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The Necessary History of David Simon’s New HBO Miniseries ‘Show Me a Hero’

The Necessary History of David Simon's New HBO Miniseries 'Show Me a Hero'

A long line of white men assumes the dais, and in short order the screaming begins.

“Whatever happened to majority rule?”

“Isn’t this still America?”

“A bunch of wimps is what you all are!”

If this has the ring of a recent dispatch from the front lines of the Republican presidential primary, sound bites snagged from the debate stage in Cleveland and replayed on the cable news networks at the top of every hour, that is exactly the point. The uncanny resemblance between present and past is the tacit subject of “The Wire” creator David Simon’s new miniseries, “Show Me a Hero,” adapted from former New York Times reporter Lisa Belkin’s kaleidoscopic account of the pitched battle over public housing in Yonkers, N.Y., in the 1980s and 1990s.

As politics if not always as art, the six-part saga is the television series of the year: rarely has a historical portrait seemed more timely than this one. 

The hardhearted rhetoric comes from a raucous city council meeting in the series’ second installment, as irate citizens protest a federal court ruling requiring Yonkers to build 200 affordable housing units in traditionally white, middle-class neighborhoods. Forced to implement the order, under threat of fines that will quickly bankrupt the city, hotshot mayor Nick Wasicsko (the terrific Oscar Isaac) sees the thinly veiled racist resentment that carried him to victory against incumbent Angelo Martinelli (Jim Belushi) become a ruthless tide of rage. The origins of our current racial divide, “Show Me a Hero” suggests, lay as surely in the long battle to resist desegregation as in the battle to achieve it.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates explains in his essential 2014 essay, “The Case for Reparations,” the “plunder” of redlining, predatory lending, and other hideous policies is as central to the American history of violence against black people as slavery or Jim Crow, and despite its dramatic flaws, the very existence of a series focused on the subject is itself extraordinary. In this, “Show Me a Hero,” directed by Paul Haggis (“Crash”) with unfettered historical realism, bears the imprint of screenwriters and former journalists Simon and William F. Zorzi. The series reflects the beat reporter’s conviction that, within the dry details of council meetings and zoning laws, housing projects and blue-ribbon commissions, there hides a profoundly human story of hopes and dreams, hatred and disappointment. All politics really is local.

The result is a finely wrought, nuanced depiction of segregated life in a Northern city at the end of the Reagan era, one whose purpose is, as District Judge Leonard Burke Sand (Bob Balaban) says of his decision, “not to create martyrs or heroes,” but to examine all the ways, great and small, that structural racism inflects and informs the individual experience.

The result is also, almost by definition, a narrative that lacks the tremendous force of “The Wire.” Rhythmically, “Show Me a Hero” is closer kin to Simon’s roomy love letter to New Orleans, “Treme,” with an added tendency to didacticism; the nature of its journalistic bent is an interest in the minutiae of urban planning, municipal organization, and civil rights law that proves better suited to page than screen. At times, the creditable desire to include an array of perspectives also lends a schematic element to the proceedings, with the ideological thrust superseding the impulse to transcend or subvert the notion that demography is destiny.

And yet, though the carefulness of “Show Me a Hero” will surely read, to some, as insufficient to the appetite for constant cliffhangers and fanciful set pieces, this attention to the Sisyphean nature of the struggle for fair housing practices is vitally important. Steadily constructing the lives of the characters from gentle glimpses—of Doreen (Natalie Paul), a junkie-turned-tenant rights advocate; of Norma (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), a home healthcare worker suffering complications from diabetes; of Mary (Catherine Keener), a fierce opponent of the plan for public housing—the series emerges as a powerful, deeply humane treatment of racial discrimination as the singular, intractable constant in the American equation, past, present, and future.

If the decision to frame Wasicsko as the protagonist of this multivalent tale is, perhaps, more problem than solution, he is nonetheless not exactly the hero of the title. Stumbling into the issue first as a campaign tactic, and only later as a true believer in housing reform, his righteousness is soured by his increasingly desperate ambition to transform the project into a political “win,” which seems scarcely more honorable than the soused disinterest of his main ally on the city council, Vincenza “Vinni” Restiano (Winona Ryder), or the racist pandering of his main opponent, Hank Spallone (Alfred Molina).

Broken by the political consequences of his choices, he becomes, by the series’ conclusion, an emblem of what remains, unfortunately, this country’s mainstream—a theoretical commitment to equality that, in practice, defends the privileges of whiteness. He is not an unsympathetic figure, much less a villainous one, but his understanding of “justice” is ultimately dominated by his sense of entitlement.

Indeed, the correspondences between past and present uncovered by “Show Me a Hero” end where Wasicsko’s story does. Though the narrative finally strikes an optimistic note, as Doreen, Norma, and the other residents of the new public housing developments in Yonkers begin to thrive, the integrationist moment has already passed; the series’ unseen epilogue is the dismantling of the work it presents in the two decades since. “Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once promised, and the knowledge of what comes after the events of “Show Me a Hero” demands that we see the series as a necessary history, avant le deluge: an American tragedy in motion, even as I write.

“Show Me a Hero” premieres Sunday, August 16 at 8pm on HBO.

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