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'The Italian Americans' review: A superb documentary

Future president Franklin D. Roosevelt, left, and Generoso

Future president Franklin D. Roosevelt, left, and Generoso Pope, an Italian-American businessman and newspaper publisher. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Pope Family Archives

THE DOCUMENTARY "The Italian Americans"

WHEN|WHERE Tuesday and Feb. 24 at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This four-hour portrait of Italian American history -- not to be confused with the two-part companion, "Italian Americans of New York and New Jersey," which precedes at 8 both nights -- takes a long look at Italian Americans during the past century, beginning with the earliest waves of immigration in the 19th century. The producer, John Maggio, a veteran with "American Experience," very much takes an "AmEx" approach to the story, going back all the way to Italy (in the first hour) to examine the reasons for mass immigration in the first place. Most of all, this series promises to dispel "myths and stereotypes to reveal a world uniquely Italian and uniquely American."

MY SAY As richly established Tuesday , the story of Italian Americans has a familiar ring to it. The arc that is so common to so many immigrants from many different nations, goes something like this: First, alienation, followed by exploitation, abuse, economic struggle, and then, one day, as the passage of time proceeds, and feet are planted and wounds are healed and money is made . . . triumph.

The Italian-American story is deeply, irrevocably an American story writ large -- most of us not of Italian heritage think we already know some of it from movies or TV -- but the real beauty of Maggio's portrait lies in the small print, or the many details most of us don't already know. That New Orleans was the first port of debarkation for many, or that a brutal method of Black Hand extortion was kidnapping small children, or that San Francisco's Bank of Italy one day would become the Bank of America.

I sampled only the first hour, which is superb and -- if indicative of the other three -- means this series is something of a triumph, too. Maggio has discovered the unfamiliar in something some of us thought was already familiar, and by doing so, does help dispel embedded stereotypes while enriching an already rich heritage.



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