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Analyzing pop culture's mob connections

An Offer We Can’t Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America
By George De Stefano
Faber and Faber, 438 pp., $26

Graced with fearless acting, intelligent scripts, and innovative directing, HBO's ''The Sopranos," which returns next month for its sixth season, is arguably the best drama in television history. Still, much of the show's critical and commercial acclaim is derived not just from its spot-on depiction of Tony and Carmela Soprano dealing with their floundering marriage and mercurial children, but from its equally sharp focus on Tony's other ''family," the New Jersey crime mob that he leads.

When it premiered in 1999, ''The Sopranos" was yet another fix for an insatiable culture that can't seem to get enough of goodfellas, gumads, and gabagol. Yet, because of these lusty portrayals of Italian-American mobsters, ''in the popular view, Italian culture equals Mafia culture," George De Stefano contends in his persuasive -- and cleverly titled -- book, ''An Offer We Can't Refuse."

For years, Italian antidefamation groups have denounced ''The Sopranos," as well as such films as ''The Godfather" and ''GoodFellas," for reinforcing stereotypes that can demean an entire ethnic group. De Stefano elevates this argument beyond a routine diatribe into a thoughtful, thorough analysis tracing the evolution of these vexing pop-culture icons, why their ''dangerous allure" remains an enduring attraction, and how they impact perceptions about Italian-Americans.

De Stefano readily acknowledges that most ethnic and racial minorities have been victimized by pop-culture stereotypes. Yet, he contends, while portrayals of other groups ''have become more diverse and true to life," Italian-Americans ''continue to be defined mainly through the tiny minority of criminals known as gangsters, mobsters, Mafiosi, goodfellas, and wiseguys, and through the related stereotype of the crude, sexist, and violence-prone 'gavone.' "

Decades before 1930s films such as ''Little Caesar" and ''Scarface" introduced the moviegoing masses to ruthless men with hair-trigger tempers and names ending in vowels, southern Italian immigrants were demonized as dangerous and ignorant. Once Al Capone made a violent name for himself as leader of organized crime in Chicago during the Great Depression, gangsters became big-screen antiheroes. Still, De Stefano maintains that the portrayals varied. Irish-American gangsters, such as James Cagney in the 1931 classic ''The Public Enemy," were presented with a ''cocky, roguish charm" even though in the film he gave his girlfriend an unwanted facial with a grapefruit. On the other hand, their Italian-American counterparts were portrayed as ''sinister and utterly amoral."

De Stefano broadens his study in fascinating, unexpected ways. In the book's most provocative chapter, he tackles the prickly topics of race and racism as a ''recurring motif" in organized crime narratives. At times, he gets bogged down rehashing too many details from particular TV episodes or films, but his discussion is mostly lively and compelling. Here, he also considers hip-hop's embrace of Mafia clichés, and how, despite the overt racism of real and fictional Italian-American crime bosses, some rap artists' connect with the up-from-nothing, hardscrabble rise of these figures.

Throughout this book, De Stefano makes clear that ''The Sopranos" and ''The Godfather" films (well, at least the first two) are works of art. He never calls for the abolition of mob-inspired shows and films, but instead pushes for more varied portrayals of Italian-Americans.

''Whether we Italian Americans continue to produce mobsters, fictional or actual, the Mafia myth cannot be the last word about our lives and culture," De Stefano concludes. ''Italian America still has many more stories to tell."

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