What Part of New Jersey History Will the ‘Sopranos’ Prequel Explore?

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano and Burt Young as Bobby Baccalieri, Sr. act in a scene in HBO’s hit television series, “The Sopranos” (Year 3). | HBO

According to various reports, the cast and crew for The Sopranos prequel are starting to come together. The feature film project began with a deal between David Chase, the HBO show’s creator, and New Line Cinema. Chase and Lawrence Konner, another Sopranos alumnus, will get credit for the script, which is titled The Many Saints of Newark.

Meanwhile, the film’s first star looks ready to come aboard. According to a report in Variety, Alessandro Nivola was in talks to play a lead in the film as Dickey Moltisanti, father of Christopher (played in the show by Michael Imperioli). The film’s title, which is a literal translation of this character’s last name, suggests Nivola will get a juicy part.

From the Deadline report that broke the story about the prequel, we also know that The Many Saints of Newark takes place at a volatile time in New Jersey history: the riots of 1967. Dozens died and hundreds more received serious injuries during those six summer days. It’s quite the backdrop for a film about an earlier generation of Jersey mobsters.

A powder keg that exploded

Black demonstrators face armed federal soldiers in Newark on July 17, 1967 during riots that erupted in the town following a police operation. | AFP/Getty Images

Race relations in Newark had deteriorated to the point of no return by 1967. Decades of police brutality, institutional racism, and general neglect left African-American residents fuming. Then a large group witnessed cops beating a black cab driver and followed as police escorted him to the Fourth Precinct in the Central Ward.

According to The New York Times, a rumor (later proved false) spread that the cabbie later died in police custody. Soon after, protesters surrounded the precinct and police officers used force in response when the crowd ignored calls to disperse. A riot had begun.

1967: Three policemen taking away a black civil rights protester during race riots in Newark, New Jersey. | Evans/Getty Images

Over the following six days, 26 dead bodies arrived in the coroner’s office and 700 people were treated for injuries (many of them serious). Entire blocks burned to the ground, rioters looted en masse, and the National Guard marched the streets as Newark police struggled to maintain control.

Meanwhile, snipers shot from windows down at the federal troops and local cops. Fifty years later, the scars still existed and, as the Times reported, some of the burned-out blocks never revived.

The Sopranos in the civil rights era

1967: A youth group protesting about the use of Federal Troops to control the race riots in Newark, New Jersey. | Three Lions/Getty Images

Setting the Sopranos prequel at this point in the civil rights movement is an interesting choice by Chase. We know where the Soprano family stands on the issues from how Tony and Uncle Junior described the era in various episodes. There were “the good old days” before the mid-1960s and everything that came after.

Tensions between African-Americans and Italian-Americans obviously ran high throughout this period.Those interactions had an impact on how the extended Soprano family viewed the black community in North Jersey. (A Bronx Tale is a film that previously explored this theme on the New York side of the Hudson.)

Considering Dicky Moltisanti was supposedly killed by a cop after serving in Vietnam and becoming a feared Jersey mobster, there’s a lot of material for Chase and Konner to explore. For Sopranos fans, it looks the next chapter is in good hands.

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