(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.
TR: Did you feel like the characters Chalky and Narcisse were typecast at all? The light-skinned intellectual and the dark-skinned street-smart criminal? Do you think Boardwalk Empire does a good job with black characters in making them believable and complex characters?
JW: I think there's historical context for that tension between them that's being drawn upon honestly. I don't think they necessarily hired me because I'm light-skinned. I think it plays well into the storyline and colors the relationship in a way that's not superficial but meaningful, in that there's precedent for it.
But at the same time, Narcisse is awash with contradictions. This is intentional because he's like a gangster-W.E.B. Du Bois-Garveyite, which only makes him curious. In terms of the look, I think the writers are referencing Du Bois, but more heavily Garvey.
There's a rivalry between Narcisse and Chalky, but there's also a rivalry at work within Narcisse himself. There's this intraracial turmoil between himself: He talks a pan-African game, but he says so in a very Eurocentric manner. That's why I described him as a funhouse-mirror distortion of a character out of the historical fiction of that era.
It's not an era that's been overly exposed in pop culture. I hope we can pluck out something even though the show is set almost 100 years ago, so hopefully we can pluck out something original from the time.
TR: What do you like about the Narcisse character?
JW: We are not always virtuous, we are not entirely villainous. Why I think Narcisse is so interesting and relevant is that both now and during that time period, not everyone who espoused virtuosity and espoused the uplift of the people matched their actions to their words. What I'm delighting in is playing a character that may be relatively new on-screen but is very familiar offscreen.
Narcisse perceives Chalky to be beneath him, and while Chalky may be undereducated or self-educated and he's Southern — all of these things that Narcisse perceives to be inferior — there's a moral integrity in spite of his criminal activities that's undeniable. He's representative in a genuine way of more than himself. He is genuinely one that seems to be concerned about community and seems to respect some moral boundaries and a sense of responsibility.
TR: Is there anything likable about Narcisse? I know you said he gets worse after the fifth episode.
JW: The most likable thing about Narcisse might be his suits. Even then he dresses like a half-cleric, half-undertaker.
TR: Were there any gangster movies or television shows you watched to get inspiration for the character?
JW: I don't like to reference other performances because oftentimes it becomes visible on-screen, but because Narcisse is such a performer, I have found myself referencing some other performances, a little bit of Sydney Greenstreet from The Maltese Falcon with a bit of Albert Finney from The Dresser, a good amount of Adolph Caesar thrown in, largely borrowed from his talent for expressing disdain. Somewhere out of that, I hope there's a recipe for something new.
At the end of the day, these characters are more fully human, and that's the journey as African Americans, on and off the screen, the freedom to be fully human. If you have to sever and suppress what makes you most human — that being your flaws and weaknesses — then you're still repressed and probably a little dangerous, which brings us back to Narcisse. He's guaranteed to have folks scratching their heads.
Ericka Blount Danois, a journalist and author, released her first book, Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of Soul Train, on Sept. 17.