As a television network, Cinemax may not be widely associated with the production of high-art programming. Yet it’s home to The Knick, the first series by director Steven Soderbergh since he announced he was leaving film for TV. On the show, actor André Holland plays Algernon Edwards, a young black surgeon who, after receiving a medical education in more liberal France, attempts to make his way at New York’s virulently racist Knickerbocker Hospital, which happens to be led by a heroin-addicted (and not un-racist) Clive Owen.
That a director like Soderbergh is bringing this kind of material to the small screen says a lot about TV’s new wave — including its ability to give actors like Holland their big break in a way that previously only the silver screen could. “The first time I met Steven was at a lunch, which was a part of my audition,” Holland says. “I was very nervous going in as I’m such a big fan.” But once he got past his nerves (and got the role) it was cinematic magic from there on out. “Steven is a fiercely intelligent guy; he doesn’t believe in making things any more complicated than they have to be. He surrounds himself with extremely talented artists and craftspeople. He really trusts actors to do their own work. He expects that actors will come in with their own ideas. He has a great way of hearing everyone’s ideas while also maintaining a strong sense of where he wants it all to go.”
The acting and cinematography on The Knick are incredible. Ultimately, though, what stands out is the story. The show doesn’t sugarcoat anything. “I loved the way the scripts didn’t shy away from racism,” says Holland. At every turn the audience is confronted with its appalling ubiquity: There’s no telling oneself that “I” would have been the “good” 19th century New Yorker. There was no such thing.
Similarly, Holland’s character is no angel. Yes, against all odds this young black man has become a doctor and is helping untold numbers. But there’s a “darkness and rage inside of him that occasionally comes out,” says Holland. “People have asked me why Algernon gets in so many fistfights. Well, I think he understands firsthand what racism and bigotry can do to a person. That rage that he has must come out in some way.”
It’s challenging material of the sort that doesn’t focus-group well, but in the hands of masterful talent, is emotionally shattering. Holland points out how germane these themes are — obviously — to current events, before being reminded of a James Baldwin quote: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”