Having just about given up on “Boardwalk Empire,” I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it again — in part, I suspect, because I haven’t been putting a lot of pressure on it to be great. I tune in to watch the entertaining actors and to bask in the smoke-filled atmosphere of a period gangster story. Relax and enjoy; always a serviceable approach to entertainment.
Some major historical events are being pre-figured this season: in some scenes set in Florida and in a New York investment office, we’re watching swindlers lay the groundwork for the stock market crash that will bring on the great Depression. And in a subplot about increasing rancorous personality conflicts among Chicago mobsters, Al Capone’s imminent take over from Johnny Torrio is being hinted at. (I’m looking forward to watching Stephen Graham’s Capone graduate to full blown psychosis as the power goes to his head.)
But the sensuous evocation of the period, built up with great care from details of decor, costume, hairstyles and language, is the main attraction — especially in the parallel plot involving the efforts of Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) to maneuver away from a power grab being orchestrated by Valentine Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), a well-spoken club owner and gangster whose front organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, has complex Back to Africa overtones.
Theater critic Hilton Alls, writing in The New Yorker, correctly admires the show for presenting “an entirely authentic nineteen-twenties Negro world, part Harlem Renaissance perversity and part ‘Macbeth,’ all without sacrificing style.” He’s also right about Wright (“complex, brilliant, and real—-so sexy in his nefarious, ‘proper’ behavior”) and also in his enthusiasm for this season’s great discovery, jazz singer Margot Bingham, as a Cotton Club-style flapper femme fatale who seduces Chalky but reports to Narcisse.
Als is dead wrong, however, about Michael Williams, and in a way that suggests that this eminent theater critic has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to a classic type of recessive American screen acting. “With a face nearly frozen in a sneer,” Als writes, “(Williams) looks out at us through a mask of what he thinks an angry black man is supposed to look like, as opposed to showing how his character might feel if threatened, or made vulnerable by love.” How could a writer with such an enormous reputation be so completely full of shit?
It was, I think, Bryan Cranston, in a recent interview (although the actual quotation has gone AWOL), who said that the most powerful acting is always done internally, in the confidence that its effects will be visible on the surface. That’s point one.
Jeffery Wright’s more external acting style, which Als seems to favor, works well for his portrayal of Narcisse, who is a flamboyant manipulator with theatrical ambitions. But Williams is excellent also, allowing wounded pride and even fear to show through Chalky’s unyielding hard front. An illiterate self-made man, Chalky has bristled from the first at being patronized by this ostentatiously educated West Indian “doctor.”
Williams absolutely allows us to notice (rather than “showing” us) Chalky’s vulnerability to love, when Bingham’s Daughter Maitland enters the picture. Everything about Maitland is lush, from her figure to her torchy singing voice, and Bingham deploys her assets with great subtlety. Daughter is seductive almost unconsciously, without seeming to work at it. This is no one-note “bombshell” performance. Bingham keeps things firmly grounded even in the scenes depicting her creepy crawly relationship with surrogate father figure Narcisse.
A hopeful note struck struck at the end of Sunday’s episode, “The Old Ship of Zion,” may have contained an element of wish fulfillment, unless an apparent shift of loyalty that seems farfetched, coming from the part of the always-practical Daughter, is really another sort of pre-figuring– a hint at things to come on a show in which several changes of leadership seem to be looming. I think we can trust her– to always know which way the wind is blowing.