In HBO’s miniseries, “Show Me a Hero,” David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” takes another dive into America’s urban housing projects. Set in the late 1980s, this latest effort is a period piece focused on the housing crisis in Yonkers, New York. The hero in question is Nick Wasicsko, a young politician whose fortunes rise and fall with his shifting positions on a controversial plan to bring minority, low-income housing to white neighborhoods in the town just north of New York City.
Simon is a gifted storyteller blessed with an accomplished cast here, including Alfred Molina, Wynona Ryder, Jim Belushi, and an excellent Oscar Isaac as Wasicsko. As is often the case with good historical drama, however, what is most compelling is not its glimpse into the past, but what it shows us about the present. Again and again throughout the six hour-long episodes, moments, phrases, and challenges bring us to our current political moment, and show how little has actually changed.
Simon uses three basic elements to weave his tale: First, and foremost, a political and courtroom drama focused on the real players from the era; second, the black and Hispanic denizens of the decrepit Yonkers high-rise projects; and, finally, the angry white mob trying to keep their neighborhoods pure.
A Choice That Comes to Define a Politician
As a political drama, “Show Me a Hero” generally succeeds. It gets slow at times—after all, how sexy can you make recurring federal court scenes focused on housing policy? But the back-room deals Wasicsko orchestrates have great pace and performances. They pop. It is a fascinating look into the often-brutal world of Northeastern rough and tumble local politics. Wasicsko has obvious gifts in this area, but the housing crisis forces him into a choice that comes to define him.
The 28-year-old city councilman wins a shocking bid against a six-term mayor to become the youngest head of a big city in America. But he does so at moral peril. Wasicsko succeeds by promising to fight (a term that resonates loudly today) the uphill battle against integration. He willingly engages in white identity politics to become the people’s champion. But when it turns out that federal courts really can cripple Yonkers for non-compliance with federal housing plans, Wasicsko faces an impossible challenge. He must explain to those who elected him as the savior of their white neighborhoods that he cannot protect them.
Simon returns to his familiar milieu of the projects to show the urgency of housing reform. This aspect of the miniseries is its weakest. The actors all make the most of what he gives them, especially LaTanya Richardson-Jackson as a woman losing her eyesight whose home-help aides are too scared of the projects to show up and care for her. Unlike in “The Wire,” though, Simon fails to give his minority characters much agency. They are not the masters of their own universe. Although most have dignity, they are cast as helpless, unable to make positive changes without the helping hand of the white government.
In one compelling scene, the master builder of new housing in white neighborhoods explains why they must be townhouses, not high-rises. He explains that the public spaces in high-rise complexes are the first to become infected by drugs, litter, and decay. Further, he hopes that direct street access for the units will help the minority residents achieve through social osmosis the good practices of their white neighbors. A lawyer for the NAACP calls this approach racist.
Resurfacing Familiar and Unfortunate Stereotypes
The name of then-New York Sen. Patrick Moynihan, whose 1965 report “The Negro Family, The Case for National Action” is still controversial, is dropped several times. Judged today by many as condescending and paternalistic, if not outright racist, the Moynihan report called for significant changes to the culture of black communities. In portraying the victims of public housing, Simon gives us no reason to resist the Moynihan approach. By using his minority characters as the moral case for aggressive state intervention, Simon, perhaps unwittingly, falls into some familiar and unfortunate stereotypes.
More than anything else in “Show Me a Hero,” it is the angry white protestors who speak to the politics of 2015. They are careful to speak of home prices and local control of government rather than disdain for potential black neighbors. They fear their way of life is under assault, that neighborhoods their families built will crumble under the influence of dark interlopers. These are the voters who sweep Wasicsko into office because “he fights.” They are the same voters who turn their back on him when the fight is lost and he urges them to accept reality.
In the series’ best performance, Catherine Keener plays a sober, rational but passionate opponent of “the housing.” She is convinced that her opposition is not rooted in animosity, but in basic truths about how people best live. For her, the influx of project residents will leave her home, which she meticulously cares for, and her neighborhood forever changed for the worse. As the fight becomes more desperate and as it becomes clear her side is going to lose, however, her eyes open to some uncomfortable truths.
The racism and anti-Semitism (directed at the Jewish judge and lawyer) at the core of much of the opposition rears its head in increasingly ugly ways. Keener’s character goes through the fullest transformation of any in the series. There is a lesson in it. Sharing a political position with rabid racists doesn’t mean that the position is wrong, but it is reason for pause and reflection. When words like “nigger” appear on the sides of nascent low-income townhouses or one’s Twitter feed, it rightfully shocks us into a deeper consideration of what we really believe.
After the Storm, Sunshine
“Show Me a Hero” is compelling purely as a period piece. The not-so-distant world of beepers and cigarettes, Stoli in the afternoon, and big boxy cars is fun to dip into. But Simon is doing much more than that. He is showing us how little things have changed.
Did the heavy-handed housing programs the federal government imposed in the 1980s end the scourge of poverty and violence in the projects? Well, we know from “The Wire” that they did not. Did they help the handful of families who moved into the new townhouse-style government housing? They may well have. The tension between those who believe the state can manufacture a better culture in the black community and those who believe that is dangerous hubris is still with us.
As it happens, my future wife and I moved to Yonkers in 1995 when she was finishing undergrad. We didn’t realize it then, but our apartment was quite close to one of the blocks of townhouses the series mentions, the one somewhat spitefully placed near Sarah Lawrence College. Not only did we not realize it was there, we never heard a word about the housing crisis that had shaken the community less than a decade before.
Our communities, and indeed our nation, are not built upon shaky foundations. When we have the courage to accept the changes that are natural to neighborhoods and work together to help everyone succeed, we never think about it again when it works. Yonkers Mayor Nick Wasicsko was a hero. He helped his city get through a time of tension by understanding all sides of a contentious and fraught issue. He did so imperfectly, and he paid a high price.
“Show Me a Hero” is well worth watching. It’s well shot, well-acted, and well-written. It forces us to ask what we really want from politics and politicians, and it reminds us how strong we really can be. Do we want leaders who tell us the truth and help us accept it? Or do we want fear-mongers who promise a futile fight against a future we all know is coming? “Show Me a Hero” makes clear that this is our choice, as always. We can react out of anger and build walls around our way of life, or we can embrace change and make it work.
The battle over Yonkers housing has long since been settled, but the larger fight goes on, and all of us must choose where we stand.