HBO's 'Show Me a Hero' Deserves an Emmy for Illuminating What Can Be Done About Racism in Donald Trump's America
The Emmy awards will take place on September 18 as Hillary Clinton nears her crescendo, hammering Trump for the racism at the heart of his campaign. From the start, Trump has used the fear of Hispanic immigration and diversity to divide whites and people of color.
So it’s unfortunate that David Simon’s Show Me a Hero, one of the best limited series shows in television history, which brilliantly focused on the type of racism at the heart of Trump’s campaign, failed to even get a nomination for an Emmy Award.
This widely praised docudrama, drawing on the experiences of real people, goes deep into the heart of an American city, Yonkers, describing the racial tensions that divided that New York suburb over housing segregation. The six-part series reveals black and white residents struggling to overcome their mutual suspicions and prejudices and then succeeding to take steps to reduce the consequences of years of racial discrimination by landlords, lenders, and city officials. It’s a topic rarely dramatized in any art form.
The members of the Academy, the Emmy sponsors, nominated American Crime, Fargo, Roots, The Night Manager and The People v. O.J. Simpson for best limited series. Roots and The People v. O.J are excellent historical dramas about race and politics, but they are retreads of familiar stories. Show Me A Hero, on the other hand, breaks new ground, dramatizing a true story that most viewers have never heard but need to know.
Simon understands race and cities. His previous work, The Wire, an HBO series about the violent life in Baltimore at the beginning of the millennium, has had an important influence on America’s perception of inner city life. His HBO seriesTreme looked at post-Katrina New Orleans, dramatizing the devastation, pain and tragedy that took place in one low-income area.
Hero goes back to1985 to visit another turbulent America city. The drama begins with a man exiting his car at a graveyard, leaving his pager ringing 911 as he goes up a hill, and leans against a gravestone.
Then a rare Bruce Springsteen song, “Gave It a Name,” about the evil that men do from Cain and Abel to the contemporary epidemic of sexual assault, plays against a montage of black kids shooting hoops in front of a high-rise public housing project, white teenagers gathering in a large grassy park, and small single-family homes with American flags. The camera pans up the large flowing Hudson River and then narrows in on slum dwellings.
We next view developers and planners boarding a helicopter and then flying over Yonkers, discussing where to put low-income houses. As the camera sweeps over the city you can see the mansions and large open spaces in east Yonkers. And as they fly west we observe apartment buildings and row homes crowded together. We get a sense of Yonkers as a city divided by race, wealth, and geography.
Suddenly we are at ground level meeting Carmen Febles, a dark skinned single mom with her three children, getting out of a cab. On the way to their public housing apartment, they are forced to trudge up several flights of stairs to avoid the intimidating drug dealer doing business in the elevator. It’s clearly the kind of building where parents worry that their children might be bit by a rat, hit by a stray bullet, or bullied on the street by gang thugs. Carmen will be soon be forced to leave her children in the Dominican Republic so she can work full time earning a living for them in the U.S.
Now the stage is set for an intimate tale using a familiar genre—the rise of a young politician—to focus on the pitched battle between the city’s white working-class (folks who’ve been seduced by Donald Trump) and lower-income black and brown families. The story of this battle illuminates the larger issue of racism in America and the struggle to end it.
We quickly learn that as a result of a lawsuit brought by the NAACP, Leonard Sand, a federal district court judge, has ruled that Yonkers intentionally perpetuated segregation by concentrating almost all public housing in the city’s overcrowded southwestern zone, where most black and Hispanics lived. Sand ordered the city to build 200 units of low-income housing in all white neighborhoods to remedy past housing discrimination.
Middle-class and working-class white residents were outraged by the idea of liberal outsiders trying to impose their will on the community. They feared a court-ordered invasion of poor black people into their neighborhoods and immediately began organizing protests.
At a stormy city council session called by the mayor to respond to the judge’s order, he urges the council not to appeal the ruling. He argues that if they defied his order, the judge could impose fines that would bankrupt the city. But the mayor’s comments simply inflame the protesters, who continue to demand that the city appeal. “We’re not prejudiced, we just object,” yells a protester.
Nick Wasicsko, a 28-year-old, personable, naÃ¯ve, and ambitious city councilman, superbly played by Oscar Isaac, votes to appeal. Another council member - a cunning racist demagogue not unlike Trump - joins Wasicsko in voting to appeal the judge’s ruling. Wasicsko challenges the incumbent mayor in the next election and with the support of irate white Yonkers residents, he wins an upset victory.
The first four episodes focus on four white men—a smart idealistic NAACP lawyer, a tenacious judge, an architect consultant, and the young mayor who is the hero referred to in the show’s title. But it’s the backstories of Carmen Febles and three other inner city families that are the most revealing. Also interesting is Mary Dorman, wonderfully played by Catherine Keener, as a working-class woman drawn to the opposition, who thinks people of color who live in public housing are thugs, immoral, lazy, drug addicted, and will destroy her neighborhood, but who eventually has a change of heart. Her evolution, which is at the heart of the series, gives the show a moral arc that reveals the complexity of racism and begs us not to stereotype white working class Americans as unrelenting and unredeemable racists.
As the drama picks up pace in the last two episodes, the lens turns toward the families of color, the victims of discrimination, who turn out to be strong women, and who take control of their lives belying Dorman’s stereotype. Carmen Feblies never gives up her efforts for a better life for her children, even after her family is not chosen in the lottery for the new townhomes. Norma O’Neal, a hardworking 47-year-old black home health aide, played LaTanya Richardson-Jackson, who lives in the projects and insists on living independently even while she is going blind from diabetes. Billie Rowan is a young woman who shows resilience as she struggles to raise two children without the support of the father, who turns bad.
The parents are typical of those who live in public housing: hard-working, protective and determined to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. And while the housing projects are run-down, their own apartments are modestly but nicely decorated, clean and neat.
The most intriguing character is Doreen Henderson, a young black woman born in public housing but raised by her parents in a stable suburban home. Drawn back to the public housing projects by her sister, she gets involved with a drug dealer, an under-treated asthmatic, who can’t afford proper healthcare and ends up selling drugs to raise money.
Henderson evolves into an organizer who mobilizes other public housing residents, and builds relationships with sympathetic white neighbors, even while confronting without fear the racists opposed to building public housing in white neighborhoods.
The white working class Dorman rises above her fear and reluctantly reaches out to help the low-income families.
What’s unique about Hero is that it transcends the stereotypes of inner-city residents portrayed in many TV dramas and books. Instead of showing them as helpless victims it depicts then struggling for change, something that even the much-heralded The Wire didn’t do.
While viewers thought that The Wire presented an honest look at the realities of class, race, and urban life in America, it actually distorts the picture in one significant way. Nearly all the black characters are from broken families or dangerous criminals, or drug addicts, dependent on government aid - culturally damaged, a class of people whose behavior and values separate them from the hard working white middle class. Moreover they are emotionally and politically paralyzed, with no capacity to mobilize and organize on their own behalf, victims of a system beyond reform. The Wire’s unrelenting bleak portrayal missed what’s hopeful and what problems are solvable in Baltimore and indeed, in other major American cities.
The Wire offered viewers little reason to think that the lives of the people depicted in it could be improved not only by individual initiative but also by collective action and changes in public policy. It offered viewers no hint that in Baltimore there was a small but growing movement to mobilize urban residents and their allies to address these problems - a movement that exists in every major city in the country and that has borne fruit in many ways.
Like The Wire, Hero is novelistic, follows vividly drawn characters, and takes us deep into racial conflicts driven by fear, ambition, and sleazy politics.
Although it’s not a path-breaking literary drama or sociological treasure chest, as is The Wire, it is nevertheless an excellent drama that undermines two myths perpetrated by The Wire. One is that change in low-income neighborhoods is impossible. The other is that the poor, especially the black poor and working class, are helpless victims, unable to engage in grassroots collective efforts to bring about change. And it hints at a historical reality that social movements have organized and mobilized urban residents and their allies to address these problems.
Hero has its weaknesses. Viewers won’t learn that the best-kept secret about public housing is that it actually provided excellent affordable housing when well managed. They won’t learn that it was allowed to deteriorate because of bad management, government neglect due to policies pushed by free-market conservatives who aligned themselves with the private housing industry.
While the show fails to accurately reflect the complexities of public housing problem, it does help undo the stereotypes of people who live there.
Hero could have been clearer about the role of the civil rights and fair housing movements that took place in the 1940s, two decades before the beginning of the story that led to LBJ signing 1968 the Fair Housing Act into law. These actions provided the basis for the lawsuit. There is an early scene where the young NAACP white lawyer challenges an NAACP leader for suggesting that fighting white resistance to integration may not be worth it. “The NAACP arguing against integration?” he says. The NAACP leader responds by saying he’s not against it, but that he’s “just tired.”
In most TV programs, books, and films, inner-city residents of color struggle to survive and dream. Hero is an entertaining story that also gives a glimpse of post civil rights and pre-Black Lives Matters history where the victims of discrimination and racism strategize to collectively fight for their own liberation. The publicity of an Emmy award would have brought the attention of this great drama to millions of Americans and a sense of hope that working class whites and people of color can work together to solve past injustices, a message that is sorely needed during this divisive presidential season.