September 20, 2010

Boardwalk Empire: Is it Bad for the Jews (and Italians)?

Posted in Italy, Pop Culture at 6:30 pm by chavalah

Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein (played by Vincent Piazza and Michael Stuhlbarg)- 90 years later still holding us back.

It was probably a mistake to call my dad to tell him that I did indeed watch the premiere of HBO’s new mobster series, Boardwalk Empire. “Oh no,” he groaned. “Yet another negative depiction of Italian Americans in the media, not to mention New Jersey.” (He grew up in Teaneck. And he still guilts himself for going to the theatre to see The Godfather trilogy—which he now owns—his parents, both immigrants from Italy, boycotted it.)

“They’re denigrating Jews and Irish as well,” I said to him, referring to Arnold Rothstein and a random, drunken immigrant who might actually be a German American married to an Irish American. And Blacks, I forgot to add, who were referenced in only two scenes—one, where the “Black sheriff” of Atlantic City waits impatiently to see Nucky Thompson (modeled after Nucky Johnson) for a forgotten appointment, and two, with blackface. The political correctness gloves are off!

The gangster scenes seem stereotypical as well. Enter Rothstein with a bevy of Italians—Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Big Jim Colosimo—all real people from history, it should be noted. Rothstein (played by Michael Stuhlbarg who I met in person at AFI following a screening of A Serious Man *swoon*) was slick and manipulative and cheated the system for his immense wealth—yes, we got a cameo shot of Ford’s The International Jew this episode—and the Italians, brutish and thick with their “old world” or Brooklyn accents, mostly did the grunt work (killings) to get ahead. My dad is worried that this small sample of thugs could continue to spew stereotypes about the Italian American community. My mom, on the other hand, barely knows who Rothstein is, and cares even less about how the dude, now dead for 82 years, could harm Jewish Americans today.

But despite all this, I think the series won me over (for now.) Steve Buscemi, playing Nucky, gave off such a nuanced performance of a corrupt politician that I barely remembered him as the goof in Adam Sandler movies (ok, maybe once or twice. :P) The lavishly intricate sets and the constant jazz (offset, occasionally, by Italian opera,) are also dazzling. It’s a bit too plot-based rather than character-driven at the moment, but we’re still just one episode in.

The “minority” group I can most get behind in Boardwalk Empire is the women. On the cusp of being given the right to vote, they still find ways to assert themselves (see The Women’s Temperance movement.) So far, we are introduced to three women who represent varying aspects of 1920s life—there’s Lucy, former Ziegfield Follies girl who now gets ahead being Nucky’s mistress, there’s Margaret, the battered wife of a barely-working lower class immigrant, and then there’s Angela (my personal favorite so far) who, even though she’s a second class citizen, still has the self-realization to become a painter. 😀 You go, girl!

…so I may have to give Boardwalk Empire more of a chance. In the meantime, I am drafting my own television pilot: Italians and Jews: Saving Kittens Together. I think I should pitch it to The Animal Planet. 😛



  1. […] I was reticent to start watching. Like with my Italian heritage dictating the way I feel about “Boardwalk Empire,” my Jewish heritage reminds me that the medieval ages, which have been taken out of history and […]

  2. jmaioran said,

    I find this highly disconcerting as a second generation Italian Canadian. The writing is highly biased towards aggrandizing Jewish people and behaviour from the period, while disparaging Italian.
    Episode 2 : Chalky White when asked by his wife if his lawyer is qualified : “He’s Hebrew”
    same episode, “why do all Dago’s have to be so dumb”
    Season 1: Al Capone matures due to the influence of a Jew in a synagogue
    If you are mindful of this, you will notice this theme and similar examples in the writing. It really doesn’t need to be that way. I’m used to it though, having recently watched, ‘The Gladiator’, and been forced to listen to the British accents of the senators and aristocrats, and italian/arabic accents of the peasants.
    Don’t get me started on George Lucas.

    • chavalah said,

      I would disagree that it “aggrandizes” the Jews to call Italians “dagos,” the same as it doesn’t reflect well on Italians to call Jews “kikes,” both of which were thrown around last episode. Jews were stereotypically known to gravitate to such fields as attorneys, so I take it that’s where Chalky’s statement came from. In these instances I take it that the writers were trying to accurately portray opinions and actions of the time.

      Granted it’s probably not accurate that Al Capone would get “a lesson on how to be a man” from a bar mitzvah ceremony–that was a convenient conceit for the show. Though I personally can’t say I minded seeing a depiction of a 1920s bar mitzvah in the media, and an explanation, however simple, of Jewish philosophy.

      In general Hollywood is not known to be historically or culturally accurate. With time and activism perhaps (or patronizing/not patronizing certain movies) that might change.

      • jmaioran said,

        Thanks for your reply Chavalah, glad we’re having the discussion.. The line between historically accurate and undertones to influence, manipulate or lobby our views/impressions is a tough one to draw. Painting these pictures of cultures is both entertaining .. and tiresome.
        I mention the Chalky White “He’s Hebrew” comment because the statement draws on similar methods to those in advertising to sell brands. Is he a qualified lawyer? … He’s Hebrew. As if that is all you have to know.. and reinforcing the association. (Actually, Curb your Enthusiasm poked fun at this notion this season in the season opener..)
        Anyways, not trying to focus solely on this show and just Jews, I mean there are tons of examples with tons of different cultures. Again, it wouldn’t work if it didn’t have a little truth to it .. but ..t

      • chavalah said,

        I’m also not a fan of constantly noting the “Jew-Hebrew” lawyers. It’s very much a double-edged compliment. More often than not, even today though especially in the 20s, the existence of Jews in certain professions led to assertions that they were somehow manipulative, cunning cheaters who planned to rule the world. This is the era of Ford and The International Jew in the United States, after all. Antisemitism is in, anti-Italianism is in, as are anti-immigrant and anti-African American sentiments to a large degree. Been doing a little research on the side, and it seems like one of the only times that Italians and Jews came together were in mob circles. Guess those murderous thugs had to have one positive attribute.

      • chavalah said,

        I’d also point out that there is a viciously antisemitic scene in season one, where Van Alden drowns Agent Sebso in an altered baptism ritual. I think viewers swept it under the rug because it wasn’t an instance of institutionalized xenophobia, but the actions of a crazed religious fanatic. Still, as a Jew especially, it gave me the shudders. I rather wish that the show had spent more time on what Van Alden told his superiors about Sebso’s demise, whether the African American church group spoke up about it, and what the reaction was of the broader community. Plenty of gangster characters off each other with the obvious motivations of greed and power. But Sesbo’s death mirrors acts of hatred that had been propagated on the Jews for centuries. A disquieting move.

  3. […] An interesting, cultural subplot revolves around the Adama family, Tauron immigrants to the central world of Caprica who are often the brunt of genteel xenophobia on their new home. In accordance, many change their names in order to assimilate—main character Yosef Adama becomes Joseph Adams, for instance. It’s something I feel personal kinship to—only a few generations back Jews changed their names in order to avoid antisemitism in America, and even now, many find ways to ignore or deny their heritage. Meanwhile, the Taurons’ Machiavellian mobs and views on life and death kinda remind me of these guys. […]

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