HBO has just given streamers another reason to subscribe to HBO Now. Show Me a Hero, a six-hour miniseries developed by David Simon (The Wire) and William F. Zorzi from the non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin and directed by Paul Haggis (with a subtlety and nuance I didn’t know he had in him), stars Oscar Isaac as Nick Wasicsko, a city councilman who became the mayor of Yonkers in 1988 with an anti-public housing campaign at a time when resentment to the court-ordered low income housing was so fierce it bordered on hysteria.
A drama on public housing policy and city politics may not sound like the makings of compelling drama but the first two hours of the story (which debuted on HBO Sunday night and is now available to HBO subscribers via cable or streaming) are riveting. More than that, this series showcases what Simon does best: exploring real-life events and issues through a dramatic lens that puts politics, economics, and social justice in personal terms.
Wasicsko runs an underdog campaign against a five-term incumbent (Jim Belushi) by riding the wave of anger over the city’s “capitulation” to the court (after delaying for years through failed appeals). When the last of the appeals is rejected, Wasicsko resigns himself to the inevitable but the middle- and working-class white population that elected him sees it as a betrayal of their support and he suddenly finds himself in the impossible position of negotiating a deal that will pass the city council and meet the legal obligation, or face crippling contempt fines that could bankrupt the city in a month.
Wasicsko is at the center of the story but only one character in an expansive canvas that encompasses not just the politicians but the white homeowners resisting change (Catherine Keener, whose bedrock civility gets carried away by the mob passions) and the folks struggling to make a life for themselves in the crime-ridden projects, from a health-care worker going blind from diabetes (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) to a single mother from the Dominican Republic whose best option is leave her children back in the DR while she supports them from Yonkers.
It’s not about race, it’s economics, the middle class protesters insist. If they can’t afford to live in their neighborhoods, they shouldn’t. They don’t see themselves as racist, but as one frustrated homeowner puts it, “These people… they don’t live the way we do…” It just gets worse as tempers run hotter and members of the council either stoke the flames of opposition or capitulate to the mob who would rather see their elected officials take a symbolic stand of defiance no matter the consequences than even listen to the options.
Sound like any government institution we know?
So while it is about the rage and resentment and fear when it comes to desegregating the city, it’s just as much about the polarization of politics, where opposition at all costs prevents discussion, let alone compromise. This story puts it in a real-life framework devoid of party politics. The issue at the center of Show Me a Hero is not partisan but it is deeply personal for everyone involved. Logic and reason are trampled in the anger and resentment. And in the best Simon tradition, the story is told in the individual experiences of people on all sides of this story, from the angry white protesters to the folks struggling with the status quo of institutionalized segregation. He doesn’t demonize the protesters or the politicians, but neither does he let them off the hook for their failures. By putting a human face to the conflict, Simon and Zorzi remind us just how complicated and emotionally rooted these issues are.
Two more installments go live on successive Sunday nights.
David Simon and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (the former mayor of Newark) discuss the show and the history behind it at The New York Times.