Fortunate Pilgrims: Life through the eyes of ‘The Italian Americans’

If you are wondering how many seconds pass before The Italian Americans, PBS's two-part series premiering Feb. 17, mentions The Godfather, here's a spoiler: precisely zero. Surprisingly, the documentary opens cold with Marlon Brando rasping the familiar line, “I'll make him an offer he can't refuse.”

It’s surprising because most discussions—both private and public—of the Italian-American experience self-consciously avoid the dark shadow organized crime (both real and mythologized) has cast over the 15 million people of Italian descent living in the United States today. But for filmmaker John Maggio, tackling the “M-word” was essential, even when it cost him potential funding from Italian-American backers, as he revealed in a recent interview in a New Jersey newspaper, The Star-Ledger. With this film, Maggio has reached a truce with the dogged stereotype.

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“My family was so unlike (the Corleones), and my father looked down upon that stuff,” says the actor John Turturro sternly, speaking for the vast majority of Italian Americans. Then a reluctant grin creeps across his face. “And yet my father loved ‘The Godfather.’ He was obsessed with ‘The Godfather!’”

Having acknowledged the elephant in the room, “The Italian Americans” chronicles the familiar journey of nearly every immigrant group in the United States. In brief: an impoverished or oppressed group seeking opportunity in the United States at first resists assimilation, fearing its unique cultural heritage and family ties will be forever lost. After encountering initial prejudice, the first and second generations make inroads in business, then law and politics and finally pop culture to cement their place in American society.

Many uniquely “American” archetypes populate this gripping story of Italians in a new land. In Episode One, there’s Giuseppe Petrosino, a heroically incorruptible Eliot Ness-type cop who created the NYPD’s “Italian Squad” to root out the Black Hand in New York City. Shortly thereafter, we meet Bank of Italy (now Bank of America) founder Amadeo Giannini, who set a plank over two barrels amid the still-smoking ruins of San Francisco and made George Bailey-esque “handshake loans” to help Italian fishermen, laborers and shopkeepers rebuild after the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. And who could symbolize Italians’ true arrival in American society more than the superstardom of Joe DiMaggio in that most quintessential of all American games? Even Rosie (Bonavita) the Riveter was Italian.

The program ably covers familiar territory. The questionable “justice” in the infamous Sacco and Vanzetti case is explored at length; Fiorello LaGuardia reads the comics; and Italian Americans’ (and Anglo’s) superficial but ultimately misguided bedazzlement by Mussolini is dissected. Sharp-eyed viewers will be delighted when former Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Joe Petrosino (crime-stopper Giuseppe Petrosino’s great-nephew) appears in Episode Four to provide context for the Valachi Hearings. 

The program truly soars, however, when recounting the stories of immigrants extraordinary in their very ordinariness. In perhaps the most spellbinding segment of the four-part documentary, writer Laura Fabiano tells the harrowing tale of her grandmother’s 1909 kidnapping by the Black Hand in New York City. Snatched in retaliation for her parents’ refusal to pay protection money, four-year-old Angelina was spirited “across the river” and held for four months in a tumbledown shack until her parents paid over $1,000 in ransom.

Angelina’s terrifying story (fictionalized in Fabiano’s 2013 excellent novel Elizabeth Street) is made more immediate by clips of videotaped interviews with the 84-year-old Angelina. Many decades after the crime, Angelina refuses to talk about her ordeal, waving off Fabiano’s persistent questions in an effort to protect her family from the vengeance of men long dead. After all, Angelina notes bluntly, most children kidnapped by the Black Hand were killed—because they talked.

The program wobbles a bit when it attempts to cast Italian Americans as unique victims of prejudice. “The Johnson-Reed Act (of 1924) set strict immigration quotas for Italians,” the superb narrator Stanley Tucci intones, following it up with a chilling explanation from Calvin Coolidge: “Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend.” Regrettably, the filmmakers fail to clarify that the Johnson-Reed Act also restricted entry by other nationalities (mostly Southern and Eastern Europeans) and completely prohibited the immigration of East Asians, Arabs and Indians in the interest of preserving American “homogeneity.” Similarly, the program somewhat diminishes the fascinating rise of Fiorello LaGuardia by implying he single-handedly (or two-fistedly, according to some accounts) broke the corrupt stranglehold of Tammany Hall in New York City with his mayoral victory in 1933. In fact, the defeat of Tammany had been a decades-long, multi-pronged siege by countless reformers and politicians, among them then-New York State Governor Franklin Roosevelt. Given such unforced errors, viewers may wonder what else has been glossed over in the interest of streamlining the filmmakers’ narrative. 

The series draws to a close with two triumphant political events that nevertheless could not escape the specter of organized crime: Mario Cuomo's keynote address to the 1984 Democratic National Convention and the subsequent speculation about a presidential run and Antonin Scalia’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Cuomo’s intensely moving paean to his hard-working parents’ devotion to the American Dream was a balm to Italian Americans, still smarting twelve years after the premier of “The Godfather.” “Finally,” a star-struck Laurie Fabiano recalls thinking at the time. “Finally, the real Italians are being shown to the world.” But Cuomo’s presidential ambitions were brought down at least in part by what the filmmakers elegantly call “the stigma of the Mafia”—or “innuendo bull----” as a former Cuomo aide puts it.

In his interview, Scalia marvels at his unanimous confirmation to the Supreme Court. “I hope some of that was because I was so doggone well qualified,” he says with his now-familiar puckishness, “but I later came to understand that a lot of it was simply because it meant so much to Italian Americans…I think for Italian Americans, given what they most abhor, which is their identification with crime and the Mafia, I wouldn’t be surprised if they would be more proud to have an Italian-American justice more than an Italian American president.”

“The Italian Americans” proves how each nationality’s immigrant story is both unique and universal, hardscrabble and heartfelt. As one man summarized, “My grandfather always felt (an) indebtedness to this country for giving him the opportunity to have something that he did not have in Sicily—just a chance...to use his own hands, his own wits to make something for himself and his family.”

Correction, Feb. 19, 2015: The series has two parts, not four, as originally stated.

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