It’s time for HBO to bring more color to historical drama

photo taken from boardwalk empire confessions Tumblr

Who do I have to pull a Gyp-Rosetti-style beating on to get a HBO show about the Harlem Renaissance?

I’ve been thinking about that lately as I’ve been watching Boardwalk Empire and reflecting on the Prohibition Era. While I love Boardwalk Empire dearly, seeing the sporadic appearances of Michael K. Williams as Chalky White makes me realize that we’re missing an essential part of American history in the Roaring Twenties.

Think about it — Harlem was at that point coming into its own as the epicenter of African American culture. Jazz was exploding (the Cotton Club was a booming destination for many people of all races), writers like Langston Hughes were exploring the idea of what it means to be African-American and the roots of the Civil Rights movement were beginning to sprout.

I don’t think that this show could be something similar to Boardwalk Empire, which plays homage to gangsters and corruption that ran rampant during prohibition. There’s nothing wrong with that and in a way, I’d prefer it.

A show about the Harlem Renaissance would be more of an exploration of culture, the foundation of movements, even questions about identity that I don’t think have been seriously explored in American television as of late. It’d be compelling drama, as long as the writers didn’t get intimidated by the larger-than-life figures like W. E. B. DuBois, Jelly Roll Morton and others. But Boardwalk Empire tackles subjects like Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano and Capone and makes it compelling viewing, so why not Harlem’s icons?

It could even start as a spin-off of Boardwalk Empire, with Chalky’s rebellious daughter Maybelle splitting town to explore Harlem, serving as a surrogate audience member to get us involved in the lives of the cast. When I saw Maybelle and her beau in the juke joint, it was getting a glimpse into a different world that is rarely discussed in the slam-though-the-highlights-reel of American History that most of us get in high school and college. Given the vibrancy of that time, it seems shameful that we’re neglecting this part of American culture and history.

We’ve seen a lot of costume dramas focused on post World War I as of late — Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey and Parade’s End are three that instantly come to mind. And while I can appreciate those dramas (well, honestly, mostly Boardwalk Empire, but I am fascinated by hardboiled crime series), it’s treading the same ground over and over again, which is upper middle class white folks and their problems, which is getting dull.

I don’t know if it’s fears of producers and writers to muck this up and be called racist, but I think in the right hands a show about the Harlem Renaissance could be a glorious addition to the costume dramas where everything is filled with class and suppressed emotions. This show could offer some swing and liveliness so badly needed in the costume drama genre.

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Comments (4)

I would totally watch a show like that about Harlem! Of course I would probably watch Michael K. Williams read the phone book so… But seriously, that’s a great idea. Now how can we get someone from HBO to read this post? 🙂

I think the reasons Boardwalk Empire doesn’t focus on the black characters are clear. The show is about Nucky so it’s from his point of view. And his point of view is that of a while male. I think we actually see very clearly how much that POV limits him. He can’t totally relate to Chalky, he can’t totally relate to Margaret and he can’t totally relate to anyone who is poor.

Since this is a time period when minorities and women still had few rights, we would need a show to be from their point of view in order to truly do justice to their lives, their desires and their struggles.

Even so, I think Boardwalk does a lot with Chalky and Margaret and other black and female characters. Even though they aren’t the focal points, I find the scenes and episodes that involve them to be extremely evocative; in a short time, a great deal is communicated. For instance, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about the predicament of black people during this time period from the scenes involving Chalky, his family and his associates. Ditto for what women’s lives were like. So it isn’t like they’re glossing over that stuff completely.

But a show like you describe would still rock 🙂

I totally agree with you. I love Boardwalk Empire. Adore it. Even when it’s slow it’s still an impressive show. The acting and the writing is just so impressive and the last two episodes (especially the second to last one) was just astounding.

And you’ve got a point about the showing being from Nucky’s POV (especially hammered home in the finale with him getting more insular with the business and becoming full gangster). Who knows — maybe with his new friendship with Chalky, we’ll see more of them and Chalky’s community (I did like one thing in Season Two with the strikes and the reaction from the women in his community criticizing him for what was going on).

I guess that my overall point was that I feel like we’re missing a major part of American history onscreen. I can’t think of many movies/television shows about the Harlem Renaissance are out there and the historical significance is so great that I wonder why we haven’t mined it yet.

This isn’t a zero sum thing in my mind — it’s not that we shouldn’t have Boardwalk Empire, but why not a show about the Harlem Renaissance also? Both can coexist in my mind and given the number of costume dramas about World War I and post-World War I (see Parade’s End, Downton Abbey, the upcoming Great Gatsby), why not add the Harlem Renaissance in there? I just feel like we’re missing something essential to this era.

I too hope we’ll see more of Chalky and I HAVE been missing him this season after he was much more prominent in the last one. I remember thinking that even before I read what you wrote here. I was thrilled to see him prominently featured in the episode where Nucky is running and hiding from Gyp Rosetti (by the way, the BEST episode of Boardwalk so far IMO).

So I think we’re on the same page in that we both would love to see a show about the Harlem Renaissance. Why isn’t someone making one? Who knows. I just hope it’s not because they think people wouldn’t watch a historical drama about mostly black people. It’s possible though.

I’m curious to see how Season 4 will work out and I’m hoping for more Chalky as Nucky gets more insular in who he’ll deal with and work with. I also am hoping he does get his club, because I feel like while it’s not exactly the Harlem Renaissance, it’s at least an homage to it.

We totally are on the same page. I don’t know why people aren’t, but then again, I’m not a producer or filmmaker. I think you might be right on the whole thing that people won’t watch a show with mostly black people, but I feel like media as of late has been more segregated than in the past (remember the glory days of the 90s — In Living Color, Living Single, Martin, etc.?).

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