“Green Book” is a symphony of vile anti-Italian stereotypes masquerading as a feel-good family film.
Of all the controversies surrounding director Peter Farrelly’s movie, from questions about the script’s veracity to screenwriter Nick Vallelonga’s anti-Muslim tweets to Viggo Mortensen’s use of the N-word, this is the only row that has gone unnoticed.
Whereas Mahershala Ali’s Don Shirley is an erudite African-American pianist, Mortensen’s Tony “Lip” Vallelonga comes across as a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal whose surname ends in a vowel.
How ironic that the servile Italo-American chauffer’s heritage — which boasts the likes of Antonio Stradivari, Gioachino Rossini, Giuseppe Verdi, Enrico Caruso and Bartolomeo Cristofori (the inventor of, yes, the pianoforte) — is treated with undisguised contempt.
Despite “Green Book’s” formulaic buddy-flick denouement, many viewers will long remember Tony “Lip” as a loathsome vulgarian. For this Mortensen earned a Best Actor nomination.
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While the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has made great strides in repudiating racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, anti-Hispanic intolerance, Islamophobia and anti-Asian bigotry, Hollywood revels in the socially acceptable schadenfreude of Italophobia.
The Oscar-nominated films “BlacKkKlansman” and “Black Panther” depict noble, complex and courageous African-Americans. And Asian Americans can point to “Crazy Rich Asians” with pride. But Italian Americans are saddled with “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas,” “A Bronx Tale,” “Donnie Brasco, “Analyze This,” “The Untouchables, “Casino,” “Married to the Mob” and, now, “Green Book.”
Stepin Fetchit, Charlie Chan, Apu and Mo and Josh Flatbush have shuffled off the entertainment coil. Yet the stereotype of the Goombah — Italian-American slang for macho or gangster — abounds. And it has morphed into a billion-dollar industry.
“Sopranos” creator David Chase’s “The Many Saints of Newark,” a prequel that introduces a young Tony Soprano and his gang of racist goons, is shooting this spring. Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is slated to appear in theaters sometime this year. Despite the title, this Netflix movie features a bevy of brutish criminal Goombahs.
In 1999, New York Times writer Clyde Haberman noted Hollywood’s institutionalized defamation of Italian Americans: “Among major ethnic groups that have formed the country’s social bedrock for at least a century, Americans of Italian origin may be the last to see themselves reflected in mass culture, time and again, as nothing but a collection of losers and thugs. You would be hard-pressed to tell from films and television shows that they have also been corporate leaders, governors and mayors, not to mention shopkeepers and working stiffs.”
The scions of Italy are also U.S. Supreme Court justices, CIA directors, secretaries of State and Defense, astronomers, astronauts and Nobel Prize-winning physicists. And an Italian-American woman, Nancy Patricia D’Alessandro Pelosi, is the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
But this reality has largely eluded La La Land. Hollywood ignores the history of anti-Italian intolerance in America — from the mass lynching of Italians in New Orleans in 1891 to the internment and persecution of Italo-Americans as “enemy aliens” during World War II.
Ethnic slurs don’t fly outside Hollywood
Upon arriving at a Hispanic Heritage Celebration in downtown Manhattan on Oct. 23, 2018, Janet DiFiore, Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals and of the State of New York, was greeted by court officers sporting T-shirts with the words “Organized Crime Association.” Michael Miller, president of the New York State Bar Association, confirmed that the slogan was indeed an offensive ethnic slur.
“Almost every other group one can name has successfully raised enough fuss whenever they feel their group is being stereotyped, defamed, maligned or otherwise besmirched for the media to get the message and cease doing it. But not when it comes to Italian Americans,” columnist Adam Buckman wrote last month.
Filmmakers would be wise to fully embrace America’s national credo: “All men are created equal” — a concept Filippo Mazzei discussed with his Virginia friend and neighbor Thomas Jefferson, who made it a pillar of the Declaration of Independence. Our third president also recruited Sicilian musicians to professionalize the U.S. Marine Band in 1805.
And the Founding Fathers looked to an ancient Italian polity in creating our tripartite system of government. As historian Rufus Fears explained: “They crafted our Constitution to reflect the balanced constitution of the Roman Republic.” In fact, John Adams wrote that “The Roman constitution formed the noblest people and the greatest power that has ever existed.”
Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences should take heed.
Rosario A. Iaconis, an adjunct professor of economics at Suffolk County (N.Y.) Community College, is chairman of The Italic Institute of America.