Michael K. Williams ‘Goes Down the Rabbit Hole’ on ‘Boardwalk Empire’

Michael K. Williams ‘Goes Down the Rabbit Hole’ on ‘Boardwalk Empire’

‘Wire’ actor also starring in ’12 Years a Slave,’ MGMT video

 
 
 
 
Michael K. Williams as Chalky White on ‘Boardwalk Empire’
 
Macall B. Polay/HBO
September 27, 2013 2:40 PM ET

Michael K. Williams won us over with The Wire, playing the indefatigable stick-em-up-boy Omar, the Robin Hood of the streets. On Boardwalk Empirenow in its fourth season, he’s Chalky White, the voice and bootlegger of the black community in the Nucky Thompson’s (Steve Buscemi) Atlantic City. Rolling Stone spoke with Williams about going down the rabbit hole with Chalky this season, appearing in MGMT’s latest video for “Cool Song No. 2” as a witch doctor with a sweet ride and stalking Steve McQueen in New Orleans to get a part in 12 Years a Slave. 

This feels like a big season for Chalky White on Boardwalk. It sort of feels like a big season for African-Americans in general on the show.

It’s definitely a huge season for Chalky White. It’s a huge season for me personally. I’ve never been this involved in a big storyline in anything that I’ve done. 

You say you’re more involved with the season. How so?
There are things that were promised to Chalky from Nucky Thompson that came through. Nucky told him that he would grant him his wish and give him his club on the boardwalk, so that happened. So you have a black man in 1924 with a major club on the boardwalk of Atlantic City – that’s huge. And most of the storyline this year takes place from that club. All of the problems that occur happen from that club opening up and how Chalky deals with it. He makes a lot of bad choices, primarily over a woman. And we just pretty much watch him go down the rabbit hole. 

How do you understand the struggle between Chalky White and Valentin Narcisse? 
The relationship between Dr. Narcisse and Chalky is a very intense, very real relationship in the black community. You have the educated, fair-skinned Negro, you know, going up against the dark-skinned, un-academically educated Negro, and the friction of the light skin and dark skin, educated versus the non-educated. There’s a friction there, you know, on many different levels. The house Negro versus the field Negro.

What was really important to you in creating this character? 
The main thing I wanted to do was I wanted him not to feel like Omar. That was number one. The second thing I wanted to do was to not make him appear as just an angry black man. There are things that Chalky experienced that I have no understanding of. I don’t know what it’s like to see my father hang from a tree, or to be illiterate in America. I don’t know what that feels like. So I wanted to bring dignity to him, in spite of all his flaws, and I wanted people to understand why he does the things that he does. And last but not least, I wanted to pay homage to my ancestors, to anybody who’s alive today, any black men that are alive today.

I was just watching your MGMT video, “Cool Song No. 2.” What sort of direction did you get for that? 
The character I play, his best friend, is dying from the very thing that he sells. So it’s a take on addiction. What they used was this plant, and apparently there’s somewhere – I believe in the Philippines – where people get this rare disorder where their skin turns into tree bark and ultimately takes over their body. The character I play in this video was the cultivator of a particular tree that was killing one of his best friends. When he realized there was nothing else to do, he figured that he would let his friend die with dignity, and he took him to that house where they manufactured the stuff and just let him live out the rest of his days in happiness and bliss. And in doing so, he contracted the disease also. So it’s like a take on addiction and things of that nature.

Did you know the band’s music going into it?

I’m a huge fan of MGMT, and I love this director, Isaiah Seret. I’d never met him before, but I love the work he did on a Raphael Saadiq video called “Good Man,” which starred Chad Coleman, who is one of my Wire brothers. 

You hang out with your other Wire brothers? 
Absolutely. We’re very close. I consider us a family. Everybody from Sonja Sohn to Felicia Pearson to Jamie Hector to Andre Royo . . . Wendell Pierce, Domenick Lombardozzi, you know, we’re a very close-knit family.

You’re also in 12 Years a Slave. What was that set like? 
That was another huge experience for me. Something along the lines of what it felt like for Boardwalk. That’s another period piece dealing with my ancestral energy, once again, during the time when I have no idea what it must’ve been like to live in America, to be alive in that time. So it was a huge time-travel, and I got to really get a glimpse of what my ancestors would’ve gone through so that I could be here today. It was very humbling.

Did you know Steve McQueen before you made the film?
I knew of him. I was a huge fan of his work from Hunger and Shame, but I had never met prior to this film.

Did you audition for it in the traditional way?
It wasn’t quite the traditional path. I guess you could say I stalked him a bit? I waited outside of his casting office in New Orleans in the pouring rain for, like, an hour, because I heard he was in town, and I ran up on him, kind of Omar style, and I think he was a little taken aback. I was afraid I’d actually screwed up my chance of being in the project with that stuff that I pulled. But then about 45 minutes or so later, his assistant gave me a call and said “Steve McQueen wants to take you to dinner,” and I sat down with him and Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. We sat all down and had dinner, and he pretty much made me the offer right there at the dinner table. 

What made you really want the part?
Any opportunity to tell a story like that – any opportunity to tell African-American history, something of that nature, of that caliber, I will jump through leaps and bounds to get. Because it’s based on a true story, it’s American history, it’s about my culture and my ancestors, and it’s not just a typical film. It’s a story that I can get in my heart as something to take seriously. I think 12 Years a Slave is that caliber. Any actor would’ve been proud to be in Schindler’s List, and I feel the same way about our film. This actually happened, and it’s going to teach people how far we’ve come as a nation. 

Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/michael-k-williams-goes-down-the-rabbit-hole-on-boardwalk-empire-20130927#ixzz2gOsdiWYt 
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Is ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Trampling the Legacy of Marcus Garvey?

After seeing the name of  the “Universal Negro Improvement Association” pop up on “Boardwalk Empire,” Speakeasy emailed HBO to ask for a comment about why their writers associated a real-life black leader’s group with murder, drugs and other kinds of wrongdoing.

September 29, 2013, 10:00 AM

Is ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Trampling the Legacy of Marcus Garvey?

By Ishmael Reed

“Boardwalk Empire” made a reference to the black leader Marcus Garvey on a recent episode. But it wasn’t a tribute that Garveyites would have appreciated.

“Black Moses, The Story of Marcus Garvey and theUniversal Negro Improvement Association” by E. David Cronon received an endorsement from the celebrated black historian, John Hope Franklin, who wrote the introduction. The book recounts the career of Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant, who launched one of the largest mass movements of blacks before the Civil Rights movement. The book tracks the Jamaican from his beginnings as a journalist to his conviction for mail fraud. Though the case against him was fragile, Garvey doomed his case by acting as his own lawyer.

In the beginning of its new season, “Boardwalk Empire,” introduced a character named Valentin Narcisse (played by actor Jeffrey Wright), a dapper smooth talking character who speaks  with an Caribbean accent. This character uses a white woman to blackmail Chalky White  whose henchman killed the woman’s husband after he pretends to be outraged at finding the black henchman with his wife. Turns out that this was a set up and that this was how the husband and wife got their freak on. In order for Narcisse to keep quiet, Nucky Thompson decides that White has to give Narcisse ten percent of his club’s profits. Returning to New York from New Jersey, Narcisse has the woman killed. Back in Harlem, he is seen negotiating with white gangsters for part of Harlem’s heroin trade. The walls of his office are decorated with the photos of distinguished black men, but this character despite his eloquence and his fancy dress is a hoodlum. We see a banner hanging behind Narcisse that reads “Universal Negro Improvement Association”–which was the real-life name of the real-life black nationalist and self-help organization founded by Garvey. The inclusion of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in a show about crime and violence shocked even me, a person who has written, obsessively, about the depiction of blacks by the media, part of a hundred year old complaint.

After seeing the name of  the “Universal Negro Improvement Association” pop up on “Boardwalk Empire,” Speakeasy emailed HBO to ask for a comment about why their writers associated a real-life black leader’s group with murder, drugs and other kinds of wrongdoing.

Here’s something that Garvey, who campaigned for black empowerment, surely would have noted: the writing staff on “Boardwalk Empire” isn’t a very diverse bunch. Garvey himself might have raised an eyebrow at the fact that virtually none of the people involved with the writing of the series, which plans to explore Garvey’s legacy in future shows, have any black roots (according to HBO, David Matthews, the executive story editor on the show, is biracial).

An HBO spokeswoman said via email “there are no writers of Caribbean heritage on the show but they do an extensive amount of research. Yes, you were correct in noticing the name of the organization and Marcus Garvey’s name comes up in future episodes – this is not a coincidence. ”

One of the most controversial figures in American history, Garvey was criticized by both the NAACP and the Communist Party, who, on other occasions, said nasty things about each other. His model for his self help enterprises was, Booker T.Washington, who, for those in power, was the president of the Black Nation; his being invited by Theodore Roosevelt to dine at the White House caused a scandal.

Garvey’s newspaper, The Negro World, established in January,1918, was called by poet Claude McKay, “ The best edited colored weekly in New York. Emphasizingblack pride, the newspaper published stories about slave rebellions,American and Haitian, and the histories of African Empires,all meant to make blacks feel proud of their racial heritage.

The Negro World,which was published weekly until 1933  was also used by Garvey to criticize his enemies sometimes in such a vitrolic manner that he invited lawsuits.Taking his lead from Washington, who established Tuskeegee College, that blacks operated their own businesses, he rejected capital from whites and used his “magnetic” personality to raise money from the grass roots. At the height of his influence, Garvey was able to draw 25,000 blacks to hear their leader make a speech in Madison Square Garden as part of a convention, which was accompanied by parades and much pageantry.

Already under surveillance by the Government, the flamboyant Garvey got into difficulty when he began a steam ship company”that would link the colored peoples of the world in commercial and industrial intercourse.” His enemies used the business dealings associated with the purchase of steam ships for which he sold stock, to get him done in with the charge of mail fraud.He was sent to an Atlanta prison and served a term there until he was awarded clemency by president Calvin Coolidge. He was deported to Jamaica, Garvey’s ideas influenced not only American blacks likeMinister Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X, but foreign leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana.

An HBO spokeswoman told us “Nowhere in the story line are we implying Marcus Garvey was involved in gambling or drugs. Valentin Narcisse is a fictional character who is based on someone who was.”

HBO pointed us to an interview in GQ in which Wright said “Dr. Narcisse is kind of a funhouse mirror distortion of an historical figure named Casper Holstein who was, during the early 1920s in Harlem, the king of the numbers game.” He goes on to say “at that time, there was something of a great debate within African-American society, among the great thinkers of the past: W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and within the Harlem Renaissance about what was the way forward. Within that debate were some pretty vicious personal attacks over complexion, politics, between urbane and rural—a lot of those dynamics are fleshed out within the relationship between Dr. Narcisse and Chalky.”

“Boardwalk Empire” creator Terry Winter said this via email: “Our fictional Valentin Narcisse is associated with Marcus Garvey’s organization, but this is not to imply in any way that Garvey himself was involved in the same types of illegal activities. Without giving away any future story developments, I can say that the Narcisse character was inspired in part by Casper Holstein, a West Indian immigrant who was head of the Harlem numbers racket as well as a philanthropist and political activist. After Garvey was sentenced to prison and the UNIA collapsed, Holstein purchased the building in which the organization was headquartered. As the season progresses, we also focus on J. Edgar Hoover‘s fixation with putting Garvey in jail.”

But except for his buying the mortgage for a building once used by Garvey’s organization, Holstein was not a part of the UNIA. Moreover, there is no evidence that Holstein was involved in the murder of a white woman. Also, connecting him with the heroin trade is bizarre because he died in 1944. Heroin was introduced into Harlem in the 1950s; before that it was used by white males, mostly.

Holstein’s connection with Garvey’s old building came about when Garvey’s movement already had collapsed. Holstein donated a large portion of his fortune towards charitable purposes such as building dormitories at historically black colleges, as well as financing many artists, writers, and poets during the Harlem Renaissance. He also helped  establish a Baptist school in Liberia, and create hurricane relief fund for his native Virgin Islands. He had nothing to do with heroin.

Garvey is an official National Hero of Jamaica. It is a disgrace that HBO connects his UNIA in any form with murder and heroin dealing. In my view, it’s an example of what happens when the writing staffs of Hollywood and television are decades behind in terms of diversity. There are plenty of black historians who could serve as consultants in case they continue to exploit the Garvey story.

George Bernard Shaw had it right. If you don’t tell your stories others will tell them for you and they will “degrade” and “vulgarize” you.

Ishmael Reed’s new play, “ The Final Version” will premiere at the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe on Dec.12. His online magazine Konch is at  konchmagazine.localon.com