The Knick: Racism & Sexism in 1900 NYC

“A look at the professional and personal lives of the staff at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital during the early part of the twentieth century,” IMDb describes Cinemax newcomer The Knick, and while the set’s operating theater sees a lot of bloody surgery and historically accurate innovation thanks to a consulting surgeon, nurse, and historian, The Knick brings something more valuable to the medical drama: a cross-section of New York’s social dynamics in 1900.

While Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker review pans The Knick as merely delivering “the facts,” but history is a matter of perspective, which perspective has emerged from white writers similarly disinterested in minorities, so the frankness, the magnifying glass that The Knick plays on race in 1900 NYC is rare on television in 2014, including in the show she compares favorably to The Knick, Masters of Sex, where Cate at BattyMamzelle says the characters “mention it in hushed tones.”

Contrast that to the Knickerbocker’s Dr. Algernon Edwards confronting point-blank two white surgeons adamant that he not touch a patient due to his color. Edwards forces conversations still taboo in 2014, when “oversensitivity” remains an accusation in answer to concerns of exclusion. The audience’s experiences flesh out the skeleton of injustice presented, and the audience lives vicariously through Edwards facing and conquering the establishment. Nussbaum dismisses his character as “a model minority who is all decency, without edges or idiosyncrasies” and dismisses likewise moments that would contradict this opinion. If his first altercation demonstrated “his virility,” his second did not. He seems deviant.

André Holland, playing Edwards, describes his resourcefulness, cleverness and ego:

“I think he’s very precise, not only in his work but also socially, in the way he sees the world. I also think that he does have some ego about what he’s doing. I think that he’s done the work, he’s put in the time, and he really, truly believes in his heart that he can be one of the world’s best surgeons…It’s not just a guy who’s a put-upon character; he has a real point of view about what he’s doing. So he sits on the abuse and the insults and he finds a way around it for as long as he possibly can. Even in the scene in episode three or four, when he has a showdown with Dr. Gallinger, what I wanted to explore was this man who is both standing up for himself but also taking a tiny bit of joy in the fact that he has the knowledge and he has the power. He takes a little bit of what it would be like to be in control, and he enjoys it. And I think that’s human and it’s more interesting than him just being the black man who has to suffer in silence.”

So, perhaps perspective matters in who finds The Knick worthwhile. For those who have sat on insults, investigating science and the struggles of Jewish and Black doctors vs. white doctors, citizen vs. newer citizen, upper vs. lower class, women vs. men- the show is a feast, helped by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s writing, beautiful cinematography, costumes and sets, a stellar cast, “propulsive editing,” Chris Martinez’s unexpectedly fitting electronic soundtrack, and recently, some fascinating romantic developments.

I am so excited about Edwards’ romance. He and his lady love, whom I won’t spoil, are so genuinely sensual, perhaps because her character’s frank and the nudity isn’t self-conscious or objectifying but natural. Particularly given the closed-door sex scene, as others were not, one senses the authenticity and centrality of the characters foremost, and I was struck by the frame by frame juxtaposition of her and Edwards, equally topless, as if that foreshadowed the equality of their relationship. Maybe I’m reading into it. Either way, I’m happy to hear The Knick’s been renewed.