Italian Americans Portrayed as Mafia Members in Films


Italian Americans had been scarcely involved as starring characters in films in the recent past. When the Italian American was initiated, it resulted in a mega stereotype that represented a tiny fragment of the Italian American population. Despite this, America became captivated by the mafia culture, and their films started following in their footsteps. Despite the reality and the presence of the mafia in America, the gauging to which the film industry has blasted it out is untruthful. The films produced continue stereotyping Italian Americans as mafias even though only a small percentage of them are involved in planned crimes. Since it is only a small percentage of Italian Americans were involved in mob activities, film industries should use those characters who are willing to be portrayed as mafia members in films.

The mafia began as an assembly of people protecting themselves from attackers who frequently attacked their land. They were in no way connected with organized crimes; all they did was try to seek revenge for the injustices they faced from their attackers. With time, there emerged families that became leaders, and they started extracting money from others. This, later on, resulted in them getting involved in forceful crimes. As the government was trying to stop the criminal’s illegal activities, some people did not cooperate, which led to some of the Italians migrating to America. After some time, the mafia started ruling in America, and power struggles emerged between their families. The leaders were later involved in many illegal activities and then began fading when the government decided to crash down their activities. The history of the mafia’s supposed culture made film industries overwhelmed with Italian gangsters in films.


Beck discusses how Americans had a stereotyped occupation in his article, “The Myth That Would Not Die: The Sopranos, Mafia Movies, and Italians in America.” He argues that the culture in America has nurtured the idea of defining current criminal businesses as being a creation of Asian Italians for a long time and they found their versions to be the most alarming (1). Accordingly, the occupation of Italian-American characters is analyzed in films as many of them are placed to engage in activities such as family business, criminal activities, and the gang. Being involved in activities like these in films is considered dangerous, and they are those who avoid associating with them. These criminal activities that the Italian Americans engage in proposes that they lack humanity and morality but instead focus on a trendy lifestyle. In most cases, the main Italian American characters hold jobs that are considered the best for them since having a job means a lot to them irrespective of the type, especially when it’s expected to be helpful to their families. In mafia films, deceitfulness and betrayal are very regular, but those portraying those personalities are innocent in reality.

In a bid to use the occupations of the Italian Americans and make a bad public image out of them through films, industries have gone way further to use this excuse to fulfill their desires. This they do so that they continue producing gangster films and avoid being forbidden. Film industries have taken advantage of the small percentage of Italian Americans that engaged in crimes, and they use it as a money-making opportunity and have brought successful film categories out of them. Many films have been launched in this category, and they keep prolonging stereotypes of Italian Americans engaging in planned crimes. American society has made Italian Americans act as fountains of unwanted desires. America’s obsession with brutality and power has been funneled and then extended to Italian organized crime. Films like “The Godfather” belong to the gangster category and have been ranked among the most triumphant shows in history. The shows have ended up winning many prizes and getting praises from enemies and viewers. The films have set models for others to embrace and have been an inspiration for many others to discover the gangster genre. Among the successful films is the one that was adapted from real-life events. As soon as the gangster genre made its way to television, this served as its turning point since it experienced instant success.


According to Larke-Warsh in his article “The Family Curse: Mafia Identity as Inheritance in Abel Ferrara’s The Funeral,” the tensions in films are a result of the Mafia stereotypes displayed by the reviewers (2). He claims that Italian Americans are viewed as capable of doing anything. Stereotyping of Italian Americans in films has been so dominant as each of them has been portraying Italian American people as tough, violent, and skeptical criminals who are only after personal gain. In “The Godfather,” show Italian American actors are displayed as either abandoned, violent criminals, timid, or frequently as foolish individuals. Since “The Godfather” film has been acting like a model to others, shows like “The Sopranos” have imitated their way of doing things and have developed storylines that are almost similar to that of their model. Films like that of Coppola have made their main characters be intimidating superiors, insensible wives, partners in crime, or spoiled children. Even though this film contains stereotypical characters, Coppola’s total transformation has been realized since he had an understanding beyond mafia stereotypes. His understanding has changed the film industry since the way of portraying Italians changed. It made Italian Americans look like fully appreciated individuals and not typecasts.

Dibeltulo asserts that a new viewpoint was created to the gangster genre even though previous films had spread the mafia stereotype (9). Coppola’s film was helpful in such a manner that it fashioned a compassionate picture of Italian Americans. He had an understanding of the patterns of interaction of the Italian Americans and displayed it in a manner that had not been revealed before on the screen. The gangster genre is still following the path and the effect created by their model “The Godfather” because it was the original show. Calabretta-Saider acknowledges that the mobster stereotype is perpetuated through films like “Dinner Rush” and goes on to explain how Italian Americans were made to dress like mobsters (7). They still display forms of stereotyping, and some make claims even though some try their best to eliminate the negative stereotypes of Italian Americans since that is usually an attempt to shame them.

Most series made today refer to the original film; they recite quotes from it and keep remembering the actions of its characters so that they employ the same for their films. The matter here is that the well-known lines from that film are stereotypical, and the characters are Italian, as stated in the “Journal of Popular Film and Television.” Oblivious wives in films in another negative stereotype that has been created by the gangster genre. There is no involvement of the wives of the main characters in the major actions of the film. All they are put to represent in films is to be an addition to the gangsters. For example, in “The Godfather” film, the only time that the woman speaks is when she speaks bad English. The wives are displayed mostly when they are involved in household chores, which perpetuates the stereotype of mafia wives being ignorant of their husbands’ actions. Another film displays Italian wives as those who are loyal to their husbands even when they cheat and commit crimes.

The stereotyping effect has now gone beyond films to television networks. The television networks have decided to exploit the stereotypes adopted by mafia films to terribly produce a successful show that focuses on Italian Americans. There is a reality show that displays women whose husbands had relations with the mafia. The women used for such displays have an Italian origin. These shows are modern, but they still consist of stereotypes of the ancient age. Vanacker (7) mentions that there is an unfair portrayal of Italian Americans in films like “The Sopranos” and displays of art. These films display the worst stereotypes contained in the values of the Italian Americans; these stereotypes have gone beyond fiction, and they create a wrong perception of Italian Americans to the public.

Public attitude

Lake-Warsh confirms that there is ethnic stereotyping in Mafia films and describes how mafia roles end up being handed down to children from their fathers and argue that this is due to their social background (2). The political and socio-economic climate of Italy contributed to Italian Americans being used in mafia films and influenced how characters were displayed in films, and this seems to suggest that criminals are formed by society. This tries to create an image that instead of the Italian government trying to rebel against criminal activities, they engaged themselves in making criminals. And since the Italian Americans were from such an environment, film industries saw it fit to use them as gangster characters in films. As well-meaning as this may look, this notion ends up stereotyping Italian Americans, and it makes them be seen as criminals by the public.

This argument seems sensible when recent times are considered since the times were difficult and miserable. Since, in most cases, the excellence of films is dependent on it being tied to real life, film industries have taken advantage of this to use Italian Americans in gangster films. They do it with the excuse of responding to the public interest. Although there have been attempts by some institutions to forbid mafia films, the film industry continues to produce the same. As Italian Americans continue to be used as characters who are involved in crimes, this displays how their society is full of conflicts with a poor morality and economy. This is arrived at from the messages displayed by criminals in films; they are always immoral and poor. They are usually displayed as originating from foreign lands or a low-class background.

In the past, those who were engaged in crimes were mainly Italian Americans. This fact of having many Italian gangsters in towns was used against them and used in films to continually show how the Italian Americans are the ones that get involved in crimes in America even to this day. They have been highly criticized, and even at some point, they are referred to as crooks in cities. It has also been discovered that the audience in America preferred the use of foreigners as evil characters as declared by Larke-Walsh (2). In one film, Italian Americans were used as characters to kidnap a child from his family so that the family withholds their testimony against the Italian kidnapper. One of the reasons why it is hard to abolish these films is that these films are more popular than the other genres.


Dibeltulo argues in his article that although all representations of Italian Americans are a result of ethnicity, not all of them have similar characterizations. He states that it is only a tiny percentage of Italian Americans involved in the mafia, even though many films feature them as engaged in organized crimes (3). Of the many films that engage the Italians, only a small number portray them positively while the rest display them in a bad light. Also, among the many Italian Americans living in America, only a very small percentage of them have ever been found guilty of criminal activities, according to reports from the investigative authorities. A study that was conducted years back has shown that negative depictions of Italian Americans exceed that of positive ones by a very small margin of about one or two.

Indeed, Italian Americans are more frequently displayed as negative rather than positive characters. This bad image caused by films and shows makes the public have a bad opinion about Italian Americans unpleasantly, and they end up misjudging them based on beliefs the media presents about them. Popular films and shows in America have formed a tragic stereotype about Italian Americans. Unlike what the media has displayed to the community, only a small fraction of the Italian Americans is involved in planned crimes.

The media communicates a single narration about Italian Americans being engaged in the mafia and overlooks the great achievements and contributions that they have made to the entire globe. This display validates the harm caused by one story to the people. That one story creates typecasts, and the only disadvantage with them is that they are incomplete even though they may be true or untrue. Aspects regarding a group need to be identified so that a complete image about be found to terminate this crisis of a single story.

Thorough research is needed to eliminate the problem of analyzing films by directing stereotypes of Italian Americans. A future exciting platform of study would be the one researching through interviews what prompted the directors to display Italian Americans in a bad way and then figure out what they knew about the effect of stereotyping on their cultural group. Another important topic to consider during a further investigation is to find out whether the Italian Americans are tolerant of other cultural groups or not and to what degree (Ciribuco 4). In one of the latest films, there is a character who was displayed desiring to be an Italian. He had to assimilate and embrace the Italian American culture by making efforts to look and behave like them. He had to change his name, and the styling of his hair and incorporated the Italian accent into his own. That assimilation made him more acceptable to the community, and he did not appear like an outcast. This display of Italian Americans as acceptable by different cultures would make it exciting to cause a positive effect on the Italian Americans.

Media has played a big part in making lasting displays of different marginal groups. It is known all over that the perceptions of the public about different ethnic groups can be controlled by what they see as pictures or narrations on television. This causes the audience to assume that the displays are true. After conducting a thorough analysis of several films of different categories, findings show that the mafia and planned crimes were irrelevant at some point. Although this seems positive, the Italian Americans are depicted in a bad manner on screens using different ways. As one typecast fades, another one comes up, creating a different display of the Italian Americans that is not necessarily good. Landy(3) argues that the bad images presented in the media are, in most cases what the Italian American culture represents in reality. The current world is referred to as electronic as the media majorly influence it. The influence is especially more in cultural concepts and beliefs than the way other disciples do. Media displays carry a big meaning and have a long-term impact. Some people may think that filmmakers want to do away with false portrayals, prejudgments, and typecasting, but the misrepresentations are still happening.


It is evident that corruption, vengeance, and discrimination that initiate the production of mafia films. The ideas of these films attempt to fulfill America’s desire for materials while destroying the public image of Italian Americans. Film producers require to develop a pure motive for what they do. They have to develop a determination to stop stereotyping and discrimination and ensure that equality is attained during their filmmaking (Davis 3). All people require respect and a sense of self-worth for their ethnic groups. Media producers do not have to make other ethnic groups look bad to attract their audience’s attention; other positive ways to do so can be used to achieve the same.

Works Cited

Beck, Bernard. “The Myth That Would Not Die: The Sopranos, Mafia Movies, and Italians in America.” Multicultural Perspectives, vol. 2, no. 2, 2000, pp. 24-27. Web.

Calabretta-Sajder, Ryan. “The Bargaining Performative and Awakening Potential of Foodways in Bob Giraldi’s Dinner Rush.” Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 46, no. 4, 2018, pp. 195-206.

Ciribuco, Andrea. “Transnational Uses of Mafia Imagery in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, vol. 19, no. 4, 2017, p. 6.

Davis, J. Madison. “Living Black, Living White: Cultural Choices in Crime Films.” World Literature Today, vol. 82, no. 3, 2008, pp. 9-12.

Dibeltulo, Silvia. “Family, Gang and Ethnicity in Italian-Themed Hollywood Gangster Films.” Film International, vol. 12, no. 4, 2014, pp. 25-43.

Landy, Marcia. “An’outsider’s’ Reflections on Italian Cinematic Culture.” The Italianist, vol. 31, no. 2, 2011, pp. 281-286. Web.

Larke-Walsh, George S. “The family Curse: Mafia Identity as Inheritance in Abel Ferrara’s The Funeral.” Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 40, no. 2, 2012, pp. 75-82.

Vanacker, Bastiaan. “Don’t Shoot the Messenger: Journalism and Mass Media in the Sopranos.” Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 40, no.1, 2012, pp. 32-41.

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Premium Papers. (2023, January 13). Italian Americans Portrayed as Mafia Members in Films. Retrieved from


Premium Papers. (2023, January 13). Italian Americans Portrayed as Mafia Members in Films.

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"Italian Americans Portrayed as Mafia Members in Films." Premium Papers, 13 Jan. 2023,


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Premium Papers. 2023. "Italian Americans Portrayed as Mafia Members in Films." January 13, 2023.

1. Premium Papers. "Italian Americans Portrayed as Mafia Members in Films." January 13, 2023.


Premium Papers. "Italian Americans Portrayed as Mafia Members in Films." January 13, 2023.