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When The Many Saints of Newark began filming in 2019, the national conversation around Black racial justice looked and sounded different — less visible and, arguably, quieter.
But then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and as it shut down the world, the murder of George Floyd and other Black Americans by police forced the country out of its homes. With that, issues around systemic racism became a near-constant foot-pounding thrum, becoming the heartbeat of entire neighborhoods, cities and institutions for months.
It was loud enough that when the team behind the Sopranos prequel — a decade and a half in the making and set to the backdrop of the 1967 Newark Riots — finally came back to finish, the material had an unexpected weight and some very unavoidable parallels. For Alan Taylor, the film’s director, telling the story of the Newark Riots was always an exciting chance to re-create a moment of significant history, and one perhaps too few know about.
But he was also really daunted by it, a feeling that likely grew during the “strange” experience of having started a film in one year and by the time filming ended, delivering it in “a very different world with a very different consciousness,” he told The Hollywood Reporter at the opening night of the Tribeca Fall Preview screening.
That cultural shift due to the 2020 protests ultimately impacted some of what audiences will see, and some things that were reshot, according to Many Saints actor Corey Stoll, who plays Junior Soprano.
“They went back and did some reshoots and there was some real re-examination of that in the light of last summer,” Stoll said. “And I think that was a really good thing to do because we can’t understand what’s happening now without looking at our history.”
Those changes, says Marcus Viscidi, an executive producer on the film, were about authenticity and sensitivity. “When we looked at the movie again after the riots, we tried to look at and go, ‘OK, are we commercializing, in any way, or taking advantage of something that people went through that affected their lives significantly in the ’60s,” he told THR on the carpet ahead of the New York City screening Wednesday night. “We really tried to make sure that we felt that the scenes we shot, and the moments we shot, were truthful. We wanted to make sure that we never took it out of context or out of the reality of what people were actually experiencing.”
“To try and get it right was hugely important and so I just did a ton of research,” Taylor told THR about his own work as the film’s director. “Almost every image you see was grounded in visuals we found from the time so that we didn’t sort of go off and do make-believe.”
That includes a moment in the film where a young Black kid is shot during the riots, which the team “lifted from a story of a boy who wound up on the cover of Life magazine.” While 26 others died in Newark during what was known nationally as “the long host summer of 1967,” that boy, named Joe Bass Jr., lived after being hit by a stray bullet from a police officer.
One of several moments drawn from real life, the scene helps underscore the approach the director and team, including longtime collaborator and Sopranos creator David Chase, took. Taylor says they also brought in consultants, including Jamal Joseph, a Black Panther imprisoned for 9 and half years. “We showed the film when we were shooting to him and he said we got it right,” the director said.
Another measure of how dedicated the film was to bringing accuracy and authenticity to their re-creation of those four fiery days following the brutal police beating of Black Newark resident and taxi driver John William Smith was in the response from locals who witnessed the filming. “We had people coming out of their homes from the neighborhood and had been there, older people who remember from their childhood. Some of them had tears in their eyes saying it was exactly as they remembered it. So that was also a kind of confirmation for us.”
Just as those real days were violent, the movie delivers its own signature Sopranos brutality. But Taylor said that setting the riots as the backdrop was about more than just delivering on the violence the HBO series was known for. While Viscidi said the riots don’t really inform Tony’s development in the film (much of that credit goes to his uncle Dickie Moltisanti’s journey), it does play a monumental role in the arc of Leslie Odom Jr.’s Harold McBrayer.
- “It’s not just to show the violence. It’s also thematically part of our movie because there’s one character Harold, played by Leslie Odom Jr, who participates in this and is radicalized by this,” Taylor explained. “It changes the way he thinks of himself, and it’s because of those events that he gets empowered in himself to turn against the mob and to rise up.”
The backdrop also plays a role in one of the movie’s central relationships. “The New York riots were a critical moment for the race relations between Italians and Blacks living in Newark,” Viscidi said. “I think it is clear that David wanted to set that up as a pivotal moment in the relationships between the two cultures at that time in 1967, and it reflects in the story with [Harold McBrayer and Dickie Soprano] who grew up as high school friends and now they’re on opposing sides. And to me, those opposing sides — the riots — are part of that work and propels the story.”
As for young Tony — a highly anticipated onscreen appearance portrayed in his teens by the late Sopranos‘ star James Gandolfini’s son, Michael — his story is driven by something different.
While many fans might enter the film expecting an origins story about the gangster who changed television forever, Taylor confirms the reviews, telling THR that “he’s not the main character” and “this is not really an origin story as such.” What young Tony is instead is “the heart of the movie” and one set of eyes through which audiences will see the background conflicts of the riots and foreground conflicts of the Soprano family and business.
“There are a lot of scenes, like when we’re at the funeral and we’re watching Dickie explode, and it’s absolutely grounded in Tony’s point of view. We sort of see it from that little kid’s point of view, looking to the grown-up bodies at what’s going on,” Taylor said. “I think it was important to feel him powerfully in the movie even though structurally it’s Dickie’s story. I just kept thinking that Tony is the heart of the movie and Michael became the heart of the movie when we were making it.”
For young Tony, those eyes are influenced by a family patriarch whose cultural and familial obligations are underpinned by lessons and mindsets around sexism, racism and masculinity. Dickie’s is “an image of perfection and control,” says Alessandro Nivola, of a man who “inside is slowly unraveling emotionally.”
“This was sort of the height of the Italian patriarchal family. I play somebody who really was expected to have a wife and a mistress, to have women cook for him, to have his own complete freedom and autonomy,” Nivola told THR. “But women in his life are not to be afforded the same kind of luxury. It’s not even questioned. It’s just part of a natural order of things at that time in this particular culture.”
“We’d like to think that we’ve moved on from there but in the same way that the racial discrimination that’s depicted in the film exists, it looks almost identical to the stuff we’re still seeing and saw last year,” he added.
Despite the riots largely informing the film’s Black lead and his former friend, the issue of racism has a throughline for several of the film’s characters. Jon Bernthal, who plays Tony’s father, Johnny Soprano, says it’s an issue his character represents, helping illustrate the story of our country, the people who occupy it and the continuous flow of gains and losses around progress.
“I think that you have these characters — especially the one that I play — who are enormously upset with change. And he’s enormously trying to control both the family that he chose and the family that he’s born into. He wants to keep control over it so tightly. He hates change. Hates the way the country’s going, and he is so afraid of it,” Bernthal said. “I feel there’s so many people in this country that feel [that way] right now. It’s like, my god, man, you gotta let that shit go. But it’s also important to portray those kinds of characters and try to understand that this is something that we’ve been dealing with.”
“I think that it was very, very smart, that David [Chase] set this story smack in the middle of that environment and that struggle,” he continued.
Many Saints of Newark actress Lesli Margherita, who plays Iris Balducci, also said that being in a story that’s portraying the big social issues of the ’60s as they’re happening around you in real life can be difficult.
“You watch this film and literally it’s happening now. It’s so timeless,” she told THR. “To be in that world and recognize what’s happening in our world now, it’s still really really difficult as an actor, as you’re having to play the truth of what life in the ’60s was and realizing that it’s crazier that things haven’t changed enough.”
As for how well The Many Saints of Newark ultimately delivers on the truth of its moment in time, Taylor says that’s still in the air. “I was nervous about whether it was going to make the transition or not,” he explained. “I think we did a good enough job on it and it made the transition, but we’re gonna find out.”
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