Boardwalk Empire and it’s Portrayal of Black Leadership

Garvey Wisdom


jeffrey wright
Jeffrey Wright as “Dr. Narcisse.”

The HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” (a show I watch faithfully) has taken a weird turn in storyline. This season they introduced a new character named Dr. Narcisse (played by Jeffrey Wright). Narcisse is a well-educated and articulate Black man who represents the Universal Negro Improvement Association. In the series, Dr. Narcisse is a smooth-talking proponent of Black solidarity on one hand and a notorious gangster and Heroin dealer on the other.

I take issue with this depiction of the UNIA. While Dr. Narcisse is a fictional character, the UNIA he supports was a real organization headed by Marcus Garvey. Depicting the UNIA as being associated with narcotics trafficking and gangsterism in Harlem is problematic and historically inaccurate.

It would appear that Garvey was attacked and smeared while alive and the assault continues in his death. But why was Garvey attacked? Garvey created the largest movement in our history. His Negro World newspaper had a circulation of  200,000negro world and was avidly read by Black people in America, Central America, Europe and Africa. Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay noted that the Negro World was the best edited newspaper in New York City.”

drew ali and garvey
Noble Drew Ali (Founder of the Moorish Science Temple) and Marcus Garvey founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.

In addition, Garvey called upon Black people to rely on themselves, educate themselves, work together, be proud of their race and history, and unite with Blacks all over the world to create their own nation. He and the UNIA created Black business cooperatives, owned land, promoted Black art and culture, and called for the Africa to liberate itself from European colonial powers. It is no exaggeration to say that Garvey (along with Noble Drew Ali) influenced Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, the Rastafarian movement, the Black Arts and Consciousness Movement, and the Black Power movement.

White colonial powers and American corporate powers were threatened by Garvey’s effect on Black people all over the world. Spearheaded by a young J. Edgar Hoover and some Negro collaborators, Garvey was followed by the Bureau of Investigation (later known as the FBI) who placed paid informants in the UNIA. One of these informants, named Schuyler Cargill, later gave false testimony in court that he received mail from the UNIA, selling shares of stock for a ship that the organization actually didn’t own. This  charge of mail fraud was so fraudulent that garvey arrestedthe only piece of “evidence” provided by the prosecution was an empty envelope that they claimed contained the illegal stock advertisement! On this bogus charge, Garvey received a  sentence of 5 years in prison and began serving his term in 1925. Two years later, President Coolidge commuted his sentence and had Garvey deported back to Jamaica. Of course, this was J. Edgar Hoover’s plan in the first place. He wanted to destroy the Garvey movement in America (as early as October of 1919, Hoover wrote a memo indicating his disdain for Garvey and his intention to have him deported). 

So Boardwalk Empire’s latest misrepresentation of Garvey and his movement should not be taken lightly or disregarded as simply “harmless entertainment.” Properly understood, it is one instance in a long history of mischaracterizing Marcus Garvey in particular, and radical Black thinkers and movements in general. The FBI’s Counterintelligence Program, (designed to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or OTHERWISE NEUTRALIZE the activities of black nationalist hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder”) states this objective clearly in one memo when it notes, “in every instance careful attention must be given to the proposal to insure the targeted group is disrupted, ridiculed, or discredited through the publicity and not merely publicized…”

Another memo states that the fourth major objective of the Counterintelligence program was to: “Prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining RESPECTABILITY, by discrediting them…” Notice the following scene and how they depict Dr. Narcisse (and therefore Garvey’s organization) as a hypocrite:

This misrepresentation of the UNIA on television must be seen within a historical context. There is a historical precedent for smearing, dismissing and distorting Black leaders and movements that dare unify and empower Black people while challenging those who oppress us. We tend to dismiss the significance of this as being “innocent fun” or “harmless entertainment.” But we fail to realize that every major violation of Black people (i.e. Trayvon Martin) follows dozens and hundreds of smaller violations that draw little to no outcry from us. When we fail to defend ourselves, our leaders, and our historical memory, we send a message to others that we are easy and non-threatening prey.

The Black community has no shortage of intelligence or talent. God knows we are some of white America’s most effective entertainers, athletes, managers, salespeople, defenders and promoters. Our deficiencies lie in the areas of consciousness, critical analysis, solidarity, and self-reliance. Far too often, we grin when we should growl. We dismiss things we should critique or protest. We ridicule what we should revere. And we defend what we should attack. It’s one thing to laugh, and it’s another thing to laugh when you’re the butt of the joke. So at the risk of being deemed too serious, unable to have fun, or too uptight, I will defend our sincere leaders and brave movements, and I humbly invite you to do the same. Marcus Garvey was no dope dealer,nor was the UNIA. He was one of our greatest, most influential, and inspiring leaders. If Hollywood or cable had a dramatic series that depicted John F. Kennedy, Jane Adams, or Albert Einstein as gangsters or dope dealers, there would be an outcry. Only people who don’t love/value themselves mistake abuse and violation for entertainment. Let’s get it together, Black people. Let’s not suffer peacefully…


7 thoughts on “Boardwalk Empire and it’s Portrayal of Black Leadership

  1. Excellent essay…however, I do know that the character, Dr. Narcisse is based upon a real individual…..Casper Holstein. An esteemed intellectual, who was down with UNIA and even wrote for the Crisis and funded much of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance. There doesn’t seem to be any connection between him and heroine, however, he was certainly a master at the numbers game in Harlem working with Stephanie St. Claire and Bumpy Johnson.

    While I certainly understand the problematic nature of depicting the UNIA as a drug pushing organization, I don’t know if that is the entire picture. Much of Boardwalk Empire deals with individuals engaged in THEIR version of the American Dream, by any means necessary. I think the schism between the political and Afrocentric goals of the UNIA are not OVERSHADOWED by the nefarious dealings of one of its members. That’s just my take….

    1. I appreciate you reading my article, and your thoughtful response. I should add that Casper Holstein was not a member, spokesperson, or leader of the UNIA. He did donate money to Black colleges and he purchased Garvey’s old headquarters building and allowed members to use it after Garvey was deported. Like Bumpy Johnson years later, he was a kingpin of the Harlem underworld that was sympathetic to and supportive of movements for Black empowerment. My concern is that many people watching this character will get a false impression of Garvey’s organization and even Garvey himself. So while a television series’ mischaracterization of a historical figure or movement cannot overshadow it, it can serve to keep people ignorant or misinformed. My goal is to inspire Black people to take up the cause of organizations like the UNIA, not to dismiss or turn their backs on them. Nevertheless, your points are well taken and appreciated. Thanks again.

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