From "The Wire" To "Boardwalk Empire," Actor Michael K. Williams Shines

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By Regina Bradley

Let me go ahead and get this out the way. HBO’s Boardwalk Empire is blanched. Like a white ass that hasn’t seen a tanning bed. Ever. You see the occasional black person (don’t blink now, hear?) but it’s good.

While I can’t even get mad at Boardwalk’s strive to maintain an accurate historical context, I am intrigued by the inclusion of Michael K. Williams’ character Chalky White in the lineup.

Williams’ portrayal of Chalky is just as, ahem, intoxicating as his previous HBO character Omar Little of The Wire. An African American bootlegger with southern roots, Chalky maneuvers his way through the dealings of prohibition era Atlantic City, New Jersey.  On the surface, Chalky is the token black character of the series. He has dialogue instead of literal one-liners that restrict fellow African American cast members.

The muteness of black characters in the series is in part due to the series’ blatant white (male) supremacist discourse. The inextricable linkage of entitlement and white patriarchal privilege frames the Boardwalk Empire narrative. This relationship teeters between on a multifaceted platform of gender, class, and race.

Chalky’s presence, however, is more significant and complicated than being Boardwalk’s token black guy. He embodies the struggle for access to entitlement afforded to men like main character Nucky Thompson because of his whiteness. Chalky’s name also symbolizes this struggle, doubly signifying how whiteness is a social construct and his effort to one-up “the man” (chalk also means to score). He challenges the embedded privilege of whiteness and class. These privileges are inaccessible to marginalized Black men.

This week’s episode “Anastasia” included a particularly mesmerizing scene involving Chalky and the leader of the Atlantic City Branch of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Captured to save Chalky and Nucky’s business relationship after a horrific lynching of one of Chalky’s men, the Klansman is confronted by Chalky while dressed in full Klan attire. Chalky casually saunters into the “interrogation room” and begins to tell the man a story about his father, a skilled carpenter.

Chalky talks about how his father was hired by a white man to build some library bookshelves. He tells the KKK leader how the shelves were the most beautiful artwork Chalky ever saw. After finishing the elaborately decorated shelves, another white man asks Chalky’s father to build him a similar set. When he arrives to begin work, Chalky’s father is lynched by the man and a mob.

After sharing the story, Chalky lays out his dead father’s tools in front of the Klansman. The man fearfully asks Chalky what he intends to do with the tools. Chalky coldly (but so gangsta!) replies, “well, I ain’t building no damn shelves.” He proceeds to torture the Klansman, ultimately cutting the man’s finger off as a souvenir.

Chalky’s mutilation of the Klansman violently inverts white entitlement. The Klansman, robed in purple to connote royalty, symbolizes not only white privilege but the most viral of white supremacist ideology. Chalky forcefully vanquishes the Klansman’s racial and gendered privilege by disfiguring the white body in similar fashion to the mutilation of lynched African American men.

While African American men’s identities are already seen as violent, hypermasculine entities, Chalky problematizes this idea of black men because of his choice to “lynch” the KKK leader. His “taking” of the Klansman’s finger reproaches similar actions of white participants taking appendages from black bodies after lynchings occurred.

The prominence of lynching in this episode is haunting.

The setting of Boardwalk Empire coincides not only with Prohibition but the highest number of lynchings in American history. The race riots and subsequent lynchings that plagued urban hubs in and outside the southern United States in the early 1900s provided the backdrop for African American expression like Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “The Haunted Oak” (1900), James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), and Claude McKay’s poem “The Lynching” (1920).

Lynching in the early twentieth century was the ultimate demonstration of white entitlement, the privilege to render a black body inhumane and obsolete.

For Boardwalk producers and storywriters to allow Chalky White to take this hegemonic tool and use it to challenge said white privilege is a nod in the direction of a more complex definition of racial identity and masculinity in early 20th century America. Perhaps Chalky’s character is a way to introduce and tease out a lesser known narrative of African American masculinity in an era where black men were restricted to static representations as invisible sufferers.

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