Monday, August 31, 2015

Show me a Hero (parts one and two)

At the end of Part 2 of the HBO miniseries Show me a Hero, one of the characters berates the Mayor of Yonkers.  The constituent is angry about the prospect of low-income housing being built in her neighborhood and, when she calls City Hall to protest, no one is around and so the Mayor himself answers.  When the Mayor, a 28-year old hustler called Nick Wasicsko, tells her that he must implement the housing to comply with the desegregation order of a federal judge, the woman responds angrily:  "Well you can, at least, say that you think it is wrong."  The Mayor doesn't respond, because, perhaps, he's not sure that desegregating the city is wrong.  Instead, he promises that he won't have the woman thrown out of the next council meeting -- when she previously insulted him using the name of his father, also a local politician but recently dead, Mayor Wasciko had the police evict her from the hall.  This is exchange is remarkable for what it reveals about the radical structure of Show me a Hero and the series' extreme and rigorous commitment to its in media res narrative.  Although the series is about desegregation and the lack of decent housing for people of color in 1987 in a New York city, no one in the film talks about the morality of the situation nor does anyone raise issues as to whether court-ordered desegregation is just or unjust.  The legacy of racial discrimination that has compelled the Court to order desegregation is not shown or discussed -- there is no rhetoric about civil rights or oppression.  Rather, the show is radical in that it simply assumes these things.  Indeed, the assumption is so prevalent that the program doesn't have to dramatize issues of injustice.  Similarly, the mobs of white middle-class people screaming bloody murder at the Court's desegregation order -- which consists of establishing 200 units of low-income housing in white flight portions of the city of 200,000 -- never mention race, don't use racial epithets, and simply refer to the denizens of low income housing as "those people."  The ire of the mob is reserved, it seems, for the Jewish lawyers representing the Justice Department and the NAACP who have brought the suit from which the order mandating desegregation arises.  The curious thing about Show me a Hero is that, like its characters, it seems completely unwilling to talk about race and injustice -- the show is about procedural maneuvering, politics, Court hearings in which the Judge, played with steely authority by Bob Balaban, ratchets up the pressure on the entirely white city council members, ultimately threatening them with personal fines and imprisonment unless they implement desegregation.  The effect is a bit like the forensic films of the great Francesco Rosi -- particularly Salvatore Giuliano.  In Salvatore Giuliano, we almost never see the title character when he is alive -- he is a shadowy emblem, but not really a character and the film employs the radical narrative stance of excluding from its central focus the figure for whom the movie is named.  Similarly, the entire issue of race, oppression, and discrimination is concealed by the turbulent procedural events dramatized in Show me a Hero -- this context is implied as a fait accompli. For the first two hours, at least, no one mentions race at all and so the actual context of the clash between the citizens of Yonkers and the Federal Court remains implicit.  This is a bold narrative gesture, enhanced by film's strategy of using the hapless Nick Wasicsko as the vehicle for the story.  Wasicsko has exploited the dissatisfaction with the sitting mayor's failure to prosecute an appeal of the Court's desegregation order to get himself elected.  However, even before he takes office, he learns that the appeal on which his election was based has been lost and that he will have no choice but to preside over implementation of the desegregation order.  In effect, he has inherited an untenable political situation in which there is nothing he can do but comply with the Federal Judge's ruling, action that exposes him to the hysterical wrath of the townspeople, including threats of assassination -- he wears a service revolver around his ankle for protection. 

Show me a Hero is based on real events and the characters have been cast to look like their actual counterparts.  Like Salvatore Giuliano, the film was shot, when possible, in the actual locations where the events depicted occurred.  David Simon produced the film; he is famous for creating The Wire, a similarly forensic-oriented series.  Paul Haggis directs.  In the opening two hours, the film flags a little on the basis of repetitiveness -- Yonkers' lawyers keep appearing in Court only to receive increasingly severe lectures by the Federal Judge.  There are also repeated scenes of angry voters and tumult at the City Council meetings.  The repetition of these sequences, which really don't develop the story, seems unnecessary, although this stalled narrative structure strongly enhances the sense of paralysis gripping the city.  The political plot is intercut with scenes involving people of color, apparently, we surmise, those who will move into the housing required by the desegregation order. (Like Haggis' Crash, the show seems designed to gradually unify these narrative strands, ultimately bringing the White and Black characters into violent contact.) These scenes have no clear relationship with the narrative about the desegregation order -- Haggis and Simon's point is simple and devastating:  the people who are at the center of the storm have no idea that there even is a desegregation order.  This point is made dramatically twice in the early parts of the film.  A Black couple strolling down the street in Yonkers is handed a political flyer by Nick Wasicsko -- they don't even look at it and the woman drops it in the gutter.  (Wasicsko is campaigning on his promise to appeal the desegregation order.)  Later some Black drug dealers glimpse the NAACP housing consultant, a white man with an Amish-style beard, hustling through the high-rise ghetto with some blueprints in his hands.  The kids deride the man's appearance, calling him "an Abraham Lincoln-looking motherfucker".  "He's not delivering no emancipation proclamation for me," one of the boys says. 

Clearly, HBO didn't know how to market this series and has, essentially, decided to conceal it from the public.  Although the show enjoys a 97% positive rating from those who have seen it, the series is now relegated to late night -- the first four episodes aired in prime-time; the last two programs aired after 10:00 pm.  The title of the program is not promising.  It's derived from a statement by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- something to the effect that "if you show me a hero, I will show you a tragedy."  The program is built on an epic scale, with plots and subplots, dozens of characters, and a densely realistic, almost documentary mise-en-scene.  The show isn't flawless -- an excursus to the Dominican Republic seems filler and doesn't contribute to the narrative -- but it's better than just about everything else on TV at the end of August and, for better or worse, will be a landmark in the history of TV.  I recommend that you find this show on-demand and watch it. 

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