Jeffrey Wright elevates the quality of any production he’s involved in — from the Shaft reboot, to Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, to several Bond films. Most recently, Wright has been stealing scenes on Boardwalk Empire. He plays the gloriously villainous Valentin Narcisse, a Harlem power broker who dabbles in drugs and murder when he isn’t preaching liberation and empowerment with Marcus Garvey.
Though Wright has worked with the most renowned writers, including Tony Kushner and Mike Nichols, he describes Boardwalk as one of the highest-quality projects he’s been a part of. “It has a lot to do with the period,” Wright tells Kurt Andersen. “A lot of political dynamics were awakening at that time and these writers — led by Howard Korder and Terry Winter — are very attuned to historical detail.”
Narcisse is historical fiction, but Wright has portrayed Muddy Waters, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Colin Powell. He’s drawn to roles that engage racial politics. “I grew up in Washington, DC, I was a political science major, these are the things that run around in my head,” he explains. He goes so far as to call movies, plays, and TV “propaganda”: “It’s messaging to folks about what has value, what doesn’t,” he says. “I like to be a part of the propaganda for the side of opening our eyes to the complexity of American culture.”
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