Fans of HBO’s acclaimed crime drama “The Sopranos” waited more than 14 years to learn the origin story of the Italian American mob boss Tony Soprano.
But for the actor and singer Leslie Odom Jr., who describes himself as a “card-carrying member” of “The Sopranos” fan club, “The Many Saints of Newark,” which premiered Friday, also expands the universe of the New Jersey-based crime family with a Black perspective.
“Here, David Chase was adding it and also, you know, making it the counterweight to the Italian American story that he was telling,” Odom said of “The Sopranos” writer and producer. “I just hoped that I could create in Harold a portrayal that was as psychologically interesting and nuanced as they’ve grown accustomed to seeing from those actors in the original series.”
Odom plays Harold McBrayer, who starts out as a numbers runner for Dickie Moltisanti (played by Alessandro Nivola) — the mobster, uncle and mentor of a teenage Tony Soprano (played by Michael Gandolfini, son of the actor James Gandolfini who originated the role). And he says that his character represents one of 6 million Black people, who like his grandfather, moved to big cities in the North and the West from rural communities in the South during the Great Migration in the 20th century.
“I saw a lot of my grandfather in Harold. And so when I look at the film, I feel like I can see pieces of him and glimpses of him, it’s deeply meaningful to me,” he said.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson compares the Great Migration in her 2010 book “The Warmth of Other Suns” with the movements of refugees who travel great distances to escape oppression.
“The people did not cross the turnstiles of Customs at Ellis Island. They were already citizens. But where they came from, they were not treated as such,” Wilkerson wrote, referring to the 6 million Blacks who migrated from the South between about 1916 and 1970. “Their every step was controlled by the meticulous laws of Jim Crow, a nineteenth-century minstrel figure that would become shorthand for the violently enforced codes of the southern caste system.”
And Odom connects this wider Black history with his grandfather off-screen and McBrayer on-screen.
“My grandfather comes to New York. Harold settles in New Jersey,” Odom said. “My grandfather gets a factory job and stays there for 30 years, puts his kids through college, nursing school, with that gig. And Harold, of course, does something else with his time, makes money in a different way. But the impetus, what drove them from the South, would have been the same.”
Large numbers of Black families took root in the Newark area during the Great Migration, including some families eventually turned out stars such as the singer Whitney Houston and the actor-singer Queen Latifah.
“The Many Saints of Newark,” which plays on the English translation of the last name of Tony Soprano’s uncle — “Moltisanti” translates from Italian to “many saints” — is set in 1960s Newark during riots prompted by racial unrest.
On July 14, 1967, National Guardsmen and New Jersey State Police used armed personnel carriers to violently engage with Black rioters in Newark. A rumor about a Black cab driver being killed inside a police precinct triggered several days of unrest that ended with 26 people dead and more than 700 injured.
The film describes that era in the city as a time when Black and Italian American communities were “often at each other’s throats.”
For Odom, adding this Black story to other American stories, like that of the Soprano family, is a tribute to the long difficult path that many Black families endured in their pursuit of the American dream.
“I obviously know on a deeply personal level, the sacrifice of the generations before me, what my great grandfather had to do as a sharecropper to make opportunities for my grandfather, who worked in the factory to make opportunities for my father, who was a businessman, to make opportunities for me, who gets to make my living as an artist,” he said. “It’s the American dream. And it’s been hard won and ugly and beautiful and wicked and amazing, but it’s ours.”
Odom rose to prominence after winning a 2016 Tony for his breakout performance as Aaron Burr in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical hit, “Hamilton.” And now, after recently co-hosting the 2021 Tony Awards, the actor and singer said he hopes that as more peers return to Broadway stages and movie sets that were shut down by Covid-19, they will continue to push for diversity in the arts.
“In our return to these public spaces, I hope that artists don’t abdicate our responsibility to push boundaries, and to do our best to tell stories that have never been told before about people that had never had their stories told because that’s the power of what we can do,” he said. “We have the power to make people feel less alone. And that is a power we shouldn’t forget.”