Leslie Odom Jr. brings family history to Tony Soprano’s origin story

Fans of HBO’s acclaimed crime drama “The Sopranos” have waited over 14 years to learn the origin story of Italian-American mob boss Tony Soprano.

But for 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. from New Jersey. – crime-based family with a black perspective.

“Here David Chase was adding it and also, you know, balancing it out against the Italian-American story he was telling,” Odom said of the writer and producer of “The Sopranos”. “I was just hoping that I could create a portrayal of Harold as psychologically interesting and nuanced as they’ve become accustomed to seeing from these actors from the original series.”

Odom plays Harold McBrayer, who starts off as a number runner for Dickie Moltisanti (played by Alessandro Nivola) – the gangster, uncle and mentor of teenage Tony Soprano (played by Michael Gandolfini, son of actor James Gandolfini who created the role). And he says his character represents one of 6 million blacks who, like his grandfather, moved to major cities in the North and West from rural communities in the South during the Great Migration of the 20th century.

“I saw my grandfather in Harold a lot. And so when I watch the movie I feel like I see pieces of him and glimpses of him, it’s deeply meaningful to me, ”he said.

Leslie Odom Jr. as Harold McBrayer and Alessandro Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti in “The Many Saints of Newark”.Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson compares the Great Migration in her 2010 book “The Heat of Other Suns” with the movements of refugees who travel great distances to escape oppression.

“People have not gone through the customs turnstiles on Ellis Island. They were already citizens. But where they came from, they weren’t treated as such, ”Wilkerson wrote, referring to the 6 million blacks who emigrated from the South between around 1916 and 1970. “Each of their steps was controlled by the meticulous laws of Jim Crow, a nineteenth century minstrel figure who would become a shortcut for the fiercely enforced codes of the southern caste system.

And Odom connects that larger dark story with his offscreen grandfather and onscreen McBrayer.

“My grandfather comes to New York. Harold moved to New Jersey, ”Odom said. “My grandfather gets a job in a factory and stays there for 30 years, sends his children to university, to nursing school, with this job. And Harold, of course, does something else with his time, earns money in a different way. But the momentum, what drove them south, would have been the same.

A large number of black families took root in the Newark area during the Great Migration, including some families that eventually became stars such as singer Whitney Houston and actor-singer Queen Latifah.

“The Many Saints of Newark”, which plays on the English translation of Tony Soprano’s uncle’s last name – “Moltisanti” translates from Italian to “many saints” – takes place in the 1960s in Newark during riots caused by racial unrest.

On July 14, 1967, the New Jersey State Police and National Guardsmen used armed personnel carriers to engage violently with black rioters in Newark. A rumor that a black cab driver was killed at a police station sparked several days of unrest that ended in 26 dead and more than 700 injured.

The film describes this time in the city as a time when the black and Italian-American communities were “often by their throats.”

Leslie Odom Jr. as Harold McBrayer in “The Many Saints of Newark”.Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros.

For Odom, adding this black story to other American stories, like that of the Soprano family, is a tribute to the long, difficult journey many black families have endured in their pursuit of the American dream.

“I obviously know on a deeply personal level, the sacrifice of generations before me, what my great-grandfather had to do as a sharecropper to create opportunities for my grandfather, who worked in the factory to create opportunities for my father, who was a businessman, to create opportunities for me, who earns my living as an artist, ”he said. “It’s the American dream. And it’s been hard earned and ugly and beautiful and mean and amazing, but it’s ours.

Odom rose to prominence after winning a Tony in 2016 for his outstanding performance as Aaron Burr in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical hit “Hamilton”. And now, having recently co-hosted the 2021 Tony Awards, the actor and singer has said he’s hopeful that as more and more peers return to Broadway stages and to movie sets that have. been shut down by Covid-19, they will continue to push for diversity in the arts.

“When we return to these public spaces, I hope the artists will not abdicate our responsibility to push the boundaries and do our best to tell stories that have never been told before about people who have never been told. never seen 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 it is a power that we must not forget.

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