'Show Me A Hero' Offers A Nuanced Take On Public Housing Discrimination
By now, viewers know what to expect from a David Simon drama. You expect an intense study of a precise location, as with Baltimore in The Wire and New Orleans in Treme. You expect flawed, fascinating and unforgettable characters — like Omar in The Wire, just to name one. And you expect the story to raise issues, especially about race and politics, that are unfortunately relevant to today.
Show Me a Hero, a six-hour miniseries presented by HBO over three weeks, checks off all those boxes. It's based on Lisa Belkin's nonfiction book of the same name, which examined events and emotions over a heated political issue in a specific place and time.
The time is the late 1980s; the place, Yonkers, New York; and the issue is public housing. The city had been found guilty of building all of its government-mandated public housing units in poor black neighborhoods, and was ordered to build new ones in more affluent areas. Many white Yonkers residents rose up in anger, making the housing issue central to the local election. Into that heated battle steps an ambitious young politician, Nick Wasicsko, played by Oscar Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davis.
David Simon and Show Me a Hero co-creator William F. Zorzi, who contributed to The Wire, approach this complicated piece of history by coming at it from several illuminating angles. We get to know council members, judges, lawyers, newspaper reporters — but we also see the housing issue from the points of view of citizen activists, low-income housing residents and other street-level perspectives.
The same goes for Isaac's character, Nick Wasicsko, who decides to run for mayor of Yonkers against the incumbent. We see him in contentious public and private meetings — but we also see his very human side when he plants a kiss on a young secretary who works in the same government building.
Nick is surrounded by people with more power, played by actors who fill their roles aggressively. Winona Ryder, Alfred Molina, Jim Belushi, Bob Balaban, Peter Riegert, LaTanya Richardson and Catherine Keener all make strong impressions here — and no one makes a stronger impression than Oscar Isaac in the leading role.
Virtually every character in Show Me a Hero has his or her good and bad times, but only Nick seems to take it all so personally. The drama's title comes from the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy," and the title fits.
Show Me a Hero is directed by Paul Haggis, the writer-director of Crash whom TV fans may remember as the man behind the underrated quality classics Due South and EZ Streets. His visual touch and taste are evident here, and he's also a good fit with Simon because he frames scenes in a way that expects, almost demands, that attention must be paid.
You'll need to pay attention to get all the nuances packed into this miniseries — but it's worth it. At a time when racial tensions and blustery politicians are dominating headlines, this 25-year-old true story couldn't seem more timely. Or, since it presents some actual solutions to political posturing and deep-seated racial hostilities, more valuable.
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