We didn't know early on that David Simon was making honest television. Even the idea of it sounds like a lark. But David Simon has been teaching us all along how to watch David Simon. And maybe we weren't ready for the truth to be shown to us in the dream box with landscapes that look a lot like home, filled with people who look a lot like cousins or co-workers. Maybe we didn't want to admit it to ourselves: that our worlds aren't just the ones we inhabit but the ones we ignore.
The creator of The Wire and Treme—both slow burns that turned into wildfires shortly after they went off the air—is back with his newest offering, Show Me a Hero, a six-part miniseries starring Oscar Isaac and Winona Ryder and directed by Paul Haggis, which premieres Aug. 16 on HBO.
Hero, which is based on Lisa Belkin's 1999 nonfiction book of the same name, offers an elongated stare at race relations in Yonkers, N.Y., during a push to end housing segregation in the late 1980s and early '90s. And while the climate seems ripe for a study in race, given that the backdrop of America is still cloudy with the tear gas smoke of Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Simon assures us that the true sadness of the story is that it remains so relevant today even though he pitched the idea to HBO execs some 14 years ago.
"I saw what it was arguing then about American pathologies with race and class and our inability to have any sense of a shared society," Simon tells The Root. "I saw the value of it, and I didn't think that was going anywhere, but certain things intervened and then we got busy with The Wire."
A few news pegs, like the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina, forced Simon into different shows—namely Generation Kill and Treme—but Simon and the people over at HBO never forgot about the six-hour piece depicting the push by embattled Mayor Nick Wasicsko (played brilliantly by Isaac) to bring affordable housing for low-income residents (read: black folks) into Yonkers, then almost 80 percent white.
"Finally it was time to get back to this one, and of course the country's racial pathologies manage to exist in perpetuity," he says. "It would seem … sadly, that a book that we saw the merit in addressing 14 years ago still is entirely relevant."
Simon notes that the same federal integrated-housing fight that Yonkers faced in the '80s is currently happening in Tarrytown, N.Y. "And in that coming election," he says, "you will find the same demagoguery over the necessity of that jurisdiction. It's like wherever you go, there you are, and it just doesn't end.
"And the same things happened with [Moving] to Opportunity in Baltimore and Dallas. Every time that they try to suggest that we should share the same national experience on any kind of level—on any social or economic or cultural level that requires people to interact and risk actual integration—we perform very badly," he says. "The piece should have gotten old in 14 years, but it didn't."
For Simon the exhaustion is that the material is still there; that in 14 years the world didn't right itself. But it isn't just the story that intrigues Simon; it's the system that created it.
Simon thinks in terms of industry and pathologies. He isn't as concerned with the tangible television currency of sex and violence as he is with getting at the story from the inside. He wants to know how the operation operates and how the scales became so unevenly balanced. He doesn't just write these shows—he gnaws at the systemic issues behind them. And he understands that sometimes his obsession doesn't fit into the entertainment-first mold that television trades in.
"Sometimes sex and violence are totally relevant to the story, and then it's just a matter of how you present it," he says. "And sometimes the stories you get interested in have nothing to do with sex or violence, and that is when, every now and then, I look up and wonder how the f—k did they give me six hours to do this?"
At its core, Show Me a Hero (which is a shortened version of the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy") is really the tragic story of the minority fight to be included in the imagined American dream of land ownership, good schools and kind neighbors, while their white counterparts struggle with the contrived white American nightmare: the idea that an influx of color into an all-white community leads to a drastic drop in housing equity.
"They are scared of being in the minority. That is what white people have a hard time with, and that is the great terror," Simon says, not just of residents of Yonkers then but of whites now. He does this often: blend the narrative of Show Me a Hero into the narrative of today, because for Simon the subplots of both are interchangeable.
The fear, he explains, is that "one day they're going to walk into a room that they need to be in and they are going to be in the minority, or it isn't going to be 80 percent of them. They're worried that they will have to share … not physical space with people that aren't like them … they are worried they are going to have to share power."
Simon notes that by speaking of grand ideas like shared dreams, and a collective consciousness or "universal anything," he may have some folks quick to align him with Marxist doctrine, but that isn't his intention.
He simply believes that we are collectively better than what we have shown, and acting as if the dice aren't loaded isn't honest. So he says these things and crafts these shows because he believes not only in the power of the story but, more important, in the power of his side of the argument.
"I just want to have the argument, and I just want to have the argument be smarter than it might have been," he says. "If I can make a smarter argument than what we are arguing about, then that's my job. I know I have to be entertaining, but if all I am being is entertaining, then shame on me."
Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is associate editor of news at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.