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High Visibility: The Wire

High Visibility: The Wire

Omar (Michael K. Williams) lies naked, sleeping next to his boyfriend. He’s roused by a noise. Suspecting gunshots, he pulls a window curtain aside and sees a garbage truck below. He puts on pajama bottoms and a robe (both of blue silk) and walks to the kitchen to fix himself some cereal. His boyfriend, Renaldo (Ramon Rodriguez), has left the box empty. Preparing to go out for Cheerios, Omar tries unsuccessfully to conceal his gun. Frustrated, he leaves the apartment unarmed.

Omar is tall and sinewy. Physically, he’s not particularly imposing, but he has an almost mythic quality. Armed with a shotgun and assisted by a small band of followers, he has often stolen from some of the most powerful drug dealers in West Baltimore and managed to elude their retribution; he can clear a street corner from a block away, just by whistling “The Farmer in the Dell.” As he leaves home in his search for cereal, he walks with confidence in his outfit of bright, flowing silk, a colorful alternative to his typical long black trench. The children and dealers on the street call out a warning to one another— “Omar’s coming”—and scatter. He enters his local grocery store and buys regular Cheerios (they have no Honey Nut) and a pack of Newports. On his way home, he leans on a rowhouse and lights a cigarette; a package of drugs falls to his feet from the window above. Even unarmed and pajama-clad, Omar terrifies his neighbors enough that they’re willing to forfeit their product without even being asked.

Omar comes home and empties the bag of drugs on the kitchen table. He doesn’t even want them—“It ain’t what you’re taking; it’s who you’re taking it from.” Because for Omar, it isn’t just about drugs or money, it’s also about power. Renaldo, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to give any of it much thought. His first question to Omar: “They didn’t have Honey Nut?”

*****

Given the high level of visibility of gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters and performers on American television, it has now become relatively pointless to write about the state of queer American cinema without also considering TV. This certainly wasn’t the case twenty years ago, when New Queer Cinema was in its nascency. Regularly featured gay people had popped up on television shows in the 1970s—most prominently in the sitcom Soap and the landmark PBS documentary series An American Family—but the dominance of the broadcast networks through the 1980s meant that competition for audiences was limited to three vaguely distinguishable, unadventurous players, each regulated by the FCC. Most television series were made to appeal to a (straight, white, middle-class) mass audience, and programming was frequently a rush to the middle in which aesthetic and political boundary pushing weren’t rewarded. Exceptions, from All in the Family and Hill Street Blues to The Cosby Show and The Golden Girls (also created by Soap’s Susan Harris), largely proved the rule. At least movie audiences had an alternative to mainstream Hollywood fare. Independent films and film movements, including the New Queer Cinema, could sustain themselves on smaller audiences concentrated in urban centers. Television lacked an analogous alternative to the mainstream, in part because none of the Big Three networks could compete effectively for ratings—and by extension, ad revenue—by programming to niche audiences.

It’s hard to overstate just how much the rise of the Fox network and the expansion of cable transformed television as a medium and an art form. Click here to read all of Chris Wisniewski’s essay on The Wire, High Visibility.

And click here to read other selections from Reverse Shot’s new symposium, Prop. 24: Defining a New Queer Cinema.

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