Walking dead man
No one wins. One side just loses more slowly. —Pryzbylewski
Those fearing plot spoilers may wish to cast their gaze elsewhere.
Empathy experienced as an epiphanic moment.
Perhaps the first and only person to ever publicly call The Wire—the most unflinching show in the history of North American television— ‘watered down’ is Donnie Andrews, the man whose life as a legendary Baltimore outlaw inspired the character of Omar Little. But when asked to describe Baltimore at this event, he said simply, ‘It’s home.’ Donnie went on to describe Baltimore (substitute almost any urban, largely disenfranchised African-American city in the U.S.) as a place where:
You don’t count money, you count time. Everyone out there is a walking dead man. We can’t rely on the police when we need ‘em. They just come to take the bodies away.
Donnie, who notoriously stole from drug traffickers for nearly a decade and made $100,000 by the time he was 13 (‘I left it in a shoebox under my bed’), said he experienced a transformation at the instance of recognition. ‘Why did I kill a man that looked just like me?’ The question of violence, rather than floating as an abstract, pedestrian definition or a deracinated statistical study, revealed itself as a lack of self-recognition, or at the very least the ability to see the other’s face as an identity of one’s own. The ‘game’ came to a halt and where once there stood two players, and where Donnie now saw two human faces.
A collective sucking in of breath when the fictional Donnie Andrews aka Omar Little aka Michael Kenneth Williams took the stage. Williams elicited applause when his latest, Boardwalk Empire, is mentioned (I don’t own a television set and have never seen the show, but its title appears to me like a descendant of The Wire: a tightrope, a decaying superpower). Charles Ogletree asked if there were any scenes that made him uncomfortable. Williams didn’t mention the full-frontal nudity scene in Season 4, but then again, he seemed remarkably unscathed (much like The Wire itself) by the toxic and hypocritical Puritan morals of American television/film that erase contextually appropriate scenes involving nudity, sex, violence, etc.). Instead he offered the only scene ‘in five years [that] I had a huge problem with.’ His fellow cast members Kima (Sonja Sohn) and Bubbles (Andre Royo) called in him on the phone in hysterics over a new script, one he hadn’t yet read. They cried in unison: ‘You kill Stringer Bell!’ Williams said that ‘was the most uncomfortable feeling I’ve ever had.’ Not only was he bothered by the thought of losing a colleague (Idris Elba), he loathed to represent a scene of ‘black on black crime’ on the other (‘That was crossing a line. I was becoming part of the problem.’). He described a very dark day, in which everything was stormy ‘from the weather on down.’ He thought about Idris Elba losing his job, and started to cry on the set. ‘I didn’t want to be a part of this black on black crime scene.’
When Jamie Hector (another Wire actor from Brooklyn) who played the methodically vicious drug lord Marlo Stanfield, told his kids that Marlo was a murderer, they said, ‘No. He’s a businessman’:
I’m not in a position to judge the character [I] play. He was a sociopath. He was ruthless. He had a discipline about it. [But the kids] admire him because he gets the job done, and he’s on the ground. He fixes the ‘how’ of how you’re going to eat. Like how someone doesn’t like the fact that their son is selling crack, but he pays the mortgage.
Hector’s insight into the economic role that Marlo Stanfield played in the community—becoming rich and renowned quickly, handing out $200 bills to kids in the neighborhood, destroying (‘consolidating’) the opposition, etc.—is a pivotal commentary on the bedrock of American capitalism on which the show rests. (A productive, detail-oriented and merciless approach to success always generates a favorable audience in a country where the progenitors of the foreclosure crisis revealed more profits after a worldwide recession.)
Hector drives the point further by alluding to the character of Michael (Tristan Wilds) who is brought up in an abusive and achingly neglectful household. He said he reflected on how Marlo became a sociopath, and one clue is the pairing of Marlo and Michael, who are both survivors of child abuse (‘They’re identical’). He continued, ‘No one respects a pedophile. But they’d respect Marlo. He was always spoken about. He had great PR.’
A question is raised about the roles of animals in the series—Marlo raises pigeons, Cheese is intimately close with his fight dogs—and Hector brings up Mike Tyson and his love of animals. ‘Most athletes or sociopaths cope this way.’ Indeed, even sociopaths experience empathy—just not for humans.
On becoming ‘somebody.’
Michael K. Williams, shy and self-effacing, said that becoming Omar involved ‘crossing the line.’ It’s a curiously etymological description of transgression, or transgress– ‘stepped across’ (from the Latin verb transgredi, from trans– ‘across’ and gradi ‘go’). ‘I was just a nappy-headed kid from Brooklyn. I just had a dream, no college education.’ Playing a transgressive character took him ‘across the line’ to a dark place, and in the company of loads of drugs and alcohol. Becoming an alcoholic, he battled a divided self that couldn’t shake off its simulacrum:
I was answering more to the name Omar than Michael. [I thought:] I should’ve died with Omar. I lost my best friend.
Before The Wire, his mother, who is Bahamanian, offered him a daycare job after he hit a wall (despite acting gigs with Martin Scorcese and on The Sopranos in 2000). It wasn’t until he surreptitiously saw himself on an episode of The Sopranos that he decided to give acting another try.
Jamie Hector got his start in a youth theater company (is it any accident that theater is also the main artistic medium in Palestinian refugee camps and Carioca favelas?), and ended up studying at the Strasberg Institute. A role in a college film got him started: his tenacious manager got him on the show (beating out 150 others) based on that short film alone.
Donnie Andrews* (who was quick to add that the creators of the show put a ‘twist’ on his character by making him gay) was in federal prison when The Wire came out. His wife called and said, ‘That’s got to be you!’ He said that the only people that didn’t like the show and were threatened by it (or horrified by a reflection of their own image) were politicians, ‘even though the show brought the city [of Baltimore] $42 million a year’ in revenue.
Neither a spectacle nor a solution.
Charles Ogletree placed The Wire in the context of other shows with large African-American casts, like The Cosby Show and A Different World (in those shows, especially Cosby, race and political economy are a backdrop, if even that, to the storyline). Reverend Eugene Rivers commented that what separates The Wire is its brutal realism: ‘White Irish cops and black Dorcester [MA] thugs who have nothing in common agree on this show.’
Charles Ogletree: But what do they like about it?
Jamie Hector: Some change after watching it. Others just watch it in the comfort of their homes. I think Season 4 changes people.
The social decay and black disenfranchisement of Baltimore were there long before The Wire ever began, and the problems persist years after the show’s end. By now it is nearly banal to point out how The Wire has become a subject of fascination for both scholars who study human behavior and those who study the representation of that behavior. It is the subject of academic anthologies and college courses. But it also makes academia very self-conscious about itself because of the myriad of ways it has failed to promote a social cause, or even give an accurate rendering of the urban poor without flattening or degrading their experience. In short, The Wire demonstrates the shortcomings of abstract sociological or anthropological examination by sheer limitation to the nooks and crannies of urban life that the fluidity of film, in capable hands and with a remarkable cast, is able to capture.
* Ed Burns was the arresting officer of the real-life Omar Little, Marlo Stanfield and Little Melvin.
(Tightrope Rat by Banksy. Photo by Becks Davis, Detroit Moxie.)