In the season premiere of HBO’s Golden Globe winning Prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire, Chalky White, Atlantic City’s premier black bootlegger, is ambushed by members of the local Ku Klux Klan, resulting in the death four men in his crew with more being injured, including a woman. White himself escapes death only through the arrogance of a Klan member to deliver a racist spiel while holding him at gunpoint and the courage of a woman lying in wait to take aim at the hooded terrorist. As the KKK rides off in a hurry, White takes up a rifle of his own and kills one of the men with a shot to the neck.
This scene perhaps more than any in the series thus far establishes his character and lets the audience know just what type of man they are dealing with in Chalky White. It’s true, he’s a gangster involved illegal trade, but he also serves as a defender of his community against often violent white racism and a provider for the needs of black people whether they participate in the underground economy or not. More than just a procurer of outlawed whiskey, White is the political leader and moneyed savior of Atlantic City’s poor black population. In effect, he’s a black male superhero.
I think it no accident that Chalky is played magnetically by Michael Kenneth Williams, the Brooklyn bred actor most widely known for portraying the inimitable Omar Little in HBO’s highly acclaimed and perennially snubbed The Wire. The sawed-off shotgun wielding stick up kid remains a favorite character among fans (including President Obama) for his strict moral code and prophetic one-liners.
Both Chalky and Omar (and by extension, Williams) fit into a tradition of celebrated badass Negroes most famously represented in the 1970s era of blaxploitation films. Chalky could very well be the grandfather or great-grandfather of Superfly, The Mack, Dolemite, or Black Caesar, (and Omar, their son), and they all could potentially be descendants of the legendary folk hero Stagolee.
By most societal and legal standards, these men were vile criminals that should have been locked away in privately owned prisons in order to become cheap labor for large corporations. But their relationship to their communities was much more complicated, as their illegally acquired wealth granted them status and their resistance to “The Man” made them neighborhood superstars.
What separates Chalky and Omar from the pack and what makes them two of the most compelling fictional black men on television in recent memory are the ways in which they disrupt the very rigid contours of black masculinity that our blaxploitation era heroes adhered. All are decidedly violent and knowledgeable of the laws governing the street, but where Superfly et al. derived their sense of manhood in large part from their ability to bed to bevy of fine women, Chalky and Omar divert from the script.
Chalky is a devoted family, he spends his time outside of the home running his business and making sure the black population gets their proper cut of the burgeoning illegal liquor economy. It’s not that we’ve never seen a black man as husband and father, but to share in the same body two ideas that seem at odds with one another (criminal mastermind and loving husband/father) challenges us to think of black men beyond the binary of good versus bad, that one could be both wedded to the streets and his take care of his responsibilities his family left at home.
Omar broke the boxes down even further, forcing the audience to consider the ties of sexual orientation to our precepts of manhood. Identifying openly as homosexual, he had little use for the romantic company of women, yet any onlookers trying to discern his sexual from stereotypical visual clues would be left confused.
There is no separation from the performance of masculinity embodied by Omar or the hypermasculine drug dealers he made his prey. He dressed, walked, talked, and shot his gun in the same manner. The only difference lie in whom he desired to sleep with. It infuriated his rivals, the idea that a man who liked other men (which in their minds made him weak) could outsmart and out-muscle them so regularly.
This is all held together by Williams’ skills as an actor. His very appearance can be alternately menacing or tender, owing in part to a highly visible scar that runs across his face. He gives the illiterate-country-boy-makin’-good-in-the-big-city Chalky an extreme pride and defiant dignity, even in the face of the blatant and vicious racism that hung one of his workers by a lamppost.
In Omar, he meshed child-like sensitivity with the aged-beyond-his-years street-wise posture required to insure survival. He’s conscious of what these characters mean for the dramatization of black male lives and plays them with a sense of purpose.
In a 2009 interview with TIME magazine, Williams said that his dream role would be to play James Baldwin. I can’t speak to the real life possibility of that happening, Hollywood isn’t exactly in love with black historical figures, but it wouldn’t be a stretch. Williams has proven he has a knack for bringing to life complicated visions of black men that are now or will be iconic. He’s crafting new black male superheroes for the millennial generation. Along the way, he’s becoming a black male superhero in his own right.