Steven Soderbergh has managed to do something absolutely amazing in his Cinemax series, The Knick. Although the series, starring Clive Owen and André Holland, is set in 1900 New York City, the subject matter tackled in each episode resonates with present-day issues.
During The Knick’s first season, we were introduced to the bevy of characters that inhabit the Knickerbocker Hospital, where surgeons are developing new techniques and struggling through drug addiction, racism and hospital bureaucracy.
Dr. John Thackery, played by Owen, is the leader of the surgery staff who, while trying to discover new surgical techniques and handle research, has spiraled into a cocaine addiction that sets his life and work into turmoil. The Thackery character is based on the real-life William Stewart Halsted, one of the “big four” founding doctors of Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, who struggled with cocaine and morphine addiction throughout his career.
One of Thackery’s top surgeons has his own battles to deal with, but they don’t involve drugs. Dr. Algernon Edwards, played by Holland, is a Harvard-educated and European-trained black surgeon who not only has to compete with doctors whose credentials don’t come close to his but who also has his work constantly undermined.
Although the show takes place in 1900, Holland says he was blown away by the script and how the issue of race was being treated.
“Dr. Edwards wasn’t written as a noble Negro who was always saying the right thing and doing the right thing and always losing. He’s a complicated and conflicted man,” Holland tells The Root.
Not only does Edwards have to deal with race issues when it comes to being the only black doctor at the Knick, but he also has to deal with it from other black people, particularly those living in the rooming house where he stays. In one scene from the first season, he’s confronted by another black man, who questions where he got his “fancy” shoes from, and a fight ensues.
“Even the fight in the rooming home was a clever way to play with the racism that exists in the black community. All of that stuff that we still deal with, and the ways that we don’t really take care of each other, really touched me,” Holland says.
During the first season, Holland’s character proved that black lives mattered even in 1900 when he started operating an illegal clinic in the basement of the Knick to save black people who couldn’t afford or were refused by the hospital. But when Dr. Thackery finds out about it, he isn’t too pleased.
“Thackery and Edwards end up having a blow-out over it, but they came together by the end of it. It was the first chance Algernon got to call Thackery out and really express himself,” Holland recalls as he points out that the scene is his favorite from last season.
To call Owen’s portrayal of Dr. Thackery “raw” would be an understatement. Not only is Owen able to master the portrayal of a doctor, but his spiral into drug addiction is also quite realistic.
“I love characters that are full of conflict, and I thought it was a huge challenge to take this guy on. He’s both brilliant and appalling at the same time,” Owen tells The Root.
Owen says he prepared for the role by reading up on Dr. Halsted and the book Genius on the Edge: The Bizarre Double Life of Dr. William Stewart Halsted. He says he immersed himself into the world of 1900 medicine. But there was one challenge.
“The operations were all quite challenging, and technically, we had to look convincing, as if we know what we’re doing,” Owen says.
In the second season, Owen says, Dr. Thackery and Dr. Edwards’ relationship goes through a change.
“They lean on each other in season 2, and he sees that Algernon is prepared to go outside of the box to do things. And Thackery is similar. It was a rocky start, but they slowly become allies,” Owen says.
But “slowly” seems to be the operative word, which is something Holland hints about.
“Dr. Edwards has stepped up to the plate while Dr. Thackery is in rehab, and turns the hospital around, but he soon finds out that his race is still an issue with the hospital’s administration. Again, as we talk about race relations today, there it is right there,” Holland explains.
Race relations play a huge role in The Knick, and since he grew up near Birmingham, Ala., Holland knows about that all too well.
“With Ferguson, [Mo.,] and all of the things happening, they are now part of our national consciousness. But these things have been happening in small towns all over the country for years. For me, it feels really cool being a part of a show that is really well done, and is very much a period piece, but also has something to say about right now and is a reminder about how far we have to go,” Holland says.
When asked why The Root’s readers should watch the show, Holland evokes James Baldwin.
“James Baldwin said black people need witnesses more than ever. People need to watch the show because what we have is a witness. We see an example of a black man from 1900 who is a successful surgeon, who is loving, smart and capable," Holland says.
Holland adds that his character isn’t what audiences are used to when it comes to seeing black men on-screen, and that is a good thing.
“He’s a character that is drawn from real people. It’s important to see people witnessing that experience. So often we get the version of ourselves that are stereotypical. The pimp. The drug dealer. All of that stuff we’ve seen so much of. It’s time to combat that, and put out more images of what our lives were actually like in all of their complexities,” he says.
“This show does a wonderful job of dealing with race and racial politics,” he says, “and a lot of care has been put into this character.”
Season 2 of The Knick premieres Friday, Oct. 16, at 10 p.m. ET on Cinemax.