Find the perfect dress for every occasion...
There is a big game-changer in the new season of the Emmy award-winning period crime drama, Boardwalk Empire. Jeffrey Wright joins as Dr Valentin Narcisse – a character modelled on Casper Holstein, a prominent New York gangster involved in numbers racketeering during the Harlem Renaissance. Debashine Thangevelo got the lowdown on the new addition creating anarchy for Enoch “Nucky” Thompson…
FOUR seasons later and Boardwalk Empire maintains its compelling edge with politics and crime making great bedfellows.
While Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, depicted brilliantly by Steve Buscemi, is the main character – after all, this series is based on his rise to political prominence in the Twenties and Thirties – the supporting characters complement with their own story arcs as they attempt to ascend the ranks in the world of organised crime.
In season four, creator and executive producer Terence Winter has thrown a curve ball into the plot – Dr Valentin Narcisse, played by Emmy-winner Jeffrey Wright.
With an actor as accomplished as Wright, who has enjoyed the pick of supporting and lead roles in Hollywood hits from Presumed Innocent, Basquiat, Shaft, D-Tox, The Manchurian Candidate, Syriana, Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and The Ides of March to the upcoming The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, there was no doubt he would do justice to his character, who is a blueprint of real-life historical figure Casper Holstein.
Shedding light on his character, Wright said: “My character is Dr Valentin Narcisse, who is the alpha crime figure in Harlem in 1924, but he is so much more than that. He is also a political figure, something of a civil rights advocate. He is a philanthropist and benefactor, a doctor of divinity – and mayhem.”
Having a foundation to work from, Wright was able to get into the dark and dangerous psyche – not forgetting rather paradoxical personality – of his character.
“What I have realised with the help of Howard Korder, who is one of the lead writers, and who offered me a really lovely nugget of insight when he described two seemingly contradictory actions for the character as completely uncon- tradictory – I realised he was absolutely right.
“I think there is something that is too often recognisable in people in the public space, that anything that serves his empowerment is okay with him; anything that serves his empowerment, he feels is justified. So he can be entirely selfish and seemingly contradictory because it all serves his interest.
“But it also occurred to me that he seems to view himself as the archetype – to use the parlance of the time – for the ‘new negro’ in America. So, in his mind, what advances his cause advances the cause of the race.”
Touching on what he borrows from the New York crime boss for his role, the 47-year-old said: “Casper Holstein was the first big numbers runner in Harlem; the daily number was like the lottery – various state and municipal governments owe a lot to Casper’s development of a reliable numbers game.
“But he was more than that as well. He was an immigrant from the Virgin Islands. My character came to the US from Trinidad.
“Casper was highly active politically, and very connected politically, and was one of the biggest philanthropists of his day, apparently on the level of the Carnegies. He advocated on behalf of the Virgin Islands. He was also one of the chief patrons of the Harlem Renaissance, supporting a lot of the artists who were responsible for it.
“He was also one of the chief financial backers of Marcus Harvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Programme, so he had his benevolent fingers in many pies.
“My character is a horrible funhouse mirror distortion of Casper Holstein, disembowelled of much of his benevolence, replacing it with sulphur.”
Given Dr Narcisse’s background, it is inevitable that his arrival would cause tension between himself and Atlantic City’s powerful African-American gangster, Albert “Chalky” White.
“At this time, and again because there is so much attention paid to historical detail within the show, there was a great debate happening between these early 20th century civil rights leaders: Booker T Washington was on one side, coming from a more modest rural vocational perspective, and WEB Du Bois was more aspirational and bourgeois.
“Marcus Garvey was a Pan-Africanist and Black Nationalist, and in between them was this hot debate over what was the way forward for African-Americans at the time. A lot of it was complexion politics that came into play because Du Bois was light-skinned and Garvey was dark-skinned.
“And there was also the tension between the immigrant understanding of America and Du Bois claiming a sense of entitlement as an American born here. A lot of this stuff is played out within the relationship between Narcisse and Chalky, and draws on those tensions to build on their relationship,” he said.
“There is the tension between the urbane, educated, light-skinned bourgeois Narcisse and Chalky’s less-educated, rural, dark-skinned African-American. All of that stuff, born of real historical background, is really interesting fodder for storytelling.”
With federal agents closing in on Nucky this season, it will be interesting to see who the pawn becomes when Narcisse, a cunning strategist, and he cross paths.
As fascinating as the new game-changer is, his villainous actions will have viewers appalled and intrigued at the same time.
Objective certainly achieved for the creator.
• Boardwalk Empire airs on M-Net Series Showcase (DStv channel 113) on Thursdays at 9.30pm.