HBO's Boardwalk Empire is one of the most critically acclaimed shows on television. Set in Atlantic City, NJ during the prohibition era, Boardwalk Empire webs a weave of scandal caused by politicians, gangsters, suffragettes, prostitutes, business owners, federal authorities, county lawmen and the like, taking viewers on a visual journey through a time when the line between the good, the bad and the ugly was tremendously blurred.
In 2010, Boardwalk Empire burst onto the scene with much fanfare featuring the talents of Martin Scorcese, as an executive producer on the show, Emmy award-winning director Tim Van Patten and Terence Winter, writer extraordinaire for the iconic series The Sopranos. Add a cast featuring heavyweight actors Steve Buscemi, Kelly MacDonald, Michael Shannon, Gretchen Mol and Michael K. Williams, and the show was destined to be a sure-fire hit. Forty Emmy nominations later and 17 wins including Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series (2011), Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series (2011) and Outstanding Supporting Actor for Bobby Cannavale as Gyp Rosetti (2013) and Boardwalk Empire was another sure-fire hit for HBO.
One of the characteristics of the show that distinguishes it from other shows is that that the narrative is built upon historical events. The lead protagonist of the show Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, played nobly by Steve Buscemi, is based on an actual Atlantic City politician Enoch L. "Nucky" Johnson, who dominated the Atlantic county government during the prohibition era. The show features historical figures like Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), Al Capone (Stephen Graham), Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef), J. Edgar Hoover (Eric Ladin) and Albert "Chalky" White (Michael K. Williams), whose character is loosely based on Mexican-born black boxer Albert "Chalky" Wright, to name a few.
Boardwalk Empire is historical fiction that takes creative license with a bevy of historical moments and figures in history. It's safe to say that most adult Americans are familiar with the prohibition era, the rise in organized crime during that time, the crackdown by federal authorities and prosecutors on said organized crime and the rise and fall of the roaring 1920s leading into the Great Depression, as this information is taught repeatedly throughout history courses in secondary educational curricula.
However, it is not safe to assume that Americans are familiar with all of the characters based on historical figures in Boardwalk Empire, such as Dr. Valentin Narcisse, a learned man from Trinidad who is patterned after black philosopher/activist/scholar W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois is discussed on the college level, but not necessarily in secondary educational curricula. With the assault on ethnic studies programs and banning of books like Toni Morrison's Beloved and W.E.B. DuBois' seminal tome The Souls of Black Folk, it is safe to say that folks may no longer be learning about DuBois in secondary educational curricula, which is problematic.
Narcisse's character is fashioned after DuBois in look and style (handlebar mustache and impeccably tailored suits) along with DuBois' views on the "Talented Tenth" theory, which Narcisse mirrors in his dialogue about what needs to happen to "improve" the Negro race. Although DuBois wasn't the first person to come up with this concept, he is the person best remembered for espousing the virtues of the "Talented Tenth."
The "Talented Tenth" refers to the percentage of blacks in the community who would save the Negro race essentially from the worst parts of itself (the "New Negro" if you will). Dr. Narcisse's elitism and manner is at odds with Chalky White, who represents the black man who has bootstrapped his way to success, as evidenced by his gruff demeanor and regional dialect despite his impeccable clothing, lovely home and beautiful family.
Played exquisitely by actor Jeffrey Wright, Dr. Narcisse moves freely through many different groups (white politicians, black church folk, gangsters, nightclub patrons, thespians) reflecting DuBois' concept of double consciousness, the veil through which black people are viewed (skin color, white establishment, black community), see and interact with the world. Because of this dual consciousness, black folks had/have the ability to don different masks (Frantz Fanon) in order to survive in a world that loathes black folks. While the writer never explicitly identifies Dr. Narcisse as DuBois, it is clear that DuBois is the historical figure the writer is referencing.
Dr. Narcisse masterfully adopts many identities in order to get what he wants from people, including serving as the head of the United Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.), which is represented explicitly on multiple occasions throughout this season of the series. Founded in 1914 by Jamaican Marcus Garvey, the U.N.I.A. was an organization that promoted black economic and political independence through the creation of educational and industrial opportunities. Influenced by DuBois' intellectual nemesis, Booker T. Washington who had a bootstrap theory about earning the respect of racist Whites, Garvey put into place an organization that espoused the virtues of self-sufficiency and self-determination.
Originally based in Harlem, one of the goal's of the U.N.I.A. included returning to Africa under self-rule on the Black Star Line, a shipping line that was supposed to promote commerce among black businesses throughout the African Diaspora. An additional goal of the Black Star Line was to return African Americans to their homeland. The U.N.I.A. was the focus of an intense investigation by J. Edgar Hoover who deported Garvey back to Jamaica after finding him guilty of mail fraud. Somehow a Garvey-like figure has not made his way into the narrative, but Dr. Narcisse, who is a murderous brute in addition to being a de facto elitist, is at the helm of the organization in Boardwalk Empire.
Ay, there's the rub.
While it is expected that a show built on fictionalizing historical events would take creative license with historical figures, it is disconcerting that someone who is considered by many to be one of the greatest philosophers of all time (DuBois), would be re-presented in this way (a sadist and self-loathing killer) through the character of Dr. Narcisse, while Garvey, a major figure in the Pan African movement (as well as DuBois) would be made invisible, yet his organization hyper-visible as a front for criminal activity (heroin dealing, prostitution) as is the case in Boardwalk Empire. The collapsing of these two important figures in American history is troubling to say the least.
It is difficult to call out a show that is based on historical fiction for fictionalizing historical figures, but it is highly problematic how the writers are influencing the historical memory of these two great leaders. To take creative license with black historical figures and organizations who many may know little about (Garvey) is troubling because most people get their information about society and the groups that make up society from popular culture.
Boardwalk Empire takes creative license with several historical figures, but many of them are fixtures in popular culture. How many films, books, plays or television shows have we seen with J. Edgar Hoover, Al Capone or Lucky Luciano? You're as likely to see programming featuring these folks on the History Channel as you are on HBO or in the movie theatre. Can the same be said of DuBois, Garvey or the U.N.I.A., which is still in existence?
It is painful to think that the first introduction that some viewers are having to W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey is through the lens of this television show, however brilliant the writing, cinematography and acting. In addition to Dr. Narcisse's ongoing battle with Chalky White, the director masterfully uses additional narrative and stylistic elements to show that Narcisse is at war with himself. The visualization of Dubois' concept of double-consciousness is breathtaking, and one shouldn't need a philosophy or film degree to know this.
Many will argue that by making these creative choices, people will be motivated to research the real lives of DuBois, Garvey and the U.N.I.A. I hope this is the case, but what if it isn't? What if folks tune out of Skip Gates' African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross (PBS), never take an Africana Studies course or take a philosophy course that excludes DuBois? What then?
Boardwalk Empire isn't going anywhere anytime soon, nor should it, but what will this popular show based on historical events mean for the historical memory of these two incredible figures?
Boardwalk Empire has a "Negro Problem" that beautiful cinematography, amazing performances, impeccable sound editing, exquisite costumes and settings won't fix.
Boardwalk Empire airs on HBO on Sundays at 9 p.m. EST.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., editor-in-chief of The Burton Wire wrote this post. Dr. Burton serves as Chair of the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Goucher College. Follow her on Twitter @Ntellectual or @TheBurtonWire.
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