“Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.”
David Simon’s latest HBO miniseries is not about public housing. It is about people. It is about racial prejudice, identity, community, and purpose. And it only provides further evidence that Simon is the greatest writer of this generation. Simon sets himself apart from his peers by tackling issues that no one else would ever dare to address in a TV show. But more importantly, he tells real stories about real people, identifying problems that plague every class of people in the country in one way or another.
Of course, Simon has always had tremendous actors at his disposal to make his writing come to life, but he has never worked with a talent quite like Oscar Isaac. After seeing Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year, Ex Machina, and now Show Me a Hero, I am convinced that Isaac is the best actor working today. It appears that Hollywood is starting to take notice, as he has landed roles in the next Star Wars and X-Men movies as well. Isaac is perfect for the role of Nick Wasicsko, the Yonkers mayor who controversially supported public housing, which eventually cost him the job. Wasicsko is a tragic figure; he knows what is right, and he will stand firm in his convictions, as long as it will get him votes. He is a politician, which means all he really wants is for people to vote for him and support him. That is the ultimate goal of Nick Wasicsko’s life, and nothing would ever make him happy outside of that. As with any worldly ideal or possession, political success is temporary. It will not satisfy. When you choose anything of this world to be the god of your life, you will spend your entire life trying to attain it. Either you will succeed and realize that it wasn’t all you had hoped it would be, or you will fail and feel miserable for having dedicated your life to something that you couldn’t achieve. In either case, feelings of inadequacy and depression are inevitable. Nick Wasicsko’s god was a good reputation and a successful political career. He pursued these things at all costs, hurting everyone that he cared about in the process. By the time his career had finally fallen apart, he literally had nothing left in his life that he felt was worth living for. Isaac played this role with such powerful emotion until the very end, and his performance is sure to earn him some much-deserved awards recognition in the coming year.
Show Me a Hero, like all of Simon’s projects, boats a deep, diverse, ridiculously talented ensemble cast that allows the series to cover a much broader scope than a traditional TV drama. As a result, dozens of brilliant performances may go unnoticed, or at least underappreciated, simply because they are surrounded by so many other brilliant performances. So, when an actor stands out in a David Simon show, they have accomplished something truly special. Performers like Michael K. Williams, Idris Elba, and Wendell Pierce (among many others) have made names for themselves by standing out amongst a sea of incredible actors in David Simon’s other work. Here, alongside Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener turned in the performance of her career as Mary Dorman, a vehement opponent of public housing who slowly realized the prejudice at the root of her political stance. Dorman (who is a real person, by the way) is a classic David Simon character, in that she is very morally complex. She remains likable and sympathetic while passionately on the wrong side of this issue. She wasn’t a villain, but she was unknowingly plagued by the prejudice and hatred in her heart for quite some time. Once she began to understand that this issue was not about housing, but about race and class, she turned, just as passionately, to the other side and fought for what she now knew was right. In his post-episode commentary, Simon says that Dorman has a “hero’s journey,” but in reality, she is just a regular person who recognized the racism in her heart and in the hearts of others and decided to do something about it. Mary Dorman is every bit as heroic as Nick Wasicsko is tragic, and therein lies the beauty of this show. Wasicsko had no idea what he believed or why he believed it. What passion he did have was placed in all the wrong places, and the resulting collapse of everything that he had built up for himself turned out to be more than he could bear. Dorman, on the other hand, was originally plagued by her misguided passion, until she eventually poured it all out into serving others. Unfortunately, the story of Mary Dorman is not nearly as famous as that of Nick Wasicsko, but that’s just the way it goes most of the time. The tragic stories of misguided people are remembered, while the everyday acts of decency by good, genuine people go unnoticed. I am thankful to David Simon for telling stories like that of Mary Dorman, which are worth celebrating, but often forgotten.
Simon does a good job of informing viewers from a completely objective point of view of the racism at the heart of the public housing controversy. Unfortunately, this story is very timely in America today. We hear stories almost every single week about young black men getting shot, usually by middle-aged white men, often in a mostly white neighborhood. The reality is, most rich white people do not want black people (regardless of wealth or class) in their neighborhoods. They can make all the socioeconomic excuses they want, but their worldview is ultimately driven by racism – a false belief that they are better than another group of people simply because of the color of their skin. The fact that it took until 2007 (over 27 years) for this case to come to a close shows just how deep-rooted our prejudice is. Sure, most of the politicians in charge of instituting change didn’t really care one way or the other, as long as they got votes, but the citizens of Yonkers let their hatred control them for far too long. A common theme in all of Simon’s work is that the system is fundamentally broken, and if change is going to take place in this country, it has to start from within. But I would take it one step further. No bill or policy will ever bring about lasting change. Injustice is a heart issue; a Gospel issue. The only way to change the heart of a racist, or a narcissist, or an idolater, or anyone, is through the power of the Gospel. To the professing Christian with remaining prejudices in his/her heart, I say this: If you truly understood the Gospel, there would be no room left for pride or hatred in your heart. Apart from Christ, all people are equally sinful and despicable. In Christ, all people are equally accepted and loved, regardless of background, gender, or ethnicity. It is time that we stop seeing certain people groups as more or less valuable than others, and start seeing all people the way God sees them.