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Thursday, February 16, 2017

February 16, 2017: AmericanStudier Hearts Justified: Limehouse and Noble’s

[Last fall, I spent a very happy month or so binge-watching all of FX’s Justified. With main characters based on an Elmore Leonard novella, the show focused on—but was in no way limited to—the exploits of Timothy Olyphant’s federal marshal Raylan Givens. I loved many many things about Justified, so for this year’s Valentine’s series I wanted to highlight and analyze a few of them. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the show, or other things you love, in comments]
On the potent lessons of the show’s most surprising community, and their limits.
As all of my posts this week have hopefully highlighted, I learned a great deal from Justified about many aspects of Harlan County and its histories and communities. But no history or community stood out and surprised me more than Noble’s Holler, the multi-generational African American community (it dates back to the immediate aftermath of Emancipation, we’re told) led by Mykleti Williamson’s all-knowing yet tight-lipped, congenial yet dangerous butcher, restauranteur, and under-the-table banker and businessman Ellstin Limehouse. Based on an actual Harlan community, and introduced as a central setting and plot element in the show’s third season (with a recurring role in the fourth and sixth seasons as well), Noble’s is dominated by Limehouse and his agenda, relationships, and machinations, just as the show’s other season-long villain like Mags and the Bennett clan become focal points of their community and world. But because Limehouse and the people of Noble’s are the only residents of color we meet in Harlan, just about every scene with Williamson—even if he’s ostensibly just advancing aspects of the plot or aiding or hindering another character’s efforts—also has a great deal to tell us about this historic and isolated African American community and its presence and role in Harlan.
One of the most interesting aspects of that latter communal role is Noble’s long (and again apparently historically authentic) legacy of providing shelter to abused women of all races looking to escape from their significant others. That legacy is deeply relevant to both Ava Crowder (who utilized those services multiple times during her marriage to the abusive Bowman) and Raylan Givens (whose mother often sought refuge from Raylan’s abusive father Arlo in Noble’s), and thus echoes into the show’s present and plot in numerous ways as well. But it’s certainly one of those aspects of the show that extends beyond specific plotlines and episodes, and helps us think about how oppressed and endangered minority communities (a description that in Harlan fits both African Americans and abused women looking to escape the confines of marriage, I would argue) find ways to survive and even thrive through both codependence and independence. That is, Noble’s has clearly benefited in various ways from its relationship with (especially) white women—we see Limehouse take both money and information in exchange for providing shelter, and of course having allies in the larger white community doesn’t hurt either—but it is able to perform that role precisely because it is self-sufficient, a quality that Limehouse is consistently determined to preserve and strengthen.
At the same time, Limehouse and Noble’s are still limited by the show’s emphasis on genre and plot. Although (unlike many of the season-long villains) Limehouse survives past the end of his focal (third) season and indeed through the end of the show, he and Noble’s are featured in the later seasons only if and when a particular character needs one of the things that Limehouse can offer (shelter, money, information, aid). That’s probably inevitable, and certainly understandable, but it also frustratingly replicates in artistic terms the segregation and isolation that Noble’s and its African American community have faced throughout their Harlan existence. That is, we the viewers of Justified can go long stretches of time—such as the entirety of the 5th season, I believe—without seeing and thus (perhaps) without thinking about Noble’s, and only remember its presence in Harlan when we (through one of the show’s main characters) need something from it. You could say the same about many aspects of Justified’s community and world, to be sure (many critics have noted that both of Raylan’s fellow Deputy Marshals came in and out of the show, left out of many plotlines entirely); but there’s nonetheless something particularly frustrating about this absence and elision when it comes to the show’s and Harlan’s one overtly minority community. Yet I suppose it’s a sign of how much I love Justified that I desperately wish we had more stories involving one of its characters and communities!
Last Justified Valentine tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other loves you’d share?

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