And I’ll Show You a Tragedy
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
There’s a significant lack of empathy within humanity. That statement is not meant as a sweeping generalization nor a broader statement about a majority of human beings, neither of which would be remotely accurate. The intent behind that blunt opening line is to convey a sense of understanding and despair at the moments when people treat one another as if the other simply has no value, when their existence is ephemeral based on nothing but a lack of knowing. Racism and perhaps more pointedly, ethnocentrism, has been an unfortunate hallmark of society since the dawns of civilization and the postmodern world is no different. The hallmarks of societal hierarchies based upon the color of people’s skin has perhaps borne more euphemisms as time has gone on, but under the guise of “more acceptable” verbiage, the dark undertone remains the same. In the United States, the vestiges of racism have remained constant, a far cry from the claim that post-Civil War America has become a bastion of progress, harmony, and unity. Geographical divides have only made that ludicrous claim stand in sharper light, especially when it comes to the divide between the North and the South. A system of discriminatory segregation in housing, education, and even water fountains of all things in the South wouldn’t generally shock the modern audience. But a similar sentiment displayed in the North would be unsettling, a sharp bursting of a bubble whose existence is far more ephemeral than most would believe.
Show Me a Hero, based on Lisa Belkin’s nonfiction book of the same title, harkens to a famed quote of the great American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Show me a hero, and I’ll give you a tragedy.” Even spoken in the miniseries, it’s a truth that underlies this riveting tale of a public housing dispute in Yonkers. It applies most aptly to the protagonist Nick Wascizsko, whom Belkin’s book is centered around, but it applies to nearly everyone who finds cracks in their visage, cracks that may seem insignificant or otherwise, depending on one’s point of view. In Nick, there are those who find a hero but also find a man who ended his life tragically in a graveyard at the age of thirty-four. In Vinni, there are those who find a hero who persevered yet will discover an individual whose final shot in the series is of an intense guilt to which there will be no salvation. In Spallone, bigots looking for a voice that sounds reasonable found a hero, but for them he was a tragedy who bowed down to public housing, a hollow shell if you will. In Mary, the residents of Yonkers against the public housing found a loud hero, but she became a tragedy in the vein of Spallone because she had the gall to find humanity in those she had dismissed and oppressed based on the color of their skin. What a hero is, what a hero means, what a hero him or herself believes are all subjective. But if there’s a certainty in heroism, it is the same flawed humanity shared by all.
The central public housing dispute at the heart of the series comes from a court-mandated public housing project in the late 1980s in Yonkers, a small town in upstate New York. Certainly a New York town so recent in the past would never be a part of a fierce fight for the right to segregate? Yet the ugly, angry cries from each resident covering their varying degrees of racism beneath the qualms about “values” and “aspirations” and above all, property values, pointed strongly towards another reality. The drug trade becomes, as it is always wont to do, a focal point in the fight against the public housing project with the residents afraid that if the public housing units come to their respective neighborhoods, then they will be run over with gangs. It is, at best, a fear based on a fractional reality that is perpetuated towards an entire economic class and unfairly at that. Yet when the desperation over the projects becomes more and more real by the second, the ugliness of the KKK and the ideology they espouse becomes openly displayed. It’s shameless pandering towards bigotry, but one that goes beyond driving past the housing units and shouting the n word out of the car window. Arson, looting, and most frightening of all, bombs planted on the unfinished houses. In a damning indictment where most series would never go, the vehement hatred and opposition is in no fashion restricted just to the populace. Law enforcement, obliged to be neutral and serving towards all, do anything but; a notable scene that enshrines that institutionalized racism is where an officer bars a lawyer for the NAACP from entering the proceedings, forcing him to be at the mercy of an unforgiving mob.
David Simon, in a fashion similar to his HBO series The Wire, displays a brilliant knack in his understanding of local politics. Arguably the most powerful political bodies, local political institutions have in a sense an immediacy in connection which state and federal governments simply lack. Political conversations around a table about the pros and cons of townhouses versus apartments are vital but never sound remotely cinematic, yet Simon manages to make each and every single one of those conversations riveting. The primary reason those conversations are riveting beyond a simple interest in politics are the characters Simon managed to craft. At its center is Nick, brilliantly portrayed by Oscar Isaac (a sure Emmy nominee, if not a win), a young up and comer in the Democratic party who finds himself crowned as the youngest mayor in America. Yet he didn’t achieve that accolade by running a clean campaign or even one built upon the right ideals. The dark irony of Nick running against the public housing to garner the votes of an angry town is kept very much in the forefront, lest the audience find a hero to cheer for that in many ways does not exist. Slowly the reality of having to make a choice between bankruptcy and the political wipeout of accepting the public housing hits Nick in ways that his predecessor never had to, thanks to Nick himself. It’s notable that the residents of Yonkers would rather go bankrupt and lose public services than accept public housing, but it is a reality in which they themselves don’t have to make the decision, leaving their bigotry free to reign. The political price is swift and there the tragedy digs into the irony and truly takes root.
As Vinni (an incredible Winona Ryder) notes, politics is like a drug and the effects it has on Nick are palpable. He constantly sacrifices, sells himself short, and even throws his friend Vinni under the bus for the sake of staying politically alive. And it kills him. If Show Me a Hero remained focused on Nick, it would be a force to reckon with by itself but what truly makes the miniseries click is its focus not just on the residents of Yonkers but the future residents of the public housing projects. The human angle of this nameless, faceless housing project drives home the humanity of those wanting a better life, of those working against all the odds to achieve some semblance of human dignity. Norma (an Emmy-worthy LaTonya Richardson Jackson) is losing her sight and what her children want her to see above all is a better life in front of her before her eyes darken. Doreen (a tremendous Natalie Paul) works day and night, finding a voice for herself in fighting for the dignity of others. Carmen (a profound Ilfenesh Hadera) perhaps has the most heartbreaking arc, a single mother fighting off a belligerent father as she tries to raise her children with the pittance in wages from all of her long hours. Her smile at the end was the most satisfying moment, a smile full of hope as she can see the dream of building a stronger life forming before her very eyes. There is little purity to be found here, no simple answers to a complex quandary. Even Mary’s (a flawless Catherine Keener) arc is no simple white savior narrative, it’s a human awakening when confronted with the reality of one’s prejudice in another human being. Why people fail to see the humanity in others is confounding. How someone can legitimately believe that some lives are worth more than others is even more so. But what is known is the power of unity, the power of that conviction to stand together in the face of that bigotry and dismantle the institutions of oppression. It isn’t easy to find it, it isn’t easy to gather it, but it is there.
Great/Not So Great Moments Mentioned Above:
+Gerrymandering: fucking people over since forever
+“And I can work with both parties without any political consideration. That’s what experience gives you. The more you serve, the more you’re able to do what’s right, letting the chips fall where they may.”
+“Doesn’t cost anything. You just got to read it.”
+“All of which is of little moment to those suffering the deprivation of those rights.”
+“It’s better to be on the inside when deals go down.”
+“They don’t live the way they do. They don’t what we want.”
+Churchgoers refusing to give donations after archbishop’s endorsement of the housing project
+“Gentlemen, our object is not to create martyrs or heroes.”
+The anti-Semitism bleeding into the project fight
+“A direct attack on the quality of life.”
+“This is not about race. This is not solely a black and white question. This is a green issue. This is a question of economics.”
+“Do you think the families that might move into these houses – do you think they might see those houses the same way you see yours?”
+“People just want a home.”
+“A shame, too. I kind of liked his mother.”
+Spallone & Co. taking selective pictures of the black neighborhood
+“Justice is not about popularity.”
“No, it’s not. But politics is.”
+“Nobody’s coming, child.”
+“He has shown absolutely no compassion for either the homeowners or the people of Yonkers.”
+Spitting in a man’s face isn’t proper, but discrimination is
+“I played into that fear, too.”
+104-year-old building more sentimental than people
+“We were white.”
+“The pots are like us.”
+The fear that the townhomes were built not to work
+The hope and fear pervasive through the townhouse assignment was heartbreaking
+“These people live like animals.”
+The patronization of neighborhood watch groups
+“Everything has a cost. Every choice means responsibility.”
+“Yeah, it’s not like the old days when a bought guy stayed bought.”
+Norma being the only one who sees Nick and remembers him
+Norma not feeling comfortable being the only black customers at the Clam House
+“Billie, you have to fight back.”
+“It’s called a secret ballot for a reason.”
+“Voting is a habit…not that it seems to help much.”
+The child making friends with the poodles owned by the woman across the street from the public housing. There’s a bit of hope, always.
Name: Show Me a Hero
Episode Titles: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six
Based on: Show Me a Hero by Lisa Belkin
Executive Produced by: David Simon, William F. Zorzi, Paul Haggis, Nina Kostroff Noble
Produced by: Gail Mutrux
Written by: David Simon, William F. Zorzi
Directed by: Paul Haggis
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Bob Balaban, Jim Belushi, Jon Bernthal, Dominique Fishback, Ilfenesh Hadera, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Catherine Keener, Terry Kinney, Alfred Molina, Natalie Paul, Peter Riegert, Carla Quevedo, Winona Ryder
Music by: Nathan Larson
Edited by: Jo Francis, Kate Sanford
Cinematography: Andrij Parekh
Production Company(s): Blown Deadline Productions, Pretty Pictures, HBO Miniseries
Image Courtesy: Canada.com, Collider