TV Minus the TV: HBO’s Show Me A Hero cuts through the talkaround on racism
Welcome to TV Minus the TV, a column full of thoughts about TV shows watched on laptops published on the internet for you to read on your phone.
David Simon, the creator of landmark TV show The Wire who recently made his grand return to HBO with the new miniseries Show Me A Hero, has a gift for dialogue. He’s got a gift for character and plotting and theme and visuals, too, but for now, just focus on the dialogue. He’s able to write convincingly in a vast and diverse array of voices, believably putting words in the mouths of old-guard politicians and idealistic upstarts, hardened drug pushers and the mothers warring to keep them in check, reactionary townies and concerned citizens. He’s got a keen awareness of the little shibboleths that create miniature communities, whether that’s heroin slang or the dialect that bonds hometown natives together.
But in this tale of shifting racial tensions around the Yonkers area from 1987 to 1994, the truth lies in what goes unsaid. In their efforts to ebb the unstoppable flow of racial progress, the bigots of the Yonkers area of Show Me A Hero are willing to say or do anything, it seems — except what they actually mean.
Show Me A Hero is about housing legislation in the same capacity that Mad Men was about advertising; Simon’s newest creation delves unflinchingly into the deep-seated legacies of inequalities structured along race and class lines in America.# Most crucially, his miniseries cuts through the haze of bullshit that regressive ideologues use to veil racist sentiments, a practice that has only proliferated and worsened in the present day.
The titular hero being shown is Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac, slowly maturing into one of the finest actors of his generation), a New York cop, Yonkers city councilor, and eventual mayor.# He’s the unlucky son-of-a-gun saddled with the responsibility of guiding Yonkers through one of the most turbulent periods in the city’s history: a federal judge mandates that the city build 200 new housing units (homes designated for low-income non-white families) in the affluent neighborhoods of East Yonkers. Naturally, the wealthier types are none too pleased to see their pristine streets invaded by — cue gasp — poor people, and in short order, the local government has a political powder keg on their hands.
And yet, that’s not the complaint lodged by many of the cranks who turn out to voice their disapproval of the new measure during the show’s many town meeting scenes. Listen closely to the endless stream of yammering from the steamy-eared mob, and you’ll find that there are precious few mentions of race, black people, or much of anything about the actual people who will fill the planned housing projects. Instead, the complaints are of a more generally amorphous sort, taking aim at problems without any face.
The aggrieved parties cry overpopulation, they cry street crime, they cry local identity, anything that’ll obfuscate the topic truly at hand. Their language is heavy with codewords: puckered mouths spit out the words “new element,” or “undesirables,” or the top-40 hit of today, “thugs.” Catherine Keener# shines as an East Yonkers local who speaks out in protest over the scheduled housing expansion, but slowly comes to her senses after witnessing the virulent racism of the other members of the movement. Once it’s become clear that the law’s going through and ain’t nobody stoppin’ it, Keener’s character comes to accept the unmovable tide of progress. She’s shocked to find that for her friends and neighbors, the fight doesn’t end when the houses are built. It only ends when the black families are driven out wholesale.
It’d certainly be comforting to think that as a nation, our racial discourse and attendant compassion has advanced in the twenty years that separate our present from Show Me A Hero. And yet, so much of the mealy-mouthed circular language from the bigots of Yonkers evokes the bullshitty talkarounds common in the present-day conversation on race.
Every time there’s another police homicide, a tragedy that comes to pass with dispiriting frequency, conservative demagogues can’t wait to bust out the language subtly denigrating the character of the slain party. Extensive tox-screens must be carried out to completion, and god help the poor soul if he even faintly smelled the odor of marijuana in the twenty-four hours prior to his murder. The Facebook photos will be drudged up, and only the most incriminating party snapshots will be flashed across the news like a marquee. All the while, conservatively-aligned pundits brand the deceased a thug, pin any rap that might stick, and hope that the murder magically becomes justified once the general public turns on the victim.
What this argument (and the many arguments that the opponents of the housing on Show Me A Hero repeatedly make) fails to realize is that there are certain human rights that everybody deserves, regardless of ‘respectability.’ Regardless of where someone’s at in life, they should be able to walk the streets without fear of being murdered, and return to a shelter with four walls and a little warmth that they can call home. When cowardly types mask their racism behind a veneer of cockamamie political concepts or nefarious games of identity-politics, they deny black men and women the simplest components of personhood. There should be no great war for safety, no great war for home. These are not parts of life that need to be earned, not in America. They simply are.
Like what you read? Share it.
(That helps us.)
Love what you read? Patronize Charles Bramesco.
That helps us and the writer.
What is Patronizing? Learn more here.