David Sims is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers culture.
The HBO miniseries from The Wire creator David Simon follows an embattled city resisting efforts to build public housing.
Each week following Show Me a Hero, David Sims, Brentin Mock, and Lenika Cruz discuss the controversial efforts to build low-income housing in Yonkers in the ’80s, as depicted in HBO’s six-part miniseries.
David Sims: “Gentlemen, our object is not to create martyrs, or heroes. Our object is to get this housing built.” That’s Judge Leonard B. Sand (Bob Balaban), calmly pleading with the officials of Yonkers to comply with his court order to build affordable housing in the historically white eastern part of the city. It’s a request that seems nothing more than humane and the furthest thing from hysteria-inducing. But HBO’s Show Me a Hero charts the maelstrom of anger that court order created in Yonkers, and the vast gulf of understanding that existed (and still exists) regarding race relations in this country. In the hands of the writers David Simon and Bill Zorzi, and the director Paul Haggis, it lands a powerful, but considered, punch.
What struck me most about the first two (of six) episodes was how intently Yonkers’ segregation played out onscreen. The show charts the young Councilman Nick Wasicsko’s (Oscar Isaac) rise to the mayoralty at age 28, while also following the city’s resistance to comply with a court order demanding desegregation of public housing and various personal stories playing out in the city’s communities of color. At no point do any of the furious opponents of desegregation interact with the people they’re trying to keep out of their neighborhoods; even the city’s politicians seem completely insulated from them. It’s an issue that stirs up sound and fury, but the protesters’ fears seem to be fueled by their own ignorant nightmares, rather than any real-world context.
There’s one exception: At one point early in his run for mayor, Wasicsko tries to pass a leaflet to Skip Watts (J. Mallory McCree), an asthmatic young man from the projects wrapped up in a tender romance and life as a drug dealer, which stops him from seeking medical help for a condition that ends up claiming his life. Skip shows no interest in Wasicsko’s pleas for his vote, nor should he, really—it’s not as if Wasicsko is a man of particular principle. Isaac plays him as a likable charmer who seems mostly concerned with projecting an image as a reliable leader, perhaps wrapped up in his own neuroses about his young age and dead father. His commitment to obeying the court order is born not from idealism but practicality: More than anything, he wants to avoid plunging Yonkers into bankruptcy.
That might be why Judge Sands’s line about martyrs and heroes resonates so strongly. The court order is simply enforcing the constitutional civil rights of Yonkers’s residents, stringent as it might seem to the petty councilmen who object to the small parcels of affordable housing that will be placed in their districts as a result. It seeks nothing more than some zoning agreements from the city’s officials, but in forcing Wasicsko’s hand (he’s elected out of kneejerk opposition to the previous mayor’s approval of the housing plan, then required to enforce it), it turns him into a perplexing sort of hero to the audience, and a traitor to the cause for the angry mob that elected him.
Simon’s work always has a polemical edge that he couches within warm characterization and attention to detail. Show Me a Hero is an intensely political work that never drops the thread of the human lives in the balance; between every scene of municipal grandstanding and courthouse speeches, we cut to Skip trying to break out of the drug trade, or the nurse Norma (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) struggling with the diabetes-induced loss of her eyesight, or Carmen (Ilfenesh Hadera), torn between returning to her home country and the life she wants to offer her children in America. And it doesn’t lose sight of Wasicsko’s homespun appeal even as he’s sucked into the debate that will prove his undoing.
The protesters on the sidelines, and bigoted council members like Henry J. Spallone (Alfred Molina) are less well-shaded, but their villainy seems so much a product of ignorance and pettiness; the one activist who gets more of a grounded arc, Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener), seems troubled by said ignorance, even though she has a long way to go before confronting it in herself. There’s a lot of groundwork being laid for a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, hinted at in the opening scene and easily Googleable (this is all, of course, a depressing real-life tale), but even by the second episode Wasicsko’s efforts seem intractable. He’s a personable guy, not interested in grandstanding or capitulating to an angry mob, but also not fired by the conviction that desegregating the city is a moral imperative. That coolness seems to protect him to an extent, but it’s hard to tell if that façade can maintain. There’s only so many Maalox and Stoli cocktails one can down. Brentin and Lenika, what did you think of the show’s approach? Is there enough human drama here to cut through the municipal details, or is Simon too bogged down in relating the history of the situation to get to anything else?
Brentin Mock: If anything, Simon hasn’t related the history of the situation enough. It will be interesting to see whether this proves to be a liability. Viewers are introduced to 1987 Yonkers in the first episode via a snapshots-of-America montage that Simon usually saves for the denouement of his stories, as he did with The Wire and Treme. Next, we’re treated to aerial views of the city, as developers helicopter over it, scouting areas to place the low-income houses that viewers eventually will realize are the story’s central tension points. They pan over the east part of Yonkers, where we can see mansions that look like castles and large open park spaces; and then to the far denser west side, which is cluttered with apartment buildings and row homes.
It could be any city in America, and you wouldn’t know it was Yonkers if not for the caption. The story begins, dialogue-wise, inside a generic city council chamber room, where two women explain the distribution of partisan power amongst the mayor and council members. We’re then introduced to a few black and Latino non-leading characters, families of Yonkers’ middle and underclass, followed by a short clip of Councilman Nick Wasicsko getting wooed to run for mayor. We’re a good 14 minutes into the show before it directly clues us in to the central drama.
It’s a very convoluted lead-in, and it’s a gamble. It assumes that the audience will care enough about what happens to this city, especially after they learn that the city is Yonkers. It also assumes that most viewers are sympathetic enough to the cause of low-income housing that they’ll want to see how this drama plays out, in all of its ugliness.
Here’s why I think the series could’ve used a little more history. For me, the more compelling parts of the story, as told in full in Lisa Belkin’s eponymous book, are the fights waged by civil-rights and fair-housing advocates that presage episode one of the HBO series. Those battles, started by a lawsuit filed by the NAACP in 1980, were followed by a federal court finding in 1985 that Yonkers intentionally segregated black families from white families. This happened 20 years after the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act were passed, and not in Mississippi but in the liberal, Democratic stronghold state of New York.
We can only hope, then, that viewers will indulge Simon’s starting point, after those hard-fought NAACP battles, where much of the original true grit of conflict and tension lie. By starting the drama in 1987, with the resistance of the all-white city council to court-ordered integration (emboldened by their constituents’ vitriolic ire), and by hanging the story on the rise of Wasicsko to mayor, Simon risks exalting and privileging white men above all other characters—hero worship of the palest font.
Or maybe Simon starts here because he wants to examine the role of white people in not only undoing their own racism, but also in putting in the work to remedy the consequences of their racism. This is always a tricky crossroads when dealing with racism in popular culture: Focus too much on black people’s fight and the takeaway is that the burden is on the victims to overcome white supremacy. Focus too much on white people’s fight to battle the racist beast within, though, and you risk assigning them messiah status. Navigating this effectively entails ensuring that black characters are afforded adequate agency and humanity throughout the story. But give them too much agency, or even their accurate measure—especially in a real-life drama like this—and historians will come out the woodwork with accusations of black romanticization, as Ava DuVernay unfortunately learned with Selma.
When we meet the NAACP folks in episode one, they don’t have a lot of fight left in them. They don’t share the excitement of their non-black attorney Michael Sussman (Jon Bernthal) about going to the mat with the city council over its non-compliance with the federal housing order. The civil-rights activists sound resigned, weighing whether it’s even worth it to put poor, black people in neighborhoods where they’re not wanted, even with the courts on their side. It’s a paradox historically suffered by African Americans: feeling the agony of defeat even amidst victory. Incredulous, Sussman says “The NAACP arguing against integration; who’d a thought it?” The NAACP activist responds that he’s not arguing against it, but that he’s “just tired.”
That exchange is worth unpacking, though this doesn’t happen. There’s little agency in general among the black characters in the first two episodes, something I hope will change in the remaining four. If you know nothing of the Yonkers story then you could easily believe that this lack of agency is because the black characters just don’t have it in them, and that the NAACP is selling out. More specifically, you could easily believe that these poor, black families are just waiting for Superman—Wasicsko—to save them, a notion that would inadvertently reinforce the opposition voiced by white Yonkers residents who believe that these black families need only work harder so that they can buy real housing like real Americans.
It’s only with knowledge of black activists’ struggles that took place in the years before episode one that you would understand their exhaustion comes not from lack of trying, but from being over-tried. You’d have to understand how Martin Luther King felt when he gave up after only months of fighting for the black poor in Chicago, when met by the same hostile resistance from Democratic whites.
Simon only has six one-hour episodes to tell this story, so I understand that everyone can’t be a hero under those time constraints. But the opening parts are already showing signs of what The Nation’s David Zirin rightfully criticized about The Wire, which was that it failed to adequately characterize black organizers and activists in Baltimore who were equally invested in fighting for their communities.
I have no problem in general with giving white people the stage to work out problems like racism that are of their making. But when the word “hero” is in the title, and there’s such a short arc available for showing who that is, the buyer’s remorse for black and Latino viewers might set in quickly, I’m afraid. I can only hope that white viewers will stick around to the end, no matter how messily it portrays them, but especially because of how it captures their messiness. This story, meanwhile, will be important for all to follow given the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent fair housing decision, and HUD’s recently finalized rule on affirmatively furthering fair housing, both of which have everything to do with what happened in Yonkers.
Lenika Cruz: In a neat coincidence, Show Me a Hero’s premiere comes just after This American Life aired its incredible two-part series “The Problem We All Live With,” which examined the modern challenges of integrating U.S. schools—arguably one of the most promising and yet most difficult ways to improve education for lower-income and minority students. It’s perhaps no surprise that so many telling (and depressing) analogues to the Yonkers story cropped up in that story. Both bring to the fore the immense task that comes after the courtroom victories: the politicians or school officials digging in their heels to please constituents and parents, the great pains taken to avoid talking about everything but race, the angry town hall and city council meetings, the reluctance and fading optimism of of minorities facing so much opposition to the prospect of integration.
Brentin, the way the NAACP’s exhaustion was left as a footnote also struck me the wrong way, and I think you aptly unpacked what felt so unsatisfying about the sidelining of black leaders in this fight. I also think you’re right in suggesting that the show may be purposefully focusing his lens on the hypocrisies of white urban Northern liberals and drawing out their ugly NIMBY-ness. As Simon told Slate,
To echo again what [Ta-nehisi Coates wrote in his new book Between the World and Me] ... There are certain fundamental things about America that aren’t up to African Americans to fix. And what happened in Yonkers is what happened every time, everywhere a white majority is asked to share: to share geographic space, to share political power, to share economic viability. We are not very good at sharing in this country.
I’m incredibly interested in how the show will explore this—white Americans being called upon to fix the systemic inequalities that have benefited them. Integration, it seems, is a goal they’d feel good about supporting in theory, and horrified by once they understand what that means in reality. I’m reminded of a moment in the first part of “The Problem We All Live With.”After playing an audio clip of parents from wealthier Missouri school districts complaining about the drug dealing and stabbings that might happen if students from poorer ones were bussed in, the reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones interjects that it might be easy for listeners to judge these Missouri parents. But then she adds that this exact same conversation and pushback would be happening elsewhere—in liberal New York, for example—only school districts there weren’t even trying to integrate. And so good white Northern progressives get to keep feeling good about themselves because they never even try to change the status quo.That’s why I’m curious to see how Mary’s thread plays out—I envision a gradual conversion story for her, but I’m also hoping that the series uses her as a fly on the wall in the anti-housing circles. While I have no desire to sympathize with their cause, I’m always attracted to stories that expose the reasonable motivations and fears of seemingly villainous characters—right now, they’re all just a sonic blob yelling “rabble rabble.”
Despite its possible flaws—the afterthought inclusion of black leaders, the sometimes dry shoehorning of logistical information, the slow start, the maybe-misguided belief of Simon and co. that the average viewer cares enough about affordable housing to stick with the story—I think Show Me a Hero shows a lot of promise given its limited six-hour run. I hope to see the three storylines following the affordable-housing residents—Skip’s girlfriend, Norma, and Carmen—get a little more agency, development, and even more attention from Simon’s empathetic and humanizing eye as the series goes on. I also appreciated the realism of allowing their storylines to unfold mostly separately from the political clashes—a byproduct of Simon (smartly) not forcing them to fit some kind of conventional dramatic template, as Vulture’s Matthew Zoller Seitz pointed out. And as you said, David, how truly likely is it that these other characters would ever cross paths with the politicians dictating their futures?
With any luck, this show will manage to find a balance between conveying enough context while shaping the human drama. It can’t be treated as a journalistic effort, nor can it be divorced from the facts of history. I think Isaac is pretty spectacular in his role as Wasicsko, and I’m glad the show chose to hang this particular story, partly, on his shoulders. He’s certainly not the traditional arbiter of justice—there’s no sense of romantic nobility in the work he’s doing, only a kind of dutiful resignation. He’s implementing the affordable housing order, but it wasn’t his choice or a fight he won. If he’s a “hero,” Simon certainly seems to be working with a deflated definition of the word—a choice, I think, that will make the rest of the season all the more fascinating to follow in its short run.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.