Across Racial Lines

The Wire: How white writers successfully explored black America
by Nelson George  posted July 29, 2008
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This article is part of a series on The Wire. Also on Moving Image Source: Dana Polan on the show's Balzacian universe, David Schwartz on its view of life as a chess game, and video essays on the Season 1, Season 2, Season 3, Season 4, and Season 5 credits by Andrew Dignan, Kevin B. Lee, and Matt Zoller Seitz.

Making The Wire, Museum of the Moving Image, July 30, 2008

To understand why The Wire is the best black TV show written mostly by white men, you need to seek out a scene in Season 3 in which Omar Little, killer, homosexual and yakuza without a master, sits down on a Baltimore bench with Bunk Moreland, cop, heavy drinker, and cynic who still believes in hope. This unlikely conversation involves, as so many things on The Wire did, guns, death, and revenge. But as with most of the show’s great moments, plot is just an excuse for a multi-layered conversation.

Omar and Bunk grew up in the same West Baltimore neighborhood, attended the same high school, and share more values than either of them is totally comfortable admitting. It is one of those magical television moments when two characters you think you know reveal their deepest inner workings, while not changing their basic natures. Omar remains an outlaw. Bunk stays a dedicated cop. And the actors—the wiry, wary Michael K. Williams and the burly, poised Wendell Pierce—play the changes on these chords like two jazzmen.

Outside the frame of the plot, Omar and Bunk represent two contrasting ideas about the black male psyche circa the 21st century: thug versus civil servant, criminal minded versus law abiding, or, as Chris Rock famously said, “niggas versus black people.” Within those broad outlines there are wonderful nuances. Omar is, in his way, highly ethical and very straightforward in his morals and style. Those “in the game” are fair game. Civilians are just that. He’s a man who still takes his mother to church on Sundays. Bunk is a cagey vet of many a bureaucratic battle with a penchant for cruel practical jokes, a married man with a wandering eye for the ladies and a taste for after-work drinking that often seems to have him teetering on the edge of alcoholism. Save his lovers, Omar is pretty much a loner, while Bunk is quite comfortable as a cog in a rickety machine he complains about but thrives within.

In the five seasons of storytelling that constitutes The Wire’s universe, there were so many scenes, bits of dialogue, and plot lines that rendered black characters, and the complexity of being black in America, in a light unparalleled in television history. Aside from Roots back in the '70s, no sustained drama in television, network or cable, has ever put black characters at the center of its narrative. There have been failed experiments here and there, but there has been no equivalent commitment on the part of a creative community or a network. Whether it was the relationships between drug lords Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell or between Mayor Clarence Royce and his police commissioner Ervin Burrell or among the doomed high school boys of Season 4, The Wire offered views of these African-American men that is only surpassed, in my mind, by the collected works of the late playwright August Wilson. (My only complaint is that too few of these indelible characters were female.)

That The Wire achieved this with a writing staff dominated by white males is a miracle only if you believe, as many blacks and whites do, that its impossible for non-blacks to truly understand our experience here in America. I don’t believe that’s true, any more than I believe only whites can write about their lives or Asians theirs. However, and this is a huge caveat, it happens rarely and only when a white man has fully accepted his characters as human beings first and black people second. Only after you’ve internalized that central, yet apparently elusive, concept, is it possible to respect and take seriously how race affects the lives of individuals. Somehow David Simon and Ed Burns, two very white-seeming men, did that for five seasons, guiding a gifted writing staff into charged, dangerous territory.

Of course there are those who don’t think they made it through safely. There are black folks who thought The Wire was just a slowly paced blaxploitation movie. To those gate keepers it’s just another mass-media glorification of dysfunction and despair. That’s probably why the show never dominated the NAACP Image Awards, as it should have. There are obviously plenty in the television establishment who discount its artistic merit (too black, too strong perhaps?) and have refused to shower its directors, writers, and cast with the Emmy nominations it should have been drenched in.

To both groups, blacks and whites, the sanctimonious and the elitist, all I can say is The Wire is the first landmark piece of narrative cinema of the 21st century. It sets a standard for viewing our cities, our racial tension, and our governmental impotence that few books, much less episodic TV, will ever match. What’s truly sad about The Wire is not its subject or style but that its remarkable, largely black male cast will mostly go the rest of their careers without finding roles as rich as the drug dealers, policemen, and addicts of Baltimore, Maryland. 

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Courtesy HBO
Michael Kenneth Williams in The Wire
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television  |  The Wire  |  African-American

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THE AUTHOR

Nelson George is an author, filmmaker, and television producer. He directed the HBO film Life Support, starring Queen Latifah, and is executive producing a documentary on black women's hair hosted by Chris Rock called Good Hair. He executive produces the American Gangster series for BET and Hip Hop Honors for VH-1. His next book, the memoir City Kid, will be published by Viking in early 2009.

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