Monday, September 7, 2015

Show Me a Hero: The Difficulties of Doing the Right Thing

Show Me a Hero is a six-part HBO miniseries directed by Paul Haggis and co-written by The Wire's David Simon and journalist William F. Zorzi. With that pedigree, it promised to be an interesting and challenging social commentary. Ultimately, it lived up to that promise.

Based on the book by Lisa Belkin, the series is a dramatization of real-life events from 1987 to 1994 in Yonkers, NY, when a federal judge mandated the desegregation of public housing. The idea was to build 200 units of public housing in the wealthy, mostly white, east side of Yonkers. The central character is Nick Wasicsko (portrayed by the fantastic Oscar Isaac), a young Yonkers City Council member who is running for mayor in the midst of the housing controversy. He promises to appeal the judge's decision and wins the election on the strength of that promise, becoming the youngest big-city mayor in the country. However, once he enters office, he discovers the city has already lost the appeal and he quickly becomes a proponent for the housing. This incurs the wrath of the vocal white citizens of Yonkers, who launch multiple protests, riot at council meetings, and make it very clear that Wasicsko will not be able to win his re-election bid in two years' time. 

While one part of the series follows Wasicsko's political and personal life, the other part is the story of the families who will be impacted by this desegregation order. They currently live in the projects, in graffiti-smeared buildings with broken elevators and drug dealers in the stairwells, where watching someone get arrested on the curb is a routine occurrence. There's Norma O'Neal (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), a home health aide who is losing her sight due to diabetes but is not keen to leave the projects and go over to the white side of town where she knows "those people" won't welcome her. There's Doreen Henderson (Natalie Paul), a woman who gets caught up in the drug epidemic but has a supportive family to pull her from the brink. Carmen Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera) is a young Dominican woman struggling with the decision to support her two kids in America or take them back to the DR. And Billie Rowan (Dominique Fishback) is a young black woman who gets involved with a small-time criminal who seems destined to only bring her grief. 

Show Me a Hero also portrays the broad range of personalities among the vociferous anti-housing lobby. While the majority are ugly racists, the most compelling character is Mary Dorman (played by the brilliant Catherine Keener). Mary is a Yonkers resident who is concerned about how this public housing will disrupt her carefully-ordered existence and ruin her property values. She mostly seems to view this as an economic issue, and becomes a vocal proponent of the anti-housing movement. However, as the years pass, she becomes more uncomfortable with the increasingly racist rhetoric of the people around her. Once the housing is established, she is pressed into service as one of the volunteers to help integrate the residents into their new surroundings, and she realizes that perhaps she was on the wrong side of this fight all along.

Because this is based on real life, Show Me a Hero has a messy, complicated story to tell. It cannot do justice to every single one of its characters and some seem to be sketched out in much broader strokes than others. The public housing residents sometimes feel a bit too caricaturish, but as the series progresses, you do get to delve more into their world and see that the writers and director are trying to tell as nuanced a story as possible in the six episodes they have. Every actor is doing fine work, and I was wholly invested in this story from the charged beginning to the bitter end. I had no idea what happened in real life and was frankly appalled at the finale when I discovered how things turned out. 

Show Me a Hero is difficult but necessary to watch. Desegregation of public housing is an issue that invites just as much controversy now as it did in Yonkers in the 1980s, and it is important to understand the many arguments and justifications that both sides make when they discuss it. This is also a show about politics and how the desire to do good can be trumped by personal ambition. Good people can do bad things, and vice versa, and it is often not easy to pick the right side. It is more important to know when you have lost the fight. 

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