Yonkers’s ignoble fight, which the city would continue for nearly twenty more years, is a tale The Wire and Treme creator David Simon has wanted to tell for decades. With co-writer William F. Zorzi and director Paul Haggis (Crash), Simon finally does just that — while vehemently arguing that desegregation was a step forward despite the personal costs involved — in the ambitious but uneven Show Me a Hero, a six-hour HBO miniseries that will air in two-hour installments on three Sunday nights starting August 16.
Based on Lisa Belkin’s nonfiction account of the same name, Show Me a Hero takes its title from an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that concludes, “and I'll write you a tragedy.” In Simon and Zorzi’s mix of political drama, psychological portrait, and sociological study, the semi-accidental hero is real-life personage Nick Wasicsko (played by an outstanding Oscar Isaac), a 28-year-old Democratic city councilman who successfully runs for mayor by opposing the public-housing plans, then finds himself forced to defend them to a rabid mob of betrayed voters.
Forming a sea of screaming rage at municipal meetings, white Yonkersonians, at least one in a KKK T-shirt, accuse Wasicsko of “raping the voters.” A
Simon and Zorzi don’t bother endowing the white, angry residents with humanity. They’re on the wrong side of history, as far as the writers are concerned, and besides, their reasons for clinging to their racial and economic privilege are self-evident. Though housing discrimination isn't as big a part of conversations about race as it used to be, its ongoing repercussions — including the recently publicized but centuries-long pattern of police brutality against racial minorities — make Show Me a Hero a remarkably timely story, sometimes excruciatingly so. Still, an acknowledgement of rising urban crime and omnipresent media scaremongering would have provided greater context for the white residents’ fear and fury.
Shooting on location, Haggis ably captures the gray-skied, bricks-and-concrete drugscape the Schlobohm houses used to be. (The production team threw garbage around the public residences and tagged the buildings like they used to be in the Eighties, then cleaned up after filming.) Dedication to period hair and costuming means that everyone looks suitably hideous in tapered jeans and granny glasses. But the events in Yonkers are so charged and so familiar that they feel like they could have taken place nearly anywhere in the country during the second half of the twentieth century.
Explored alongside the ideological reversals of Wasicsko and Dorman are the lives of four women (played by Natalie Paul, Ilfenesh Hadera, Dominique Fishback, and LaTanya Richardson Jackson) — all based on real people — for whom the new residences represent a lifeline, particularly for the three who are single mothers with young children. While moving, these individual subplots don’t bloom into relevance until the final episode, and even then, Simon and Zorzi treat them more as inspirational or cautionary stories than as characters in their own right. The frequent time jumps necessary to encompass five years of events in six hours of storytelling occasionally render character development abrupt; Paul’s Doreen Henderson, for example, sets some kind of record for going from newlywed to widow to drug addict to community leader.
The miniseries’ only real character is Wasicsko, a restless political animal who stumbles into doing the right thing and never gives up the right to feel sanctimonious about it. Other than in the last episode, Show Me a Hero hits its stride in hours two and three, when Wasicsko steels himself against a citizenry that would rather bankrupt its own city — with the federal court eventually
Though the miniseries
Simon and Zorzi’s script is unrelentingly intelligent, even when the drama is flabby, as when entire scenes are devoted to elucidating why the phrase “housing project” is offensive to residents, or when city planner Oscar Newman (Peter Riegert) explains why single-family homes are preferable to towers. Roiling underneath the sedate drama lies a blood-boiling, incontrovertible fact: The battle to keep Yonkers segregated is just one of the many times when the tyranny of the masses was used to stomp on the already downtrodden.
Perhaps miraculously, Show Me a Hero doesn't engender cynicism or hopelessness. But it is a work that demands we look plainly at our past, for that's the only way we can clearly see our present, too.
Show Me a Hero premieres Sunday, August 16, at 8 p.m. on HBO.
Inkoo Kang is the TV critic for the Village Voice. She publishes widely on film and television.