Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Boardwalk Empire, Season Four, Episode 3, "Acres of Diamonds"

In “Acres of Diamonds,” the connection between the fictional Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) and the real-life Marcus Garvey became even more explicit as “Boardwalk Empire” depicts the emergence of the “New Negro” of the 1920s.  Expressing a philosophy similar to Garvey, Narcisse is clearly a member of his organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), whose membership peaked during the first half of the decade.
Before World War I, African Americans remained divided between two approaches to the problem of racism in the United States.  In 1895, facing the rising tide of segregation and disenfranchisement in the post-Reconstruction South, Booker T. Washington spoke of accommodation to these new conditions in a speech at the Atlanta Exposition.  Espousing what became known as the “Atlanta Compromise,” Washington accepted the loss of African American political rights and suggested that blacks focus on economic development through vocational training.  After this speech, Booker T. became the leading the figure in black America until his death in 1915, as money from Northern philanthropists flowed through his schools and institutions.
Not everyone shared Washington’s views.  Led by W.E. B. Du Bois, some African Americans believed that you could not achieve economic progress without political rights and that they should not abandon the quest for legal equality.  Du Bois advocated for blacks to attain higher education and to fight Jim Crow through the courts.  Along with an interracial group of blacks and whites, he formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
As American involvement World War I began in 1917, some questioned whether African Americans should fight in President Woodrow Wilson’s war  “to make the world safe for democracy” when they did not have equal rights at home.  Du Bois urged blacks to serve, saying that participation would give blacks a greater claim on rights once the U.S. defeated the Central Powers.  Indeed, thousands of blacks served in segregated units during the year-and-a-half the U.S. fought in the conflict.
Upon returning to the United States following the November 1918 armistice, blacks faced a new wave of attacks.  Fearful that black veterans would seek equality after their service abroad, white Southerners engaged in a violent campaign to maintain the status quo as 76 blacks were lynched in 1919.  That same year, a major race riot broke out in Chicago after a black boy drowned because angry whites had pelted him with bricks when he drifted to the white section of the beach.
Feeling that the promises of the war had been broken, a more militant black community emerged in its aftermath.  Dr. Narcisse’s mentions the “New Negro” as he talks to a group in Harlem early in the episode, a term which reflected more activist mood of African Americans during the 1920s.  Emerging in Northern cities whose black population had been augmented by the African American migration during the war and throughout the following decade, the “New Negro” philosophy merged Washington’s and Du Bois’s views. 
Prominently featured on Narcisse’s wall is a poster for Garvey’s UNIA, which represented the most dramatic manifestation of the “New Negro.”  While the fictional Narcisse arrived from Trinidad, Garvey came to Harlem from Jamaica and began to espouse a form of black nationalism and black separatism that appealed to many working-class blacks in the North.  He preached black self-help, started a shipping company called the Black Star Line, and urged African Americans to return to Africa.
Garvey, however, faced serious difficulties.  His authoritarian leadership of UNIA alienated allies, as did his meeting the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan.  Having caught the attention of the young J. Edgar Hoover, the federal government aggressively pursued Garvey for mail fraud.  After his conviction, he served two years in prison and was then pardoned by President Coolidge in 1927 and deported.  Does Narcisse face a similar fate?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"Homeland," Season Two

Season two of “Homeland” continues the program’s arc after the show’s excellent opening set of episodes.  In season two, the CIA recalls the seemingly discredited Carrie Mathison (Clare Danes) back to service to deal with potential retaliatory strikes on the U.S. after an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Many have described “Homeland” as the “anti-24” and the contrast can be seen in the interrogation scenes in the two shows.  In season one, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), eventually draws information out of a suspect after earning her confidence during a cross-country car trip, rather than torturing her a la Jack Bauer.  Similarly, in season two, Carrie finally gets American marine turned terrorist Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis) to confess by identifying with his post-traumatic stress.  Many criticized “24” during its run for oversimplifying the interrogation process and “Homeland” is much more in line with techniques that intelligence professionals say usually work, as torture often produces unreliable information.  This evolution is another manifestation of how the nation has moved away from the tactics of the early years of the Bush war on terror.
Though the Islamic terrorist threat is the primary focus, “Homeland” also clearly shows the influence of 1970s thrillers that portray the government and its intelligent agencies as a danger as well.  After Brody moves to assist the CIA to hunt down the Bin Laden-like Abu Nazir, the Company makes plans to eliminate him after his work is done.   This subplot consumes a good portion of the final episodes, along with the terrorist threat
Of course, the show does take some entertaining—but absurd—“24” like twists.  In season one, it is clear that the neoconservative Vice President Walden is a stand-in for Dick Cheney and the connection becomes even clearer this season when it turns out he has a pacemaker for his heart problem.  In a bizarre series of evens, Nazir programs the pacemaker to give Walden a heart attack and kill him in revenge for the drone strike that killed his son (Walden ordered the attack as CIA director).
“Homeland” also portrays the war on terror’s impact on the home front.  Brody’s PTSD has left him unable to deal with his wife and family and he goes to the length of giving his best friend, Mike, permission to resume the relationship he had with his wife while Brody was presumed dead in Iraq.  Brody believes the war and his captivity has permanently changed him, just as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have altered many real-life vets.
As season two concludes, it takes a dramatic twist when the late Nazir’s network attacks the CIA and make it look like it was the work of the now reformed Brody.  Having started a romantic relationship, Carrie helps Brody escape the country.  Away from Langley at the time of the attack, it appears Saul will become CIA director and Carrie will serve at his side with Brody’s role in exonerating himself unclear.  With the Abu Nazir plotline concluded, “Homeland,” like other serialized shows, has revamped key parts of its premise and it will be interesting to see where the program goes from here.  I might have to get Showtime because I don’t think I can wait a full year to find out.

Boardwalk Empire, Season 4, Episode 2, "Resignation"

More elements of the Roaring Twenties emerged in “Resignation,” episode two of Boardwalk Empire’s fourth season, First, Van Alden/Mueller’s wife buys a new couch and other household goods for their home, but the puritanical Van Alden/Mueller bemoans that they can’t afford it on his salary.  She notes that they can pay for it over several months rather than all at once.  Indeed, the 1920s witnessed a dramatic rise in installment purchases, as more and more Americans could afford the consumer products of the “New Era” by using credit.  By 1926, customers made 15 percent of all purchases through installment.
In the season premiere, a black ally of Chalky White is trapped into a bizarre “they like to watch” scheme with a white husband and wife.  Angered, he murders the husband and in “Resignation,” the woman claims she was raped and seeks the help of her late husband’s employer, Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), a West Indian immigrant who is a major player in New York.  Such rape allegations often led to the lynching of black men in the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the peak period of racial violence in American history.  Narcisse notes that her charge will have credibility, given that a woman of the “Nordic tribe” made the allegation, reflecting the scientific racial categories of the 1920s.  After using the allegation to extract a share of Chalky’s profits, Narcisse has her killed, clearly angered by the woman’s desire for vengeance for a clearly false allegation.  Chalky refers to Narcisse as a “Jamaican,” and though Narcisse says he is from Trinidad, it should be noted that Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant himself, and his black nationalist group, the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), were at their peak during this period.  Narcisse tells Chalky about their common roots going back to Africa, a seeming reference to Garvey’s focus on pride in African culture.
Toward the end of the episode, J. Edgar Hoover appears in the early stages of his role of head of the FBI (then Bureau of Investigation).  At this time, he was just beginning what would be a central role in the next half-century of American history.  In “Resignation,” he exposes a corrupt Treasury department official, who responds that Hoover is out of his jurisdiction and that “I’m not some Bolshevik under the bed,” likely referring to J. Edgar’s role in the 1919-1920 Palmer Raids against the American Communist Party during the First Red Scare.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Boardwalk Empire, Season 4, Episode 1, "New York Sour"

“Boardwalk Empire” returned this week as the Roaring Twenties and the concomitant battle over Prohibition continued.  The first episode of season four explores a few of the important issues of that decade as the program moves into 1924.
Eli Thompson’s wife is worried that her college-attending son is smoking while at school.  In the late 19th and early 20th century, smoking was concentrated among working-class people and the poor and was seen as uncouth among middle and upper middle class people.  As the Victorian values of that era lost their power during the 1920s, the stigma on smoking faded and it slowly became a respectable behavior.
Meanwhile, a new character played by Ron Livingstone, has arrived to bring the Piggly Wiggly chain to Atlantic City.  At the time, chain stores were expanding across the country and putting economic pressure on local mom and pop stores.  Such problems existed long before the arrival of Wal-Mart.
At the conclusion of the episode, Nucky Thompson is examining real estate papers about property in Manatee County on the Florida Gulf Coast.  The 1920s witnessed a dramatic rise in interest in real estate in the Sunshine State as a bubble in land prices eventually burst at the end of the decade.  Could Nucky be headed for some poor financial investments?