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‘Shark Tale’ offensive to Italian Americans?

The Italic Institute protests the Goombah stereotypes in the animated film that features the voice of Robert De Niro.
/ Source: The Associated Press

John Mancini has a beef with some cartoon fish.

Mancini is the founder of the Italic Institute of America, which decries what it calls Hollywood’s stereotyping of Italians as dumb thugs or murderous gangsters. Now, after years spent fighting movie and TV mafia, the organization has targeted a kid’s cartoon, the upcoming Dreamworks movie “Shark Tale,” because some of its villainous sea creatures are played by Italians and have Italian names.

“We’re concerned about what preteens are learning from the outside world,” said Mancini, 56, a Long Island real estate manager. “They don’t associate other groups as criminals, they only know Italians as gangsters. Our goal here is to de-Italianize it.”

“Shark Tale,” which is computer-animated like the Dreamworks hit “Shrek,” features some fearsome fish who run the undersea underworld.

Robert De Niro is the voice of Don Lino in Shark Tale.
Robert De Niro is the voice of Don Lino in Shark Tale.Dreamworks

One, a shark with the name Don Lino, is voiced by Robert De Niro. Will Smith voices a little fish who tells a tall tale about “whacking” a shark gangster who was actually taken out accidentally by a ship’s anchor, drawing the attention of undersea villains bent on revenge. “The Sopranos” actors Michael Imperioli and Vincent Pastore portray criminal characters, and filmmaker Martin Scorsese lends his voice to a sneaky blowfish. Renee Zellweger and Angelina Jolie also star.

With an October release date, the movie is not yet finished. The Italic Institute hasn’t even seen the script, and there is no trailer so far.

Dreamworks spokeswoman Terry Press said the movie “is about family and telling the truth and the cost of telling a lie.”

“You wish they would wait until they’d seen the movie before attacking it,” she added.

One change isn't enoughMancini can already claim an extremely rare victory while swimming against “Shark Tale’s” tide: After his group lobbied Dreamworks, the name of an aging shark gangster (voiced by Peter Falk) was changed from Don Brizzi to Don Feinberg.

But switching one gangster from Italian to Jewish isn’t enough for Mancini.

“We want character names identified as Italian dropped, the mannerisms, the forms of speech should be dropped,” he said. “If they choose to make them Jewish or Rastafarians, we don’t like that either, but our bag is Italians.”

DreamWorks is unlikely to give in — in part because the movie is a parody of such films as “The Godfather” and TV shows like “The Sopranos.”

“The foundation of comedy is poking fun at stereotypes,” Press said. “I don’t care if you’re talking about Chris Rock, Mel Brooks ... that’s what comedy does. We didn’t create those stereotypes.”

The Italic Institute has made “Shark Tale” the latest in a long battle over Italian-American representations at the movies. The group says there have been at least 1,233 films related to Italians since 1928, and about 31 percent show the culture in a positive light, while 69 percent are negative.

Battling the goombah stereotype
Although most actors feel the issue is overblown, even some Italian-American actors, like John Turturro, acknowledge that the gangster goombah stereotype can get tiresome.

Turturro, who portrayed real-life crook Sam Giancana in the 1995 TV movie “Sugartime” and a fictional conniving bookie (who’s Jewish) in the Irish mobster drama “Miller’s Crossing,” said he tries to avoid mafia roles now.

“Over the years, I don’t do those parts,” he said. “Once you’ve done it, you’ve done it. Isn’t there any other part I could do?”

“Instead of protesting things, people should go out and, you know, try to tell a story that you want to tell. I’ve done that, but it’s been very difficult,” said Turturro, citing his 1992 film “Mac,” the story of a 1950s construction contractor inspired by his father’s life. “With ‘Mac,’ it was hard to do. Nobody wanted to do it because they weren’t criminals. That really makes you feel terrible.”

Vincent Pastore, better known as Big Pussy from “The Sopranos,” said he would never criticize the program that made him famous, but he also doesn’t want to be known only as a wiseguy actor.

“If I’m walking down the street, people can call me Pussy any time they want. That doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is when I go try to get a job in Hollywood and they say, ‘Oh, it’s Big Pussy.’ What I need to do is get back into the theater and let people come and see me in the audience playing other characters.”

Still, Pastore pointed out that a lot more Italian-Americans love mafia movies than disdain them. He said he’s thrilled to play a gangster octopus in “Shark Tale.”

“I’ll never stay away from gangsters,” he added. “How you going to get away from that? You’re never going to get away from that. But that doesn’t mean I have to do every single one that comes my way.”

An ongoing battleFor now, Mancini’s following is still relatively small — about 1,000 members across the country, he says. He formed the group in 1987.

His group is not alone: In 2002, the Columbus Citizens Foundation, which runs the New York City Columbus Day parade, tried to block Mayor Michael Bloomberg from attending the annual celebration of Italian pride alongside Dominic Chianese and Lorraine Bracco of “The Sopranos.”

Bloomberg eventually balked at attending, and celebrated the day by having lunch with the actors.

Ken Wlaschin, a historian with the American Film Institute, said almost all ethnic groups could complain about stereotypes. The popularity of Italian gangsters has more to do with the fame of real-life Mafia figures, he said.

“The Irish have the same thing, the Chinese have the same thing. I don’t think the Italian one is any better or worse,” said Wlaschin. “It’s all a part of movie shorthand, because the Mafia is the most famous gangster group.”

Mancini said his complaint with “Shark Tale” is that it could unfairly make children equate an Italian surname with murder and crime.

Too many gangsters for De Niro?The Italic Institute says its study shows 40 percent of the Italian-themed movies feature mobster characters — while the actual percentage of Italian Americans who are criminals is much, much lower.

Of those mob movies, 12 percent feature real-life figures like Al Capone, while 88 percent are made-up, like Don Corleone from “The Godfather” or Paul Vitti from “Analyze This.”

Robert De Niro has portrayed all three of those crooks. In a 2002 press conference to promote the sequel “Analyze That,” he downplayed the concerns of those who objected to Italian gangster stereotypes.

“That’s part of our culture, and there certain things that are there, and you have to accept them, acknowledge them, make fun of them. And we all know what it is, you don’t have to make more of it and take an issue and a stance like that. I think that’s foolhardy. Well, not foolhardy, but not necessary,” De Niro said.

De Niro did not respond to questions about the “Shark Tale” complaints, and Falk’s assistant said he had nothing to do with his character’s ethnicity change.

Mancini said De Niro and other Italian actors and filmmakers who work on gangster films betray their own heritage.

“There’s a lot wrong with Italian Americans,” he said. “We’re the cause of a lot of our own problems.”