- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2007

“The Sopranos’” much-discussed fade to black did more than close the door on a thrilling mob serial. It may have helped Hollywood transition away from Italian Americans as the go-to mob villains.

Audiences have already seen the Russian mob figure prominently in “Eastern Promises,” director David Cronenberg’s latest meditation on violence, and “We Own the Night” tracks a nightclub impresario who gets tangled up with a Russian crime family. This week, “American Gangster” and the documentary “Mr. Untouchable” trace black mob figures who transformed New York City’s criminal underground in the 1970s.

While mob movies haven’t been the exclusive domain of Italians — witness films like 1972’s “Super Fly” and last year’s Oscar-winning “The Departed” — the new films seem poised to extend the mob genre in potentially intriguing directions — assuming that they don’t fall back on the kinds of stereotypes that could be applied to mob families of any ethnicity.

“Mr. Untouchable” charts the rise of Nicky Barnes, a flamboyant gangster who could slip out of any legal entanglement. “Mr. Untouchable” director Mark Levin considers “American Gangster” a “breakthrough film.” While urban gangster films aren’t new, a film starring Denzel Washington could have significant resonance in the culture. “We’re ready for the new ethnic variety on the 21st century [mob movie],” Mr. Levin says.

One reason mafia movies tap into the cultural zeitgeist is how they play on archetypal American themes. Nicky Barnes’ ascent was made possible, in a way, courtesy of capitalism. “They sang the national anthem at all their parties,” Mr. Levin says of Nicky’s crew. “There was a realization that only in America could they do what they do.” For black mobsters, their skin color plays a part in how they perceive society. The black gangsters in “Mr. Untouchable” saw themselves as underdogs who were barred from the mainstream, he says. Crime was a way of getting even and gaining power.

The switch to a more diversified mob scene also reflects a growing interaction between actual mob families. Some black gangsters, for example, learned their trade from their Italian peers. A few picked up some nasty habits while incarcerated alongside established Italian mobsters. Nicky Barnes grew up, and played stickball, with Matty Madonna, a famous mobster.

Larry Turman, a veteran producer (“The Graduate”) and professor and director of the Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California , isn’t convinced a new mafia trend has arrived — yet. But he sees Hollywood scriptwriters as eager to explore different ethnic and cultural variations on the mob movie.

A changing Hollywood culture is helping that happen. Thirty years ago, only Sidney Poitier was considered a famous enough black actor to anchor a feature film. Today, black actors and directors are far more prevalent. Moreover, he adds, “racism is more overtly dealt with in film today than in films from three decades ago.”

Italian mob movies center heavily on the family, one reason why these stories connect with the public at large despite the off-putting violence. Joaquin Phoenix’s character in “Night” bonds with the Russian family that owns his nightclub, and the earlier scenes of him breaking bread with the family are among the movie’s strongest moments. “Eastern Promises” touches on, albeit not always successfully, similar blood ties.

The new films may ultimately reflect simply the pragmatism of today’s filmmakers. Why invite comparisons to Mafia masterpieces like “The Godfather” when one can carve a new niche within the genre?

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