On a recent re-watch of The Sopranos, I was struck by how a show with no main characters of color still manages to say a lot about how racism works in the US.
Most noticeably, there may be as many imaginary Black men in the show as there are actual Black men. Whenever they need an excuse for their own bad behavior (accounting for an injury incurred while killing Joey Peeps, for example) or a cover story for something embarrassing (Tony’s panic attack after a fight with his mother, causing him to miss the hijacking job that landed his cousin in jail), again and again, the members of the Soprano family lie to each other and create fictional Black men to blame things on. The device is so frequently employed – as it is in our own world – that one begins to wonder if the characters all know and simply accept that they are being lied to.
The Sopranos do hire real-life Black men to do their dirty work, whether in their proxy wars (Junior & Livia’s attempted coup against Tony), for their profit-making scams (using a Black community non-profit figurehead to purchase a foreclosed house they intend to flip, and hiring young Black men to assault and roust the people squatting in that house; or buying off one of the leaders of an unemployed Black workers’ movement picketing one of their all-white construction job sites, while also cracking the heads of the picketers), or as additional muscle in stick-up jobs (like the ones that Christopher and Brendan dream up).
Tony’s encounter with a Black cop who tickets him for speeding provides another telling moment: the man refuses to be bribed. A phone call or two later and Tony has ruined his life, relegating him to a lower-paying position in the police department that forces him to take a second job at the Fountains of Wayne garden décor shop, where Tony can eventually condescend to him again. This is perhaps the only legit job a Soprano “helps” a Black man land during the entire series. From what we can see, the Sopranos never hire Black men for the garbage routes, lawn care, or construction jobs under their control.
Janice does hire (and berate and belittle) a Black woman to care for her daughter, but Black men – as Meadow’s classmate Noah learns – are not allowed anywhere near a Soprano figlia. Instead, Meadow’s parents encourage her relationship with a truly shitty person, Jackie Aprile, Jr., who goes into hiding after a failed poker game heist he hoped would launch him into the higher echelons of the family his father once ran. Jackie finds safe harbor in the Boonton housing projects — under the protection of Michael K. Williams’ character Ray-Ray — but steps out to meet a friend and is shot in the back of the head by Vito. His murder is blamed on “drug dealers.”
For the Sopranos, Black men can only be employed as pawns and scapegoats, as projections and alter-egos — a subaltern that is always fictionally ascribed with the malevolence that the show’s powerful figures themselves embody. In that sense, The Sopranos is a pretty good documentary.