Work of Art: MacLaughlin on "Show Me a Hero"

 

"Simon, Shakespeare, and Springsteen: Race, Class, & Gender Politics in Show Me a Hero"

by Nicole MacLaughlin
Associate Teaching Professor
University Writing Program

 January 2016

Given Oscar Isaac’s recent takeover of screens large and small, it was especially gratifying to see him accept the Golden Globe Award in January for a more obscure but deeply compelling performance as a local politician in HBO’s Show Me a Hero. In this not-to-be-missed six-episode mini-series, creator David Simon works magic, telling a complex story of race and politics, but packaging it as a Shakespearean tale of the decline of a hero (played by Isaac) pulled out of a 1980’s Bruce Springsteen’s lyric. In fact, “Hungry Heart” and a rich catalog of Springsteen’s other blue-collar epics provide the soundtrack for Show Me a Hero, which profiles a racially divided Yonkers, New York, during a housing crisis in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Simon uses Springsteen’s music from the era both diegetically – to characterize Issac’s Nick Waciscko by introducing us to his cassette collection – and non-diegetically – to unite the struggles of black, brown, and white citizens confronting the problems and possibilities of the American city.

Show Me a Hero’s plot weaves Nick Waciscko’s story with those of a diverse cast of characters on both sides of a debate over a court-ordered disbursement of low-income housing units throughout Yonkers. But Nick’s story is the central frame through which the larger, social narrative unfolds. As the series opens, we meet the ambitious young Nick, a just-elected city council member with working-class roots and a newly minted law degree.  Within two episodes, Nick has won a mayoral election and a loyal partner in the form of Nay (Carla Quevedo), a beautiful, sensible woman who shares his tireless interest in Yonkers’ city politics.  And very quickly, Nick also wins the viewers’ hearts. One in a series of local pols who uses the housing court case to curry favor with voters, Nick initially differentiates himself from the incumbent mayor by voting to appeal the judge’s decision to force the housing plan forward.  Although the show gives the viewers peeks at Nick’s tragic flaw – his insatiable ego – throughout the early episodes, we are cleverly drawn into his corner.

Alongside him, we learn the truth – that appealing the court’s decision will prove futile and bankrupt the city.  We struggle to hear Nick’s voice above those of an angry white citizenry, courageously banging his gavel and explaining the logic behind his decision to follow the court order; we accompany him as he walks impassively to his car after his constituents verbally attack him and spit in his face. And, through short scenes of others directly involved in and affected by the housing debates – snippets, at first, interspersed between Nick’s chapters – we learn about the substantial social issues at the heart of the crisis. We are exposed to housing theorist Oscar Newman’s reasoning and data, which teach us the virtues of single-family housing units for avoiding crime and deterioration in public housing. And through a series of scenes showcasing the contrast between the run-down public areas and the many well-intentioned residents inside their units, we learn about just how bad conditions are in the projects.

So by the time, trademark grin spread across his face, Nick Waciscko rolls up his sleeves, determined to “govern” – which largely entails brokering deals and partnerships to locate sites for the housing units inside white working-middle-class neighborhoods – we are rooting for him. And in accordance with Simon’s plan, we are concurrently informed about and rooting for the success of the public housing units. Though it happens amidst angry protest and the political chaos of a succession of four mayors in eight years, the housing plan – and the work of integration – march forward.

Nick Waciscko, however, suffers a different fate. The second half of the mini-series documents his decline in parallel with the housing’s ascent.  After losing his mayoral seat for largely the same reasons as his predecessor, Nick flails about, struggling to find a way to relaunch his political ambitions and licking his wounds because very few locals remember the central role he played in moving the housing plan forward during his two- year stint in office. In other words, although Nick is no longer a central player in the housing crisis, he stays center stage as the show’s hero.  In a recent New York Times interview, Simon explained this clever choice as  “having a very good actor maneuvering through a character arc that is something of a Shakespearean tragedy. And Oscar Isaac portraying Nick Waciscko’s rise and fall is very much that. If we can get you to care about Nick, we might just have a chance to tell a story about hyper-segregation, public housing and politics.”

Nick’s story is not only tragic because it doesn’t end well for him personally; it’s tragic because he falls so far short of the viewers’ expectations that he will genuinely embrace and champion the housing in the name of working-class and poor people with whom, it’s implied, he shares some roots. In another brilliant act of storytelling, Simon weaves into the narrative a series of other characters whose stories only tangentially relate to Nick’s, everyday residents of Yonkers whose paths were shaped by the housing crisis. There are five female characters whose stories gradually take up more screen time as the series progresses, but Mary Dorman, portrayed by Catherine Keener, is the only one who takes individual shape in the early episodes. Mary’s white, middle-class perspective at first gives voice to the reasons why otherwise good, reasonable people object to the housing plan, which they fear will forcibly change the character of their neighborhoods and substantially reduce the value of their homes.

Mary, uninvolved in politics up to this point, joins the local citizens’ group organizing against the initiative and vows to “never miss another meeting.” She feels empowered to call Mayor Waciscko directly and express her discontent. In a humorous but symbolic moment, Nick directly picks up the phone and converses with Mary, again gently pleading his case. Mary gets Nick’s attention, largely because she is a white, middle class voter. Very quickly, then, Nick learns Mary Dorman’s name and memorizes her cautious, thoughtful face, and so do we. The struggle to gain name recognition (especially for an upstart with a tongue-twisting Polish name like Waciscko) is a recurrent theme for many characters. Simon makes a clear point here: that the means to make oneself known are more available to whites, especially males, than they are to poor people of color.  Nick’s name is ubiquitous on signs, as he is constantly in campaign mode; and at one point, on the phone with underlings of state Democratic power brokers, Nick repeatedly spells his name. Details like these allow Simon to draw a brilliant contrast with the four other main characters, all women of color who are introduced to us amidst a sea of other people, intentionally unnamed.

Although we gradually learn at least three of these four public housing residents’ names, Nick never does, and we are initially thrown into each of their storylines without much exposition.  We watch as each of them is drawn into the atmosphere of hopelessness embodied by their large public housing apartment building. In moments mindful of the early episodes of The Wire, Simon’s earlier, widely-praised HBO television serial documenting the troubles of the American city, we struggle to keep up with these four disconnected characters’ storylines. And all the time, we constantly wonder when and how they will intersect with the story’s traditional protagonist, Waciscko. Simon feeds this disorientation by providing only glimpses of their lives, often filming from obstructed viewpoints, with smudged project walls in the foreground and the characters’ personal dramas – squelched dreams, drug addictions, stressed and overworked parents – taking place at a distance. He thus limits our vantage point on these characters’ lives, emphasizing how poor people of color are often faceless and voiceless, not only in the media, but also in the civic debates which affect them most.  Waciscko’s and the project residents’ options for pursuing their dreams are markedly different, highlighted by a scene where one of them, a young, optimistic widow-to-be, breezes past Waciscko hawking for votes on a street corner – and dismisses his campaign pitch with an air that makes it clear she won’t be voting.

This character, who we eventually find out is named Doreen, along with the three other women of color, eventually finds a better life in the new public townhomes built in Mary Dorman’s and Nick Waciscko’s white neighborhoods. Despite the waiting lists, overly strict rules, and racist neighbors standing in their way, these women persist to better their personal conditions. Mary and Doreen both realize that the only way to improve their neighborhoods is to get involved in them, and they both, to some degree, assert themselves as activists.  As their lives improve, albeit haltingly, Oscar Newman’s predictions about the social success of single-family public housing units also prove true: the townhome residents take pride in the condition of their homes, and crime does not follow them to the new sites. When they are received hostilely by their new white neighbors, however, it is not the erstwhile, ambitious Waciscko who leads the charge to stabilize the situation. Mary, Doreen, and other minor characters take over the wheel, while Nick spirals into depression and paranoia, rejected by the voters and the local political establishment. Nick does make a few bizarre attempts to connect with the beneficiaries of the townhomes initiative. But these encounters, driven by Nick’s bruised ego and his quest for loyal followers, render him mute and joyless, woefully incapable of connecting with this new constituency and resentful of the lack of gratitude and praise he receives for what he remembers as a crucial role in championing their cause.

All in all, Show Me a Hero is a remarkable piece of accomplished storytelling. It reveals slight but significant shifts in race and class lines that result from integration, and it succeeds in getting viewers to care about the tangled nest of policy and politics at the heart of the decades-old Yonkers housing crisis. Most importantly, it shows how social and cultural change in America happens – messily and incrementally. And it confirms Simon’s place as a masterful, literary creator of a new form of social critique: the dramatic television serial.

But for all its progressivism, Show Me a Hero’s narrative arc sends another, much less optimistic message – that the way American stories about class get told hasn’t changed much in the last twenty-five years. Bruce Springsteen’s centering of the imperfect white, male, working-class protagonist is rebirthed in the form of Nick Waciscko. Although in Simon’s version he’s accompanied by a cast of women and people of color, potentially more interesting than him, these characters remain – albeit to different degrees – unnamed and unknown. We have to question why, even after Nick’s story is no longer central to the housing debate and crisis, he discordantly remains center stage. Why did Doreen, for example, not grab the baton mid-series and gradually assume the central narrative thread?  Simon is right to believe that audiences need a hero, however foiled, in order to get invested in stories about politics, citizenship, and the forces of social change. But perhaps he underestimates his audience by assuming that this Shakespearean hero – and the magnetic actor portraying the role – must necessarily be white and male. Audiences might just be won over by a different kind of working-class hero, who may not fit the Springsteenean mold but who honors the crucial role that women and people of color have played and do play in class politics in the United States. 

Further exploration:

For more from David Simon, visit his blog, or check out The Wire, what many consider to be the greatest American television show ever.

For the 1999 book by journalist Lisa Belkin that served as the source material for the television adaptation, see the first chapter and original New York Times review.

For only two of many scholarly studies that historicizes the issues, see Arnold Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Class in Chicago, 1940-1960 (orginally published in 1983) and Thomas Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (originally published in 1996).

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