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‘I Don’t Do Business with Dagoes’: Anti-Italian Discrimination in Nicholas Meyer’s Vendetta

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Italian Americans in Film

Part of the book series: Italian and Italian American Studies ((IIAS))

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Abstract

The chapter examines the movie Vendetta (1999) directed by Nicholas Meyer, an HBO movie based on a true story: the lynching of eleven Italian immigrants accused of having killed the police chief David Hennessy in New Orleans in 1891. The film is an accurate reconstruction of the events that follows Richard Gambino’s book Vendetta. The True Story of the Largest Lynching in American History (1977). The chapter argues that the director follows the conventions of the American “legal thriller” genre to show that the Italian defendants were innocent, and also suggests—through a very skillful use of cinematic techniques—that the murder and the lynching were orchestrated by the New Orleans’ ruling class, worried about the rise in status of immigrants that were originally attracted in Louisiana only to replace the slaves after the emancipation. In this sense, the economic success of the Italian American businessman Joseph Macheca was a threat to their supremacy.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The Times Democrat, March 14, 1891.

  2. 2.

    Gambino, Richard. Vendetta, A True Story of the Worst Lynching in America. Toronto-Buffalo-Lancaster, Guernica, 1977.

  3. 3.

    For a strange coincidence, in 1869 Guerin had killed David C. Hennessy Sr., the father of David Hennessy. See Smith, Tom. The Crescent City Lynchings. The Murder of Chief Hennessy, The New Orleans Mafia and The Parish Prison Mob. Guilford: Lyons Press, 2007, 92.

  4. 4.

    See Marsala, Charles. “Letters: Monument a Fitting Tribute to Italian Heritage”. The Advocate, April 17, 2019. https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/opinion/letters/article_22abf82c-607b-11e9-b7d8-ff15e6580c5d.html (accessed July 16, 2021)

  5. 5.

    It must be pointed out, though, that there is a conflict related to the historical sources. A different account of the incident is reported in an essay written by Joseph Baiamonte. According to Baiamonte, a detective questioned Hennessy while he was at the hospital and Hennessy, allegedly, said “The dagoes shot me”, but he refused (or was unable) to identify his attackers. See Baiamonte, John V. Jr. “Who Killa de Chief Revisited. The Hennessy Assassination and Its Aftermath”. Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, vol. 33, No. 2 (Spring 1992), 123.

  6. 6.

    See https://www.facinghistory.org/reconstruction-era/louisiana-white-league-platform-1874 (accessed July 16, 2021).

  7. 7.

    For a broader explanation of parallel editing see Giannetti, Raoul. Understanding Movies. 14th Edition. London: Pearson, 2018, 146-151, or Bordwell, David; Thompson, Christine. Film Art. An Introduction. 8th Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008, 244-245.

  8. 8.

    According to some historians, the real James Houston had a more active role in the lynching. For example, Daniela G. Jäger claims that Houston not only participated in the mass gathering but that he also led the group of sixty armed men that went inside the prison and killed the Italians (Jäger 164).

  9. 9.

    Not all historians agree regarding the prejudice that Italians had to face in Louisiana. For example, Jessica Barbata Jackson argues that “the experience of Italians in Louisiana was originally characterized by a more positive relationship between native-born New Orleanians and Italian immigrants” (304). However, she does not disagree with Nelli. Italians may have been initially welcomed by New Orleanians, but after they began to rise in wealth and power they started to be perceived as a threat. Barbata Jackson claims that the use of the term ‘dago’ by New Orleanians was understood in a “less charged, less racially disparaging, more neutral manner than it was used elsewhere” (323). I disagree with this interpretation: no matter the intentions, a racial slur is still a racial slur.

  10. 10.

    For example, in 1899 in Tallulah, Louisiana, five Italian shopkeepers were lynched because of “their friendly attitude toward blacks” (Mangione 212).

  11. 11.

    For reference to Marsala’s article see note 4.

Works Cited

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Correspondence to Daniele Fioretti .

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Fioretti, D. (2023). ‘I Don’t Do Business with Dagoes’: Anti-Italian Discrimination in Nicholas Meyer’s Vendetta. In: Fioretti, D., Orsitto, F. (eds) Italian Americans in Film. Italian and Italian American Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-06465-4_2

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