Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Black Revenge Fantasies, White Manhood, and Historical Memory: Boardwalk Empire's Episode, "Anastasia" Reviewed

HBO's Boardwalk Empire is a lush television series. Do not be mistaken: Lushness does not necessarily mean a completeness of superficial physical beauty or the trap of ephemeral and pretty things. Lushness can also be depth. It can be intelligence. Lushness can be breadth and reward. As noted philosopher Slavoy Zizek said of the seminal dystopian film Children of Men, some artifacts of popular culture reward "deep viewing." For those who study film, popular culture, or the semiotics of mass culture, this means viewing a film with obligatory seriousness, intensity, and broadness of field.

For scholars of film, this understanding is a wink to the concept understood as "Mis En Scene." Translated: Boardwalk Empire frames a shot in such a way as to encourage a careful attention to clothing, the positioning of the characters relative to one another, and of the scene at large. The most damning observation that one can make of a television series such as Boardwalk Empire, a period piece set in the 1920's, is that it is a wax museum come to life. On its worst of days, and in the hands of a lesser steward, Boardwalk Empire could be the pitiable performance of a once great Motown band singing at a county fair when all the magic is gone, and the agents involved are in full denial about how far low they have fallen. Boardwalk Empire is none of these things--it is a window into the past, carefully constructed, and indelibly committed to the best that dramatic television can offer.

Boardwalk Empire is set is the great age of Prohibition-era America, when flappers danced upon the stage, temperance societies of now empowered (white) women reigned for a moment as they spread the wings of their now found political agency, and gangsters (with their liquor) were king. This is also the moment when white ethnics--those Italians, Irish, Greeks, and others--fought to burn away their ethnicity in the crucible of a soon to be found full whiteness in the post-World War One moment, as they become erstwhile Horatio Algers, when like James Cagney, they came to understand that "the world is mine."

The setting that is the literal boardwalk in Boardwalk Empire is also a complement to how race was made in early 20th century America. The sites, sounds, and spectacle of this space, the World's Fairs and mass culture were locations for race making through popular culture. Moreover, the iron cage of white manhood, its imagined fraternal order, and the creation of "normal" bodies were all made real through the accessible spectacles featured on the boardwalk of places like Atlantic City, P.T. Barnum's enterprises, the "freak show," Ripley's stages, and the great midways of cities such as Chicago.

Boardwalk Empire contains all of these elements. It has acknowledged the racist spectacle of The Hottentot Venus. The marquis of the theaters featured in Boardwalk Empire's deep scenes all signal to this history. Cigarette store Indians are omnipresent. Black popular culture is the ether of The Roaring Twenties, all the while black folks are dismissed as schwartzes who don't polish the crystal ware correctly. As whiteness exists only in juxtaposition to blackness and the Other, black folk are peripheral to Boardwalk Empire while being central to the American mythos. This is especially clear in Sunday's episode, "Anastasia." Because popular culture, especially television shows such as Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, traffic in the malleability of historical memory, the white gaze doesn't see "us," but "we" are forever there.

The greatest moment of Boardwalk Empire's "Anastasia" episode signals to the power of blackness in American memory, and of this country's popular culture at large. To this point, Nucky, Steve Bushemi's (main) character, the top dog of Atlantic City, is playing chess not checkers. If politics is "what have you done for me lately?" and "who get's what, when, and why?" Nucky must reach out to Chalky, Omar of The Wire fame and the boss of the African American political machine in Atlantic City. Ultimately in "Anastasia," realpolitik trumps white supremacy and provincial notions of the supremacy of white bodies over those black and brown.

There is also a fantasy element to collective memory which Boardwalk Empire is so keenly aware. Some viewers may indulge dreams of flappers, finely tailored suits, and bootleg liquor. For those with a blue's sensibility, our freedom dreams may be a bit different: How many of "us" have ever gotten to sit across from their sworn foes? To make them render onto Caesar? To act out justice upon their bodies?

In "Anastasia," Chalky indulges this dark dream--an Inglorious Bastards moment--of providential justice. He sits across from the Grand Cyclops of the KKK in Atlantic City. Chalky, in the longest monologue on the show to date relays a tale of class, race, and "uppity" negroes who dared to step out of line. For this, Chalky's father swung like strange fruit. And as Chalky opens up the leather clutch that contains his father's tools to torture the Grand Cyclops, we understand that pain will be a form of cathartic vengeance.

Here, suffering rendered onto the enemies of black folk, the Knight Riders, Klansmen, Klanswomen, and others is also a fantasy of sorts. How many black Americans can really recount a family story--one that is "true"--of relatives hung on the lynching tree, of uppity negro Catcher Freeman runaways, and where we, all of us, had grandmas who had Colt revolvers hiding under the hemline of their dresses ready for any white man (or anyone for that matter) who crossed them?

And we certainly cannot forget the stories about former chattel who ran away and came back as Union soldiers--much to the chagrin of their former masters; of slaves who posted bounties for their "owners" during Reconstruction; slaves that evicted masters on the plantation as they built a nation under their feet, or of the ultimate "go to hell letter" written by Jourdan Anderson to his white "employer." These are collective memories that may or not be literally true. Nevertheless, this does not take away the power of these communal truths because collective memory is none diminished by appeals to empirical truth.

In relief, Boardwalk Empire is a story of class, aspiration, and the Horatio Alger myth. Boardwalk Empire is also a tale of revenge and fantasy on the part of "us" against "them." Per our tradition, some questions about the Easter Eggs and Mis En Scenes of Boardwalk Empire:

1. What have you noticed in the background? What is your favorite shot of the series so far?

2. Of fashion choices and body sculpting. Am I the only person who has noticed something amiss with Lucy's beautiful breasts, or the choice of "female grooming" to this point so far?

3. Harlem. I need to see Harlem in its heyday. As an Easter egg, Boardwalk Empire could feature some former Harlem Hellfighters as badmen and now gangsters. Alternatively, some former white officers in those famed units would make for suitably complicated characters that are nonetheless racist, but somehow "progressive" for their contemporary moment in Jim Crow America.

4. On that note, Steve Bushemi's character dismisses the obviously "racist" cop during their meeting. Am I being cynical, or does the white racial frame always find a way to protect itself through a narrative where white racism is an outlier and most white folk are always good people--despite the politics of the epoch?

5. The Romanovs. What a great meta-narrative for this episode as Boardwalk Empire is a show centered on the pretenses of class mobility, uplift, social betters, and striving towards the good life.

6. As we saw with the slashing of Jimmy's prostitute lover, do the little folks always have to suffer for their associations with the marginally more powerful?

7. Why the emphasis on premature babies? Is this some signal to technology, progress, and America? Or is it a wink to a fascination with abnormal bodies during the early part of the 20th century?

8. We have Chalky as the bad black man and one of the machine bosses of Atlantic City. Are we going to see The Queen, the real queen, who was marginalized by the Hollywood myth-making machine in Lawrence Fishburne's movie Hoodlum?


Alex said...

by 'female grooming' do you mean the shaved armpits?

chaunceydevega said...

I was thinking quite a bit lower...

OhCrapIHaveACrushOnSarahPalin said...

Is there gonna be an Ethel Waters character?