Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Review: Show Me a Hero, HBO Mini-Series

Normally I only review books on this blog, but I wish to make an exception and review a series that concluded this week. I will not be spoiling the conclusion of the series, but I will provide a basic framework for the story.

Show Me a Hero is an adaptation of Lisa Belkin's book of the same name detailing the story of the political and social battle in Yonkers, New York over federally-mandated social housing in white, middle-class neighbourhoods in the 1980s and 90s. The book was adapted by David Simon and William F. Zorzi who also partnered together on the hit HBO series The Wire.

The six-part mini-series approaches the conflict from a number of perspectives. The drama of the story and its main thrust comes from the political battle on city council. Nick Wasiscsko, played by Oscar Isaac, is the protagonist and the perspective we get on this conflict. Yonkers city council are united in their displeasure of having to accept the court order for social housing to be built in their white neighbourhoods. The housing question and how to deal with it becomes a central focus of Yonkers politics throughout the much of the first half of the series.

HBO has brought together a star-studded cast to play the major figures of the era. Jim Belushi plays Angelo Martinelli, long-serving mayor of Yonkers. Alfred Molina masterfully embodies the grand-standing Councillor Hank Spallone. Winona Ryder plays Council President Vinni Restiano. Three others who are notable are Jon Bernthal as the NAACP lawyer, Clarke Peters as a neighbourhood consultant and Catherine Keener as Mary Dorman, a concerned white homeowner. Keener embodies a great deal of the fear and concern of white residents while humanizing them beyond simple racism.

Similar to The Wire the other half of the story is told through a group of characters living in public housing in Yonkers. Through the eyes of four women one begins to see the difficult position those in social housing find themselves. One of the characters, Newman, an expert in social housing, gives voice to why some of these problems persist: excessive concentration leads to marginalization, poorly defined public spaces become no man's lands and a haven for drugs and crime. These portrayals go a long way to humanizing the people in the social housing projects. It is not to say they are angels and some defy the law and the social norms of white, middle-class culture, but this makes them better than simple caricatures. Still, as I watched the series you found myself more invested in their lives than the political drama unfolding.

Despite being set nearly thirty years ago the themes of Show Me a Hero are very applicable in modern-day America. Social housing remains a major issue. The case in the story is about desegregation, i.e. moving social housing units into East Yonkers rather than concentrating them further in minority neighbourhoods. I imagine this remains a controversial, and intractable problem in many American (and Canadian) cities. Another fascinating element is that this isn't just a story about black and hispanic people wanting to move into the white neighbourhoods. The characters living in social housing, and a representative of the NAACP, express concern of moving into a place that they are not wanted, away from their community. Reintegration is not as simple as "build it and they will come." Other themes in the series are class and political gridlock. Much of the opposition is couched in terms of economics (ex. preserving home values) and as stated above we see the economic impact of poor social housing on its residents. Political gridlock and intransigence is the central drama of the piece. Politicians who in backrooms express reasonable positions take outrageous positions to ensure their own popularity and electoral fortunes.

In terms of the politics it is interesting how divorced the two sets of stories are from each other. It is notable when they intrude. There are no African-Americans on the city council, no clear advocates for those characters in the story. The passionate fiery debates at city council are between a city council and angry white residents, with no advocacy group in support present. Those who would benefit from new social housing are largely unheard and disconnected from the political discussion, which I feel is a comment by Simon.

Finally, while watching this series I was frequently reminded of Steve Paikin's book The Dark Side: The Personal Price of a Political Life. Politics is not all glamour and power. The men and women who step forward to make decisions are called upon to lead. Sometimes they are pulled into difficult situations and must sacrifice their own promises for a greater public good, a public good their supporters cannot, or will not see. There is a human cost to politics and this mini-series embodies that.

I would highly recommend this series, especially to fans of The Wire. The mini-series offers a thoughtful commentary on a contentious public policy issue that rarely gets attention and humanizes people on all sides of the discussion. Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, Ilfenesh Hadera, Natalie Paul, LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Dominique Fishback bring their flawed characters to life in a sympathetic way that allows the audience to approach this fight from many different angles. This story resonates strongly in North America in 2015 and should be viewed widely.

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