleeing from a group of multi-ethnic white teens attacking him with a baseball bat. It happened near a pizzeria, which, in Lee’s mind, automatically meant “Italian.” 

And yet, in “Do The Right Thing,” the Italian characters, the ostensibly sympathetic pizzeria owner Sal (Danny Aiello) and his respectively racist and dim-witted sons Pino and Vito (John Turturro and Richard Edson), stoke the fires of racism.  

The danger of such relentless negative propaganda is that it deepens stereotypes rather than shatters them. Such images obfuscate history. 

Is Lee aware, for example, of the shooting and lynching of eleven Italians in New Orleans in 1891, one of our nation’s worst massacres? Of the public execution of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in Boston in 1927? Of the Italian-Americans declared “enemy aliens” by the U.S. government during World War II?

And is Lee aware that many Italian-Americans throughout history — such as Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Congressman Vito Marcantonio, jazz band leader Joe Marsala, labor activist Emma Bambace and entertainer Frank Sinatra — devoted their lives fighting for African-Americans’ civil rights? 

In fairness to Lee, his dim view of Italians may have well been influenced by the negative portrayals enshrined by directors named Scorsese and Coppola, which proves that you don’t have to be black to be an Uncle Tom. In 2014, Italian bashing remains a billion dollar Hollywood industry.

At Ebertfest, however, one can still re-experience what the poet Dante Alighieri called “l’esperienza di questa dolce vita” — the experience of this sweet life.

Or, to borrow the title of Roger’s book, “Life Itself” — as seen in the movies.

Bill Dal Cerro is a Chicagoan, educator and national president of the Italic Institute of America, an Italian-American think-tank based in New York.