After decades of Italian-Americans being portrayed in films as gesticulating Mafiosi, they are finally getting organised - and fighting back. Guy Adams reports
It would probably be in poor taste to joke about him sleeping with the fishes, but John Travolta is about to receive some unwelcome attention from power brokers within the Italian-American community.
The actor, whose parents were second-generation immigrants, is accused of betraying that ancestral heritage by agreeing to star in a movie about the late John Gotti, a notorious mafia boss who presided over the Gambino organised crime "family". In a PR campaign to be unveiled this week, the Italic Institute of America, which campaigns against what it calls anti-Italian bias in popular culture, says that Gotti: In the Shadow of My Father - which focuses on Gotti's relationship with his son, John Jr - will perpetuate negative racial stereotypes.
The institute cites it as the latest example of Hollywood bias against Italian-Americans, who, it believes, are pigeonholed by the media as buffoons, bigots, bimbos and organised criminals. Its research shows that 69 per cent of Italian characters in major movies are portrayed in a negative light.
"Though an infinitesimally minuscule, 0.00782 per cent of Italo- Americans are affiliated with organised crime (as per FBI statistics), Tinseltown has created, perpetuated and reinforced a long-standing infrastructure of anti-Italian intolerance," says the institute's chairman, Rosario Iaconis. "In choosing to portray John Gotti, a two-bit thug with delusions of mediocrity, John Travolta is ... slouching toward a goonish Gomorrah."
The institute believes that Italian-Americans should be treated with similar sensitivity to that shown to Jewish, African and Native Americans. In recent decades, all three of those groups have successfully lobbied against bigoted portrayals of their culture in the popular media.
Travolta's decision to play Gotti Snr in the film, which will be directed by Barry Levinson and co-stars Travolta's wife, Kelly Preston, and Al Pacino, surprises the community because he has long been considered one of its greatest assets. "He's never betrayed his heritage like this in the past, by doing such a low-class …