The soon-to-be-released animated kiddie flick Shark Tale, from DreamWorks SKG, tells the story of a fish named Oscar (voice by Will Smith) and his adventures in Reef City (think of the Big Apple, only underwater and made of coral). Judging from the trailer, Shark Tale is all impressive graphics, lame-but-passable jokes . . . and ethnic stereotypes. The film’s villains are great white sharks who, in their names, gestures, and dialect, clearly represent the Italian mafia.
One person concerned about Shark Tale’s ethnic bite is Lawrence Auriana, president of the Columbus Citizens Foundation, a New York-based philanthropic association of roughly 500 members committed “to preserving the rich Italian-American heritage” and “celebrat[ing] the contributions of Italian-Americans to this country.”
Shark Tale, Auriana worries, “introduces young minds to the idea that people with Italian names–like millions of Americans across the country–are gangsters.” The film “creates in its audiences an association between gangsters and Italian Americans that will become imprinted in the developing minds of children.”
The man has a point. The film’s villains have names like “Frankie,” “Lino,” “Luca,” “Giuseppe,” and “Gino.” Lino is the “Don” of the great whites; a picture-book guide to Shark Tale labels him the “Codfather.” The sharks speak in distinctive slang like “agita” and “capeesh”; they use “social customs common to Italians and Italian Americans, including a greeting of kissing another person on both cheeks.” The sharks also praise mob-style violence: Giuseppe the Hammerhead urges revenge by intoning, “May whoever did this die a thousand deaths. May his stinking, maggot-covered corpse rot in the fiery depths of hell.” One of Lino’s sons says of his father, “Gee, if Pop knew that, he’d ice you for sure.” Two of the villains’ voices are provided by classic mob-film gurus Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese; the movie’s criminals are grouped into The Five Families. Even the Catholic Church gets hit, associated with mafia thuggery in a scene recalling the baptism/assassination sequence in The Godfather. One wonders how the filmmakers missed slipping in a Frankie Five-Angelfish.
In Auriana’s view, such a parody of mafia films intended for adult audiences is not suitable for children, who are especially susceptible to viewing anyone of Italian descent as an ignorant, violent, racist mobster. “In part because of DreamWorks’s portrayal, another generation of Italian Americans will feel this pain [of prejudice],” he laments.
Research supports Auriana’s concern. A Zogby poll, for example, asked teenagers what sort of film and television roles a person of a given ethnic background would be most likely to portray; Italian Americans were expected to play crime bosses, gang members, and restaurant workers. Indeed, they were the most heavily stereotyped group in the survey: 44 percent linked Italian Americans with crime, whereas the next most frequent association–Arab Americans with terrorists–was just 34 percent. According to Auriana, this biased image influences children of all ethnic origins, including Italians, many of whom grow up wondering if their parents are criminals. “I know my daughter asked me if I was in the mafia,” he relates.
Auriana is not without senses of humor and proportion. He’s seen his fair share of stereotyping in films and movies–it’s par for the course. Public dialogue is saturated with instances of ethnic hypersensitivity, and the Columbus Citizens Foundation is not looking to increase their number. What is unacceptable in Shark Tale, Auriana says, is that the prejudice is being pushed on kids. “Marketing it to children crosses the line,” he insists.
And the icing on this crabcake? DreamWorks is owned in part by Steven Spielberg, who, over the years, has earned a reputation denouncing ethnic stereotypes and bias. In fact, in 1994, Spielberg established the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation “to overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry–and the suffering they cause.” Earlier this year, Spielberg said, “[w]e are in a race against time for the conscious minds of young people,” who need to be taught “the dangers of stereotyping, the dangers of discrimination, the dangers of racial and religious hatred and vengeful rage.”
Spielberg has also said that “hatred exists not because people have never seen or heard of a Jew, or a Latino, or an African-American, or an Asian, or a Native American or a homosexual. People learn to hate.” Conveniently overlooked on Spielberg’s list are people of European descent; Auriana observes that while it is fine to mock them, the “the message for children in [this] movie is that we should be tolerant of pacifists and transvestites” (one of the sharks is, apparently, a cross-dresser). So why the double standard for Italian Americans? “They do this because they think they can get away with it,” says Auriana.
Auriana and the Columbus Citizens Foundation don’t want that to be the end of the story, however. They want Spielberg to speak out against the movie, and to make some crucial alterations–such as changing the villains’ names, eliminating their Italian-American mannerisms and speech, and removing the books associated with the film from stores–before Shark Tale’s October 1 release. “Otherwise . . . Mr. Spielberg is a hypocrite,” Auriana declares.
DreamWorks is set to go public later this year, so Spielberg & Co. can’t afford a flop with this fishy film. So, before the Shark Tale ship leaves port, they might want to get the stereotypes out of the rigging.
–Meghan Clyne is an NR associate editor.