“In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
No, that’s not a quote from a conspiracy theorist. Nor does its vaguely sinister overtone belong to someone like Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s vile minister of propaganda. Ironically, it’s a quote from Edward Bernays, the brilliant, 20th century American credited as the father of public relations, a man who worked for governments, businesses and the television industry.
I’m quoting Bernays because his famous line from 1928 is missing a modern critical sphere: entertainment–specifically, Hollywood. When Bernays made that statement, Hollywood was in its infancy. And yet, that is when the Hollywood machine began stereotyping Americans of Italian descent in either two ways: as gangsters (Tony Camonte in “Scarface”) or as buffoons (Chico Marx’s bumbling immigrant in the Marx Brothers comedies).
I thought of Bernays’s statement as it currently illustrates how “a relatively small number of persons” (Hollywood) can “pull the wires of the public mind.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in the new film, “The Green Book,” in which, once again, an Italian surnamed character is portrayed as a total buffoon: uncouth, violent, casually racist, and (as always) somehow “mob-connected”–in short, the unofficial village idiot of American culture.
Think of it: Crude, racist stereotypes of American racial, ethnic and religious groups are a thing of the past, persona non grata. Stepin’ Fetchit? The “savage” Native American? The Frito Bandito? Shylock the money-lender? The “inscrutable Oriental”? Gone, gone, gone, gone and gone. And good riddance. Reducing any ethnic group to one-dimensional stereotypes encourages both lousy art and, more perniciously, hardened prejudice.
And yet, in 2018, an era where diversity is celebrated, Hollywood continues to promote condescending images of Italian men as working-class losers.
(Note: Italian American women don’t fare any better; they are either bimbos or dressed-in-black grandmothers. Hollywood isn’t done with Guido the Gangster yet, either: We will soon see “The Irishman”—which, despite its title, is about “the mob”—and yet another version of the Al Capone story.)
But, Hollywood will say, Tony “The Lip,” a thuggish bouncer from the Bronx, is ultimately a positive character, a man whose brutish exterior belies the love and respect he comes to feel toward Don Shirley, the African American pianist whom he protects during a tour of the Jim Crow South. This is, of course, the exact same reasoning used to defend caricatures from previous decades. Charlie Chan ultimately solved the mystery—he was smart! Native Americans shot arrows of fire, but they spoke noble English!
What gets lost in such rationalizations is that Tony The Lip’s character belies a not-so-well-kept secret: Thanks to Hollywood propaganda, figures like Tony The Lip are the new “stand-ins” for what used to be called “blackface”—an image meant to publicly degrade an entire people. Call it “olive face.” And Hollywood has done such a great job of making this new prejudice palatable that viewers don’t even see it as a prejudice. Success!
One need only look to actual Italian American history—the kind which Hollywood keeps distorting via endless mob and buffoon movies—to see how “reel” life and “real” life have been hopelessly blurred.
During the same time period in which “The Green Book” is set (1963), Italian Americans were, indeed, forging bonds with African Americans.
Music producer Cosimo Matassa worked with Fats Domino, Little Richard and Ray Charles in forming the “New Orleans” sound. Singer Frank Sinatra used his celebrity clout to break down racial barriers in music. Judge Anthony Celebrezze from Ohio became President LBJ’s point man on the war on poverty. Governor John Volpe from Massachusetts signed legislation outlawing discrimination against black students in education. Singer Tony Bennett (born Anthony Benedetto) marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. Trainer Angelo Dundee forged his great personal and professional relationship with heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali.
And, to show that Italian American efforts against racism went beyond the black-and-white divide, Robert Belloni, a federal judge in Washington state, ruled in favor of Native American fishing rights in the Pacific Northwest.
So, there you have it, diversity in all of its splendor within one ethnic group: Italian Americans from New Orleans to Washington state, from Ohio to Massachusetts, leaders in music, sports, education, and political change.
Hollywood, however, continues to cultivate, fund, and promote images of Italians Americans as the products of a backwards, low-class culture, something only good for a cheap laugh…even when, as pointed out above, there are a myriad of inspiring, untold stories still waiting to be told.
For those of us who care about the struggles of our ancestors and their history in America, all we want is what every other racial, religious, and ethnic group has: a dignified media image. In sum: No more “Lip” service! -BDC