(The Root) — “One looks down in secret and sees many things,” Dr. Valentin Narcisse, played by Jeffrey Wright, says during the second episode of HBO’s crime drama Boardwalk Empire. Talking to his soon-to-be rival Chalky White, another African-American gangster in 1920s Atlantic City, he adds: “You know what I saw? A servant trying to be a king.”
The line, delivered with cool, rhythmic bravado, helps introduce Wright’s character to the Boardwalk Empire crime family, adding a fascinating twist to the plot. But Wright’s Narcisse, along with Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White, also adds to the long line of African-American super-gangsters who have graced the big and small screen in recent years. No longer just one-dimensional props used in crime tales, these characters, which include Frank Lucas (American Gangster), Stringer Bell (The Wire) and Bumpy Johnson (Hoodlum), are raising the bar on how black men of the underworld are portrayed.
Indeed, in the dawning of a new television era in which black actors like Idris Elba can play a superhero-style leading man on shows like the BBC’s psychological crime drama Luther, some of the sting of black actors being relegated to roles as pimps, hustlers and petty criminals is beginning to subside. Still, there are many who continue to struggle for meaty roles, including Wright, who took a hiatus from the industry, in part to pursue other interests and in part because of his frustration with the business.
This struggle is not lost on Wright, who said he relished playing a complicated gangster, largely because it adds to our understanding of African Americans as three-dimensional characters.
“With a villain, maybe you can express something about virtue in a more revealing way than playing the protagonist,” Wright told The Root. “I like to work under the idea that we did overcome and we have the freedom to tell our story, warts and all.”
Wright’s Narcisse debuted in the second episode of the drama as Chalky’s complicated nemesis: an intellectual, a doctor of divinity and a power broker in Harlem’s nightclub circuit and the illegal lottery (colloquially known as the numbers game). He is ambitious and forward-thinking, looking to enter into what is an emerging heroin market, while simultaneously serving as a leader in the continuation of Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, and lecturing the uninitiated on black history.
Narcisse is based on the Harlem racketeer Casper Holstein, who became a millionaire in the numbers game during Prohibition. As benevolent as he was cunning, he gave much of the money he earned to black colleges; became a patron to black writers, artists and poets during the Harlem Renaissance; helped to establish a Baptist school in Liberia; and wrote regularly for the NAACP’s Crisis magazine.
Wright, who is also playing the character Betee in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, due out in November, spoke to The Root about his thoughts regarding Narcisse on Boardwalk Empire and how accepting the role of a black gangster helps broaden the image of African Americans on television.
The Root: What drew you to Dr. Valentin Narcisse’s character? Was it the opportunity to play a complex gangster?
Jeffrey Wright: What I was hoping for when Terry Winter asked me to be a part of this show was that we could create a character that was not a cliché and who was complex and who was driven by intelligence and language. For a number of reasons, I was thirsting for a character like that. I think there’s too little of that in the propaganda of African-American pop-culture images. There’s too little propaganda around intellect and around that type of power.
And whether or not he was virtuous or villainous, I wanted him at least to be intelligent. As villainous as he is, I wanted him to not be a villain that’s celebrated in the mode of hip-hop black gangsterism. I want him to be ultimately, and I hope he will be, seen as someone to be reviled. He’s only just beginning in the first five episodes. He only further descends into the darkness or whiteness — however you want to view it.