David Simon, 'The Wire' Creator, on Baltimore Riots: "Please Don't Burn My City"
In the seven years since The Wire finale aired, creator David Simon has kept busy. He produced the miniseries Generation Kill and the drama Treme, both for HBO. He became something of a go-to spokesman on Baltimore and other major domestic news stories. All the while, his magnum opus series became increasingly iconic.
"Now is the time for mass disobedience, even for mass arrest," he said at the time on his own blog. "But a riot is a riot. And running out of a liquor store with a case or two doesn't seem to prove much to anyone — other than affirm the need for a militarized police culture to those desperate to believe in such."
Since he made those remarks, Simon wrapped production on Show Me a Hero, a new six-part miniseries. The series, debuting on HBO and its streaming services Sunday, maintains the writer's fascination with politics on the micro level, as seen in The Wire.
It tells the true story of Nick Wasicsko (Ex Machina's Oscar Isaac), a young mayor of Yonkers, New York, and his city's struggle over public housing mandates that would push its citizens to integrate. Wasicsko accidentally becomes embroiled in the battle, his decisions making major historical impact and paying the ultimate price for it — both politically and personally. It's to Simon's credit that what could have come off as a dry civics lesson is at all entertaining.
Yet even as he promotes Show Me a Hero, Simon remains outspoken about the state of racial tensions in the United States. The former Baltimore Sun reporter spoke with Mic last week about the protests, his miniseries and privilege.
Mic: Show Me a Hero is based on a book — when did you first read it, and what made you think it'd be a good project to take on?
She came to me with Show Me a Hero I think 14 years ago. I read it, and I thought first of all, it was a perfect metaphor for American race and class pathologies that are so enduring. It was an argument against what many believe is a post-racialist version of a country that we want to believe in between our Fergusons and Baltimores. Allegorically, it was completely solid. But on top of that, you had this tragedy of Nick Wasicsko, the everyman politician who walks into the maw of a racial fight which devours him and his career.
So we optioned it; it was supposed to be the miniseries right after The Corner [in 2000]. Then The Wire intervened for five years. Then Katrina happened. Events overtook Show Me a Hero and pushed it to a back burner a couple of times.
We started working on the project last year, before Ferguson, before Baltimore, before Charleston, before this last nightmare in Lafayette. It was before a lot of stuff. As an ordinary American, I'd like to say we bought the book 14 years ago and the country's changed so much it was irrelevant. That would be a far better thing to be able to say.
You mention the idea of tragedy, and I know Show Me a Hero's title is based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote "Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy." But do you think Wasicsko is a hero?
DS: I think he had a moment of absolute heroism. I don't think any heroes are really heroes. Well, I shouldn't say "any." I don't wanna be caught tearing down Gandhi or Lincoln here.
I've never been interested in heroes that are shiny or gilded in some sort of perfect cloth. [Wasicsko is] interesting enough to me for who he was. I believe in him. In the moment, he did the right thing. I can stand back and admire that in that moment. The title sort of refers to some other people in the piece. I think Mary Dorman [a Yonkers homeowner and vocal opponent of the housing, played by Catherine Keener] begins as a deeply flawed character with some real, abiding fears. She goes on what has to be called the hero's journey.
One of the signatures of your work is that you lend an ear to every perspective in a story. It was prevalent in The Wire and in Treme, and it's prevalent here. Do you think that comes from your background as a journalist?
DS: I think so. You always have to call everybody in the story to get their quote. In some way, even if you're leaning to one side or the other, you have to at least acknowledge the best arguments of the opposition. Those were really [anti-housing Yonkers city councilman] Henry Spallone's words. That's what he really believed in. All credit to Alfred Molina for a great performance. I got to meet him ... he believed everything he said until the day he died. He did not see any reason to equivocate.
I don't agree with anything Henry Spallone thinks about the world in general, but I do believe that for all his demagogy ... he really believed he was defending Yonkers from a fate worse than death. You gotta capture that and let that breathe. You can't make him into someone who's less than completely convicted in his ideas.
DS: I draw a line between mass civil disobedience and burning and looting. I found the protests in Baltimore exhilarating. I wish they were still going on, because I think that there's been far less substantive change in Baltimore than there needs to be. I'm a little concerned that people have been placated by the indictment of six cops — by the way, a very legally vulnerable indictment — and the firing of a police chief. Quietude has prevailed since. It's a concern to me.
You don't think the prosecution is viable?
DS: Not the entire prosecution. But I'm just a little worried about that second-degree charge. You can't get a second-degree conviction for someone who drinks a half a bottle of whiskey, gets in a car blowing a 3.0, a blood alcohol content three times above the limit, and kills a family of five. That guy is still gonna be charged with involuntary manslaughter.
I don't see the intent that gets you to second-degree. I worry when that verdict of second-degree murder doesn't manifest itself in a conviction, I worry about the disappointment in the street. I think there is a viable prosecution on the simple fact of negligence. You were charged with this human being, with getting him to the lockup intact, and you failed. You failed repeatedly to take stock of his injuries while you took a 45-minute drive around the city. I think there's a very good case for negligence.
I don't think any heroes are really heroes. Well, I shouldn't say "any." I don't wanna be caught tearing down Gandhi or Lincoln here.
Got it. Sorry, please continue.
DS: A riot is a riot. I don't believe things changed in Ferguson because of the violence. I think things changed because of the power of the police overreaction and the greater imagery of "hands up." That street theater had real power. On CNN, you saw cops in personnel carriers defending themselves against the unarmed civilian population. That had power.
To suggest that shooting at cops, or burning — I'm sorry, I don't buy it. ... You can't feel this if you live in a city like Baltimore. You can't feel like this riot will lead to something good. For all its damage now, this is the way of progress.
I'm not speaking on behalf of white Baltimore — I'm speaking on behalf of a city that's majority black. The jobs have to come here because the city seems viable. So you have these people in London or New York pontificating on the narrative of a riot, or failing to distinguish between a grand act of civil disobedience and setting fire to a senior citizen's site, or raiding a liquor store. I'm sorry, I'm not down for that. Fuck you.
They don't live here. They live in cities where, if they burn a little bit of east London or Crown Heights, or a little bit of the barrio because something happened in LA, the entire infrastructure of these world cities will be intact three months later, no worry. Baltimore is a hop, skip and a jump from Detroit. To have people invoking white privilege — I'm sorry, I live in Baltimore. White or black, I live here. I have the privilege to say, "Please don't burn my city. Our city. This city."
Back to Show Me a Hero: It's entertaining, yes, but it's also incredibly educational. Do you think there's a line between entertainment and education with a series like this?
DS: There's so much more that I'd love to do that may or not find favor. There are projects that don't have the currency to get made, even at HBO. Having said that, I'm fairly amazed that HBO did this. There's clearly a willingness on their part to value the things that keep me intelligent.
I've had quite a run, and it's been pretty improbable — especially considering I haven't really garnered an audience on Sunday nights. I gotta credit [HBO]. They're in the business of running a television network, and I'm not exactly delivering the metrics that normally keep people working. Am I part of their brand? Yes. Do they wish that I could deliver more audience? Sure. If I made the things that could deliver more audience, would I be making Show Me a Hero? I don't think so.
I know that the currencies still apply to me. It's one thing to be talking about a six-hour miniseries, but we wanted to do a piece on the history of the CIA. It was an incredible opportunity to examine America's foreign policy footprint since World War II. We developed the scripts and they were great. ... They were very human, and very smart. Because it was a period piece, and the period was over the past 60 years, and because it was set all over the world, the budget was inconsistent with the numbers that we generally achieve Sunday night. I think we scared the living shit out of them. That one's still floating.
But at this price, at this moment, [HBO] said, "Do this piece on public housing." God bless 'em.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.