Green Book: A Symphony of Ethnic Stereotypes

By Rosario A. Iaconis  (The Long Island Press – February 24, 2019)

Despite garnering five Academy Award nominations, Green Book is
kryptonite to Italian Americans.

Indeed, with its plethora of repugnant anti-Italian tropes, this Peter
Farrelly opus represents nothing so much as a vowel-inflected minstrel

And Viggo Mortensen’s depiction of Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga as a
dumb-downed bouncer with Mob connections reinforces Hollywood’s
institutionalized Italophobia. It matters little to the film’s
creators that orchestra, concerto, a capella, opera, maestro, allegro,
adagio, and pianoforte, are all the handiwork of a fine Italian mind.

Tinseltown is besotted with the schadenfreude engendered by The
Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas, Casino, Donnie Brasco, Married to the
Mob, Prizzi’s Honor, Analyze This, Analyze That, The Untouchables, A
Bronx Tale, Shark Tale, Mafia! and The Family.

David Chase’s Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark, will
continue this repellent cinematic tradition, as will Martin Scorsese’s
The Irishman, a Mob flick rife with violent sausage-and-pepper thugs.

Also, let’s not forget that Spike Lee, who has received a Best
Director nomination for BlacKkKlansman, rose to fame and fortune by
aiding and abetting La La Land’s anti-Italian canon via Jungle Fever,
Do the Right Thing and Summer of Sam.

Green Book‘s co-screenwriter Nick Vallelonga has added to such ethnic
vilification, making a mockery of his father and his heritage. In one
of the movie’s car-bound scenes, Tony Lip informs Dr. Don Shirley, the
African-American classical pianist, that he has no problem with people
who find “guineas” to be pizza-guzzling, meatball-sucking oafs.

The movie gleefully features a bevy of corpulent linguine-inhaling
capos and goombahs.

In his nightclub riff about ethnicities, comedian Sebastian
Maniscalco, who has a small role in Green Book, pays homage to his
wife’s Jewish roots but refers to Italians as “brick-layers, not
doctors.” Apparently, Maniscalco has never heard of Dr. Joseph
Giordano, who headed the trauma team that saved President Ronald
Reagan’s life following an attempted assassination in 1981. Nor is he
aware that Dr. Francesco Crucitti saved Pope John Paul II after
gunshot wounds to the pontiff’s abdomen that same year. Born in Reggio
Calabria, Italy, Dr. Crucitti was the director of the Institute of
General Surgery at Catholic University in Rome.

And chances are that neither Nick Vallelonga nor Sebastian Maniscalco
knows that Dr. Emil Naclerio helped save Martin Luther King’s life in
1958 after the civil rights giant was stabbed with a 7-inch steel
letter opener that had reached King’s aorta.

As for Viggo Mortensen, one wonders if he actually believes his
boilerplate spin on stereotyping. “I’m sensitive to the fact that
there’s not only a lot of great Italian-American actors out there
capable of playing this role [but also] a history of memorable
Italian-American characters, on TV and in movies,” he was quoted as
saying. “So I didn’t want to offend anyone.”

Mortensen’s disingenuous spiel is emblematic of Hollywood’s contempt
for Caesar’s heirs. Journalist Clyde Haberman has noted that “Italian
Americans continue to be shown only as Mafiosi and foul-talking louts
obsessed with cheating on their wives and shooting controlled
substances up their noses.”

Rather than depicting Italians as a largely professional and
entrepreneurial class of achievers — whose lineage includes the Pax
Romana, the Renaissance, modern science, accounting, capitalism and
America’s res publica — Tinseltown’s moguls have enshrined the scions
of Italy as olive-oil-and-garlic Stepin Fetchits.

Whether it’s patrimony envy or embedded intolerance, such demonization
should be expunged if we are to clean house and foster diversity in
Hollywood. For as Filippo Mazzei explained to Thomas Jefferson: “All
men are created equal.”

And if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is serious
about bridging the diversity divide, then it should embrace an ancient
Italian maxim: E pluribus unum — Out of many, one.


4 thoughts on “Green Book: A Symphony of Ethnic Stereotypes”

  1. Really, after all this time you still don’t get it that these portrayals are an opportunity to reclaim our images by walking through the doors that they open up. Instead or using up your time and energy and wasting our time, take the glove they have thrown down and pick it up and go with it to promote the positive in this movie of Italian American down to earth humanity and our tolerance for others but intolerance toward those who don’t like or care about us. this is a great opportunity. it is not often we get an academy award nomination for the portrayal of an Italian American character. The Black character was what it was with a lousy acting job by the black actor. He may have won an award but that was as much because of the promotion of black actors and characters in film by the institution and their institutionalized racism than the actual merit of the actor and his portrayal of a true life black musician. According to the Italian American script writer who was the actual Italian American being portrayed in the film he did his best to make the Italian American character reflect the actual person and events. You cannot argue with that. So don’t. We lose every time that argument is made. So take whatever truth is there and add to the fuller story of our people in those times in that place. Not all Italian Americans are southern Italians or Sicilians with an inferiority complex about being Italian American because of the negative portrayals about our people. its true that we all resent these portrayals and wish that Hollywood did justice by us. But we can take the movie and use it to tell the rest of our story. There are some redeeming threads in this movie that we could use to further our image and our positive role in society. We don’t get that from Spike Lee films so this film is a step up from what he does to us with his racial animosity. I didn’t see that animosity in this film and thought that as far as race goes we came out on top. We won this one so lets take the win. Its easy for us to criticize this film for what it does not portray about our positive contributions and out treasured values and way of life. But it is just a movie and our character has so many redeeming qualities that we cannot ignore. He actually stands up for us. We have many urgent issues facing the future of our people and film portrayals are near the top of the list of our priorities but telling our story is at the top. I see this as an opportunity to add to our story, but i am not seeing that in our opinion pieces. Respectfully, Bill Cerruti.

    1. 3-11-19

      As someone who also found fault with “The Green Book” (see my recent blog), I must respectfully disagree with my esteemed colleague, Bill Cerruti.

      Yes, Tony Lip overcomes his bias toward African Americans, represented by that warm Italian hug which he gives Dr. Shirley at the end of the film. But, it is a superficial gesture, made to leave the departing audience feeling good. That is the gist of why so many film critics, and even industry people, are upset by its Oscar for Best Film.

      Secondly, think of “Driving Miss Daisy,” the film which “Green Book” rather resembles. In that film, Morgan Freeman’s chauffeur was literally illiterate; he could not read or write.
      But, there isn’t a moment in that film when he isn’t treated with dignity and respect. Contrast this with “Green Book,” where every single plot twist is fueled by Tony’s crudeness and stupidity, often for a cheap laugh. And, don’t forget, the filmmakers make fun of his friends and relatives, too, people so stupid they call the Sistine Chapel the “Sixteen Chapel.”

      When I saw the film, people sitting in back of me (non-Italians) actually muttered out loud,
      “What a bunch of dumb-asses.” They didn’t need to add “Italians.” Hollywood implies it.

      And lastly, to this point, I am fairly certain that Tony Lip wasn’t this dumb and crude and violent as he was in real-life. His son did his father no favors. In fact, I’ll bet he deliberately made his father look ever stupider in the film in order to fuel the character contrast.

      We should have higher standards when it comes to portrayals of Italian Americans in film, even if the rest of America does not.

      1. Just the other day I was in a local supermarket and saw at the checkout a new Time-Life booklet on The Mob, with pictures Capone and Gotti on the cover. One can only imagine how many people, including children, all over the country will see that and have their preconceived notion of Italian-Americans as criminals reenforced. Every mob movie, regardless of whether it has benign elements or not, reenforces that image, and spawns even more of the same kind of movies, which further reenforces the image, ad infinitum.

  2. Great piece! The generally unknown reality is that students came from all over Europe to study at the medical school at Salerno, founded in the ninth century, which was the world’s first medical school, and unrivalled in the Middle Ages. The University of Bologna, the first modern university, was founded in Bologna in 1088. Italians such as Fallopio, Eustachi, Malpighi, Morgagni and Valsalva were important pioneers of modern anatomy at the University of Bologna and University of Padua, which drew students from all over Europe. Padua’s famous anatomical theatre was renowned across Europe at the time.

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