MHC's Czitrom Is Historian behind BBC America's Copper

Friday, August 17, 2012 - 13:23

Mount Holyoke professor Daniel Czitrom has spent many years teaching history in classrooms, but for the past six years his lessons have been aimed at a very different group of students in a much larger medium: Czitrom, an expert on American political and cultural history and the history of New York City, has been serving as historical consultant on a new television drama titled Copper, which will debut Sunday, August 19 at 10 pm on BBC America.

Set in New York City in 1864, Copper is a crime drama centered around an Irish-American immigrant who becomes a city police officer after returning home from the Civil War; the show is set against the backdrop of the war and the socio-political issues of the time.

As historical consultant, Czitrom reads the multiple script drafts for each episode to make certain the details of that backdrop are accurate and that story lines are realistic for the era -- whether that be making certain a character is living in an appropriate neighborhood for his race and social status, or removing not-yet-invented trolley cars from the story line. He had extensive and ongoing back-and-forth with the writers and producers on each episode, from conception to filming.

"The main challenge is to put the best political and social history into the service of making more compelling drama and richer characters," Czitrom notes. "The series is fiction of course, with invented people, dialogue, and scenes, but it pays serious attention to the reality of a specific time and place – and thus needs to be historically plausible."

The show is BBC America’s first original scripted series, and it’s backed by an impressive team. Its executive producers are Emmy winner Tom Fontana (St. Elsewhere and Homicide: Life on the Street), Oscar winner Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam), Cineflix Studios president Christina Wayne, and Fontana’s co-creator on the show, Will Rokos (Monster’s Ball).

Early reviews for the series have been stellar, including critiques by the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News, and the San Francisco Chronicle – which called Copper "gold for BBC America.” (Czitrom was interviewed for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal articles.)

Czitrom’s involvement with Copper was “total serendipity,” he says now. In 2006 he received a phone call from Rokos, who had seen him in an interview talking about New York City’s Five Points neighborhood and asked him to review a pilot script he was writing for the AMC network. That script contained “many historical errors,” Czitrom recalls. “But more importantly, I was impressed by the attention given to the history and the quality of the writing.”

AMC ultimately passed on the show, but the producers persevered and found a home with BBC America. Wayne’s Cineflix took on the production of the series, and filming began this past winter in Toronto, where a recreation of the Five Points neighborhood was built on a soundstage that had once been a vast auto factory. Czitrom, who began reading and reviewing the many drafts for the first ten episodes about a year ago, visited the set in April.

“The set is mind-blowing, a reminder of the art of artifice,” he says.

Five Points, Czitrom notes, was NYC’s first immigrant, industrial neighborhood; it was also the country’s first slum.

"Overcrowding was perhaps New York's single worst social problem. In 1865 there were 900,000 people living in Manhattan; 500,000 of them lived below 14th Street,” he says. “There were no buildings over five stories, and they were packed in pretty tight. There were too many people trying to make a living in great poverty.”

While Abraham Lincoln is a revered figure now, that was far from the case during his presidency and the Civil War, according to Czitrom. Already a controversial figure, Lincoln’s chances for re-election appeared slim when he established a military draft in 1863, a move made more contentious by a provision that allowed those who wished to avoid service to buy a substitute to go in their place for $300 – roughly the annual salary of an unskilled worker of the time. The tumultuous Draft Riots in July 1863, the largest civil insurrection in U.S. history, were fueled by both anger over the "buy out" provision and the deep racism among much of the city's white working class, he says.

Copper unfolds just months after the Draft Riots, when many New York City residents were sympathetic to the South. Numerous businessmen had close relationships with cotton growers – and many New Yorkers feared that newly-freed slaves moving north would create even greater competition for jobs.

“We want to convey the contingency of historical events. In 1864 the outcome of the war, Lincoln's political future, the meaning of freedom for African Americans – all these things were up for grabs. The characters in Copper don’t know how things will turn out,” Czitrom explains.

“Ultimately, I'm hoping the series will be great television and that it will also allow broader audiences to engage in this extraordinary historical moment."

A documentary about the making of the series, Copper: Behind the Badge, is currently being shown on BBC America. See the schedule for times.