Last month, Indiewire had the opportunity to sit down with David Simon, one of TV’s great elder statesmen. As the creator of “The Wire,” among other legendary series, Simon has been bringing his journalism background to depicting how drugs, race and politics affect American life. His most recent project, the HBO miniseries “Show Me A Hero,” dug deeply into all of those topics through the microcosm of 1980s Yonkers, New York, which found itself in turmoil over the building of low-income housing. While “Hero” might technically be about low-income housing, it’s really, as Simon says, about how “we don’t learn.”
While a great deal of the below conversation appears in a feature covering the making of the project, I also wanted to present Simon’s thoughts, in full, on the enduring nature of “Hero,” what’s changed from the 1980s to today and the problems America still faces.
I’ve seen the whole miniseries, and it’s fascinating because — just to start off — how hard was it to sell this? How hard was it to get made?
Well, the book got optioned 15 years ago. Originally I saw it as maybe the next miniseries after “The Corner,” and that’s when HBO bought it, when we were still finishing “The Corner.” We started going to work on researching the story. Bill [Zorzi] went up to Yonkers and started recording — we had to get the voices of people and the public. Then a lot of stuff intervened. “The Wire” happened and that became, because it was a continuing series, an elaborate journey. These other miniseries, like “Generation Kill” which had to do with a news part of the war or “Treme” which had to do with Katrina, they became tied to current events.
The thing about race in America, it’s the same narrative over and over again. We don’t learn. The American pathology with race is almost permanent. I don’t actually believe that. I believe that there have been some systemic transformations and we are getting better slowly, but it’s so damn slow and the fights are so much the same as they were. You can do this piece at any time and it’s still relevant. Two towns up the Hudson from Yonkers in Tarrytown, the same exact fight is happening right now. Same exact fight. Same politics, same demagoguery, same rhetoric, same battle between the Federal Government and Westchester County. It’s like nothing has changed. It’s just two towns up the Hudson.
The book sold and then at some point Kary Antholis — who was there when we sold the book, right after “Generation Kill” — I remember walking around London with him since we were doing post production there. He said, “Are we still doing ‘Show Me a Hero?’ It’s been years. We’ve had this for years.” I said, “It’s just as relevant now.” He agreed and said, “That thing’s never going away. It’s always going to be in the ether. It’s in the country’s political and social DNA.” So we kept going and there came a moment where HBO said, “Yeah, it’s time for this one.” That was before Ferguson, that was before Baltimore, before Charleston. Race is the perennial topic. It’s amazing how enduring it is.
No kidding. But what do you think has changed from the ‘80s to now?
Generationally I think there are more Americans who are comfortable walking in a room not carrying so much privilege with them. I look at my son and I look at his friends. I think there are more Americans who are comfortable with what is almost the litmus test of whether you’re going to be functional in the country that’s coming, which is you walk into a room maybe you’re not the certain majority — in a meeting room, in a council chamber, maybe being white is plurality instead of the guaranteed majority.
As that becomes more and more true, as the country becomes more brown, in the sense of more African American, more Latino, more Asian, more people are able to deal from that perspective and not require the certitude of being in the majority opinion in a majority situation. I think we’re growing up because of that, in the same sense that once homosexuality came out of the closet you realized that your cousins and friends, there were people who were openly and contently gay. The country grew up rather quickly.
I think the same thing is happening, as a black and Latino and Asian middle class is being established, as it exerts and demands political power. I think more and more people are becoming comfortable with the notion of political power is going to be shared. That’s different from how it was in 1980. That’s certainly different from how it was in ‘65. We’ll continue to mature. Certain policies are now being challenged and falling, quite rightly. One of them is the drug war, with the over policing in the inner city and the brutalities associated with that. What’s changed right now is this.
[Simon pulls out his iPhone and places it on the coffee table.]
This thing is a revolution. When I was covering police, you knew as a police reporter that there were two guys on the corner and some shit happened, but one of them was a police officer and he knew how to write a report. The last perfect tyranny in American democracy was always going to be the patrolmen. As long as there weren’t half a dozen reliable witnesses who wouldn’t change their stories, who couldn’t be intimated, who weren’t vulnerable to the pressures of a police department, as long as you didn’t have that the police account was going to prevail. Now we’re seeing that policing in the inner city at places totalitarian. The reason for that, in my opinion, is the drug war has made it possible to break all the rules, to do anything you want.
Now we have the ability to use a phone, to pursue it as a journalist.
You call it journalism, I call it first generation data that are used against the official version. Listen, this thing is subject to its own misuse and its own editing. We’re starting to encounter situations where the provocation to officers or the threats to officers are edited out, and what shows up on the internet is merely the aftermath of the police winning the fight. Nothing is pure and good journalism is about context. Sometimes what shows up on the internet doesn’t have any context at all. Now, some fresh air has been pushed into the room in terms of a discussion what’s happening on the street, and policing is going to have to change. For it to change, we’re going to have walk away from the drug war. We’re going to have to walk away from the notion that people don’t have rights, and that people can be compelled to do anything because they’re in an area where the policing has become repressive, for lack of a better word.
It’s so interesting because there’s this part of me that when I was watching “Show Me A Hero” — and I’m not saying it is or that this was your intention — but I felt like there were times where I was watching the prequel to “The Wire.” I don’t know if that’s something I should be taking away from it, though.
You’re certainly looking at a suburban city in the New York metropolitan area that was 80 percent white and 20 percent black. “The Wire” is a city that was divided much more evenly racially, if not majority black. It was actually about 60/40 at the time. Yonkers was a suburban bedroom community to New York and you’re watching a government that has almost no minority voicing in it.
It was a government, certainly by the time Nick [Wasicsko] became mayor, where the entire council, all of the agencies, were predominantly white. That government was the voice of white Yonkers, and the 20 percent of people who were living in places like West Yonkers were completely unheard by the government. They were not regarded as a political bloc that mattered to any politician except a couple of councilmen because their seats were safe, because they represented those areas, they could be on the losing side of a vote. There was never going to be a moment where they were going to be on the winning side. Those people did not count. You’re looking at the preamble of American governance, prior to this moment we’re in now.
Yonkers was then 80/20, and the New York metropolitan area was much less brown. The level of immigration is such that there are not going to be any majorities, there are just going to be pluralities. Thirty, 40 years from now, if these demographic trends continue, the people who figure out how to walk into a room and share power are going to have some say in what this country is or isn’t. The people who don’t figure that out or keep trying to figure out how to keep people out of their neighborhoods, they’re going to be more and more marginalized, whether or not we figure out how to do that with greater tolerance and great empathy and more discussion and more healthy argument. That’s the future. The future is the American city. We don’t have an agrarian future we’re looking at. That city is going multicultural. You are looking back 25 years, to that first moment when people were asked to share, to share physical space, to share geography, to share power. It was the first moment where white people, in complete command of the local government, were being asked to deal with this.
It was an incredible struggle in Yonkers. All that fighting, all that you witness in the piece is to build 200 units of scattered site housing in a city of 200,000 people. Imagine if they were really trying to do something systemic, how brutal the fighting would have been. Those moments aren’t going to go away.
What’s so interesting about the way the miniseries brings us into that, is that there’s such attention to detail when it comes to procedure and the actual machinations that go into creating this sort of initiative. I’m wondering for you, as a creator, what excites you about putting that on screen?
Because it doesn’t get on screen. I’ve been quoted on this: I hope no one who works on those shows takes offense because they’re good shows, I don’t want to disrespect anyone’s work, but no dragons, no zombies, not a lot of fucking, not a lot of shooting. There’s nothing wrong with violence or sex or dragons, but every now and then it’d be nice if we actually argue about what ails us. The part of me that came out of newspapers that wanted to be a journalist when he was growing up, he can’t help it. He feels like something subversive happened if I can pull six hours and say, “Let’s talk about why we’re still constructing around these hyper segregated notions of society. Let’s argue this for a while. We can go back to the other stuff later, but let’s find an allegory for something we’re still arguing about.”
All credit to HBO for indulging me, and Bill Zorzi and Paul Haggis and whoever else worked on the project, with a story on the actual political scale of what’s happening, rather than something aspirational, like “The West Wing,” something we want to have. Or something hyperbolic, where politicians are completely evil or killing each other or whatever. To me, anything I can pull through the keyhole that’s actually the argument feels like a subversive victory.
There’s the classic thing about science fiction, where they say it’s an opportunity to tell stories about our real world using a fantasy metaphor. We see so much of that, then you get the opportunity to see something like this and you see when you strip away the metaphor and actually tell the story. It becomes a completely different beast.
Exactly. It’s enough that we’re talking about Yonkers, but we’re actually talking about American as a whole. That’s allegorical enough. I’ll be very specific with these 200 units in Yonkers, but I’m really talking about: Either we get this right, we start to grapple with the American pathology on race, or we stare in shock and dismay every time there’s the latest civil rights violation of a human being and we wonder why it could have come to this. Yes, Nick Wasicsko, at the key moment he was needed stood up and he took the hit for the dysfunction that was Yonkers, and all credit to him for doing that. He wasn’t a perfect hero, and he didn’t get there until he had to, but when the moment came he was there for it and all credit to him. Some of the heroes in this piece to me are some of the residents who found their voice, who had no agency whatsoever until they built those houses and put them in there. They found voices as community leaders. And ordinary people like Mary Dorman, who took a hero’s journey from fear to some better place of human impulse. She got there. I got to meet her before she died, and she was a delightful woman.
Her arc over the whole miniseries is incredible.
We didn’t cheat it. That’s actually who she was and where she came from and where she had to get to. The fact that it is on the human scale and on the scale of nonfiction, it matters more to me. This is probably the part of me that’s not good for television, but it matters to me and it matters to Bill. It’s why we wanted to do the piece. I’m really grateful for the cast, too. We pulled a lot of actors that had to do it for the love of what the piece was, because they can all get more lucrative work and they can all get more hyperbolic stuff. This is a cast where a lot of people were very much in demand. The fact they wanted to do the piece, I’m really grateful not just to HBO but to them as well.
For you, what’s key about making sure for those who are seeing this for the first time and don’t know the story, those who couldn’t put Yonkers on the map, are getting engaged with this as a 2015 audience?
I think our government is dysfunctional, particularly at the legislative branch nationally. I think it’s moneyed. The money has fucked everything up. That’s not just me saying it, that depiction of what’s gone wrong with American society and our own self governance has been out there for years now. Various Supreme Court decisions, that have unleashed the money, have exacerbated it.
The critique that’s at the core of “Show Me A Hero” is that there has to be one America. Doesn’t mean everyone gets the same thing, doesn’t mean everyone is going to have the same American experience, doesn’t mean we’re not going to have basic inequities throughout society in terms of affluence. Nobody is upending capitalism or the market completely. Those things have to be tethered to a society that looks out for not just the most affluent, but those people who are also the most beleaguered and takes people at the margins and at least allows them some portion of a plausible American future.
The way that’s being prevented right is by two currencies: fear and money. If you can buy the government, you can have more of it than the next guy and make more money. If you can scare the shit out of people so that they can’t contemplate doing the right thing or the moral thing, because they’re too scared of the fearful other, then you can run a long way in terms of ruining the republic. That’s what’s happening now. Fear and money seem to be the only currencies matter. The idea that we might all be sharing the same country, that we all might be Americans, that my city can’t be healthy unless I figure out the nightmare 20 blocks away, that’s gotten lost. Everybody’s arguing for what they have and not what the collective is.
Talk like the way I’m talking now and someone jumps up to say, “socialist,” to which I have to say, “no shit.” There is a social component to democracy that has to be addressed, along with making money. Capitalism is a wonderful tool for building wealth, but it’s not a blueprint for a just society or a complete society. Somehow we’ve come to believe it is. The only things that were being screamed in Yonkers were property values, money and the bad shit that’s going to happen when people move in here. Fear. Money and fear. Money and fear. That’s all that we seem to be running on here. That’s all the fuel we have. Until somebody buys into the notion that there is some better currency than that, I’m very worried about where we’re going.
“Show Me A Hero” is available now on HBO Go, HBO Now and HBO On Demand.