Who do I have to pull a Gyp-Rosetti-style beating on to get a HBO show about the Harlem Renaissance?
I’ve been thinking about that lately as I’ve been watching Boardwalk Empire and reflecting on the Prohibition Era. While I love Boardwalk Empire dearly, seeing the sporadic appearances of Michael K. Williams as Chalky White makes me realize that we’re missing an essential part of American history in the Roaring Twenties.
Think about it — Harlem was at that point coming into its own as the epicenter of African American culture. Jazz was exploding (the Cotton Club was a booming destination for many people of all races), writers like Langston Hughes were exploring the idea of what it means to be African-American and the roots of the Civil Rights movement were beginning to sprout.
I don’t think that this show could be something similar to Boardwalk Empire, which plays homage to gangsters and corruption that ran rampant during prohibition. There’s nothing wrong with that and in a way, I’d prefer it.
A show about the Harlem Renaissance would be more of an exploration of culture, the foundation of movements, even questions about identity that I don’t think have been seriously explored in American television as of late. It’d be compelling drama, as long as the writers didn’t get intimidated by the larger-than-life figures like W. E. B. DuBois, Jelly Roll Morton and others. But Boardwalk Empire tackles subjects like Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano and Capone and makes it compelling viewing, so why not Harlem’s icons?
It could even start as a spin-off of Boardwalk Empire, with Chalky’s rebellious daughter Maybelle splitting town to explore Harlem, serving as a surrogate audience member to get us involved in the lives of the cast. When I saw Maybelle and her beau in the juke joint, it was getting a glimpse into a different world that is rarely discussed in the slam-though-the-highlights-reel of American History that most of us get in high school and college. Given the vibrancy of that time, it seems shameful that we’re neglecting this part of American culture and history.
We’ve seen a lot of costume dramas focused on post World War I as of late — Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey and Parade’s End are three that instantly come to mind. And while I can appreciate those dramas (well, honestly, mostly Boardwalk Empire, but I am fascinated by hardboiled crime series), it’s treading the same ground over and over again, which is upper middle class white folks and their problems, which is getting dull.
I don’t know if it’s fears of producers and writers to muck this up and be called racist, but I think in the right hands a show about the Harlem Renaissance could be a glorious addition to the costume dramas where everything is filled with class and suppressed emotions. This show could offer some swing and liveliness so badly needed in the costume drama genre.