Wednesday, June 14, 2006


I just read George De Stefano's An Offer We Can't Refuse. It's about the Mafia in popular culture, with partiuclar emphasis on (not surprisingly) The Godfather and The Sopranos. (The author also takes a little excursion to bash the crude Italian caricatures of Spike Lee.)

However, what interested me most was the history of the Mafia. For instance, I always thought it was some ancient thing, when, in fact, the Sicilian roots only go back to the late 1800s. Furthemore, it wasn't directly exported to America, even though the stereotype of Italian immigrants at the time were of dangerous, dishonest people. It's fascinating to read the openly racist articles back then in The New York Times. It makes you wonder how people in 2100 will look at today's headlines.

Italians didn't dominate crime in the 20s and 30s--there were plenty of Irish thugs, Jewish thugs and so on. But because of Al Capone, and movies like Scarface and Little Caesar, Italians became associated with crime.

This might have died out, but Congressional hearings in the 50s and 60s popularized the idea of a highly organized, national (or international) Italian crime syndicate. In fact, even at its height, it wasn't so widespread and certainly not that organized. Sure, they had their hands in a lot of pies, and they controlled many Italian neighborhoods, but their power has always been greatly magnified in the popular mind.

Ironically, as the Mafia has been steadily losing power (helped by the harsh penalties of the RICO statute), it's become more widespread in our culture, mostly because of The Godfather and The Sopranos. Whatever influence it once had is mostly gone, with the heads of the top "families" dead or in jail. But then, cowboy stories became more popoular only after their era was over. (When the legend becomes fact, make movies about the legend.)


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