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Different Voices: Diversity in The Wire‘s Baltimore

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Different Voices: Diversity in <em>The Wire</em>‘s Baltimore

“One of the things that you can’t get away from is the racial aspect of the show. Whereas most shows run from having blacks on the screen, The Wire embraces a large black cast of some of the best drawn, best acted, and most engaging characters on today. Outside of sitcoms, too many teetering on this side of minstrelsy, not since the days of Homicide: Life on the Street have black characters played so many lead roles.”—Maurice Broaddus,

In one of the supplements to the Season 3 DVD of The Wire, the show’s creator, former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, notes that Emmy Magazine, the official magazine of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, once published an article about the diversity of African-American characters on television and did not mention either The Wire or Homicide: Life on the Street (which was based on Simon’s nonfiction book). “In some ways I think Hollywood is utterly ill-equipped to address the idea of these voices,” Simon said.

If that’s not true enough, it’s a partial explanation as to why both series didn’t get much Emmy love. While Homicide presented many varied African-Americans, it didn’t come close to the wide range that has been offered in the first three seasons (and the fourth yet to air) of The Wire, which features realistic black characters on both sides of the law and in political office. These characters are portrayed with a depth that resists classification as purely heroic or villainous—and as an ensemble, their diversity is unrivaled. The show grants multiple dimensions to all its characters on both sides of the law—a universe that expands with each season, including the upcoming Season Four, which focuses on four young black teens we haven’t met before.

In another Season 3 DVD supplement, Simon estimates that 70% of the characters on The Wire are African-American, and he posits that as a possible explanation for the show’s low ratings. Simon cites statistics that show white neighborhoods are comfortable when the number of African-American neighbors are a small percentage, but when the numbers climb toward 20%, whites take flight. In one of HBO’s Season Four previews, Sonja Sohn, the half Korean-American, half African-American actress who plays Baltimore police detective and out lesbian Shakima “Kima” Greggs said, “Having such a large number of African-American characters is still daunting.”

I. The Street

“Am I a hypocrite in stating that I am weary of these kind of shows, no matter how well done they are, that feature African-Americans as some kind of colorful {in a negative sense} underclass?” asked Vance Cureton, assessing season one in The Reading Post . “Violent. Hostile to all non-Blacks. Anti-intellectual. Able to survive by virtue of street wits, instead of through education, and doing things the correct way.” In an Alternet article about the series, Anthony Papa, who served time for drug crimes and then became an artist and activist, seconded Cureton’s discomfort. “I don’t think it neutralizes it just because the cops are corrupt,” he said. “Most drug users I know are white. I’ve worked in midtown Manhattan, around Wall Street, where people were using drugs. I never saw the police raid Wall Street.”

Simon acknowledged in a 2003 interview with Eric Deggans of The St. Petersburg Times that those criticisms helped spur the port storyline of Season 2, and its connection to the drug trade. “We were very conscious of the fact that some white viewers may have felt a little bit smug about (the first season’s criminals)...What was historically denied to young black men in Baltimore is now being denied to a certain percentage of the young white population. Now, the drug culture is crossing those (race) boundaries.” Still, even detractors must concede the prismatic array of characters lined up on the criminal side of The Wire. There’s Wallace (Michael B. Jordan) and D’Angelo (Larry Gilliard Jr.), who pay a price for twinges of conscience; the quiet, more old-school drug kingpin Avon (Wood Harris), and the cold-blooded young up-and-comer Marlo (Jamie Hector); the old pro Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew), who runs his operation out of an electronics shop where he still does repairs. The writers invest even the drug crews’ footsoldiers with humanizing details—notably Bodie (J.D. Williams), one of the few of the Barksdale crew to keep his freedom at the end of Season 3. Those without access to Season 4 screeners have yet to meet Snoop (Felicia Pearson), who works for Marlo—and I’ll leave it at that; you just need to experience her for yourself.

There also are true originals who defy easy categorization, including Omar (Michael K. Williams), who I expounded on in a post earlier this week, and his doppleganger, gun-for-hire Brother Mouzone (Michael Potts), retained by Avon in Season 2. Mouzone dresses like a member of the Nation of Islam, though he’s vague on whether he belongs; he’s exceedingly polite and just as deadly, and he never raises his voice, even when berating an underling for neglecting to fetch him the latest issues of Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly. (Mouzone describes himself as the white man’s worst nightmare, “a n——- with a library card.”) Then there’s Bubbles (Andre Royo), junkie and snitch supreme, always lurking on the outside of both the legal and illegal sides of the storyline, and former Avon Barksdale employee Cutty (Chad L. Coleman), who left prison intending to pick up where he left off, but instead followed a straight-and-narrow path by opening a boxing gym for Baltimore’s youth.

In a 2002 article, Darnell M. Hunt, a sociology professor and director of UCLA’s Department of African-American studies, found the approach that The Wire took to both sides of the drug trade quite unusual and compelling. “It’s rare to see African-American characters portrayed across the spectrum like that—in terms of sexuality, motivations,” he said. “I’m not one who typically likes these kinds of shows, but I am struck by the nuanced, very interesting portrayals. Even the quote-unquote bad characters are humanized in ways you don’t usually see on television. This show just strikes me as being the most balanced and realistic portrayal of people involved in the drug culture. In one episode, we saw one of the (drug syndicate) lieutenants in the organization going off to a junior college to take a business management course. It was to get better at managing his drug business, but it was an unexpected twist, there was a feeling of reality about it.” Hunt was referring to the late lamented Stringer Bell, played so well by Idris Elba, an actor that I didn’t even realize was British until I started listening to the DVD commentaries and watching the extras. Stringer’s journey not toward redemption, but toward efficient business practices and legal legitimacy, mirrored Michael Corleone’s arc in The Godfather films. He didn’t pull off the transformation any better than Michael, but at least Michael managed to die of natural causes.

Producer Ed Burns, who served both as a homicide detective in the real Baltimore police department and as a teacher in the city’s public schools, points out that street characters’ predicaments often parallel those of the cops. “I think guys like Bodie and Prop Joe and Slim Charles and Marlo are very compelling,” Burns said. “They’re a group of people you don’t get to see, and by giving them humanity, and a bureaucracy, you start to like them. You feel sorry for the Bodies of the world when Avon is screwing up on top, and for the Lester Freamons, when Burrell is screwing up at the top.”

II. The Law

Varied as the street characters are, their African-American counterparts in the police department are just as individualized, from the sharp-dressed, philandering detective Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) to stoic Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), who may have corruption in his past, but has parlayed his fine work heading the Major Case Unit into a Season 4 job running the Western District, to Sgt. Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam), working the streets while questioning many of his orders. Daniels’ new post comes as a result of the hastened retirement of Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom) who failed in his attempt to create a drug-free zone as a way to cut the crime rate and to deal with his own frustration for feeling he’d accomplished nothing in his many years on the force. Colvin does return in Season 4, this time in the public school system, which provides the new season’s major themes.

The working cops include the aforementioned Detective Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), a man sentenced to years in bureaucratic limbo for questioning authority before he stopped concentrating on building his models and found renewed purpose in police work. Unfortunately, the old obstructions are still in place, along with some new ones; as Season 4 begins, we see Lester and Kima trying to circumvent the bosses to pursue justice that their bosses may not want pursued this close to an election. Standing above them all is acting Commissioner Ervin Burrell (Frankie Faison), the most political of creatures and, in many ways, the closest the show gets to a villain. He’s not a killer, he’s not corrupt—he’s just someone who cares more about himself than his department, his city or stopping crime.

III. The Government

Speaking of the political, African-Americans represent a large portion of the elected officials that The Wire began to portray in Season 3 and continues to observe in Season 4. Among them: slimy state Sen. Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who pulled the wool over Stringer Bell’s eyes last year; Mayor Clarence Royce (Glynn Turman), who is in the midst of a re-election battle; and Royce’s opponents, African-American Councilman Anthony Gray (Christopher Mann) and Italian-American Councilman Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen). Interestingly, for such a multicultural drama, the mayoral race is the place where racial issues most often crop up. The subject is seldom mentioned elsewhere, but it’s a constant current in the political storyline. As Carcetti comments in the upcoming season, seeing grim electoral prospects in poll numbers, “I still wake up white in a city that ain’t.”

The Wire never depicts these conflicting forces monolithically; it shows that groups are comprised of individuals with their own histories and idiosyncrasies, even their own way of speaking. Novelist George Pellecanos, who became a producer and writer on The Wire last season, said on the HBO special: “When you sit down as a writer, you never say, ’I’m writing a black guy. He’s gonna talk this way.’ It’s more about who is the person and remembering that everybody has a different voice. If you’re in a room with 20 black people and you close your eyes, you aren’t going to hear one voice, you are going to hear 20 different people with 20 different voices.”

IV. Diversity Beyond Race

The diversity of The Wire extends beyond race, as mentioned before, and gays and lesbians have cheered the creation of characters such as Kima Greggs and Omar Little, whose sexuality is really irrelevant to the nature of their characters’ work. Being a lesbian doesn’t diminish Kima’s skills as a detective and being gay doesn’t make Omar any less dangerous to those who cross him or who get in the way of his career as a rip-and-run artist.

On the Terrence Says blog, Terrence wrote: “Black gays and those portraying black gays are gaining visibility on prime time television like never before, and contrary to what some might believe, breakthroughs like this allow black diversity to be showcased and nurtured. Long and largely ignored by the heterosexual black and mainstream gay communities, Black Gay Pride is bursting on the scene [with] a kamikaze-like vengeance.” I can’t wait to see what the show does with the secret life of super asshole Deputy Commissioner Rawls (John Doman), who was glimpsed at a gay bar in Season 3.

The last word on this subject goes to Jason Toney of the blog Negro Please: [The Wire is] literature as television (or is it television as literature?) and is the best thing going, and maybe the best fictional representation of the diversity of black folks ever.”

Edward Copeland is a contributor to The House Next Door and the publisher of Edward Copeland on Film and the political blog Copeland Institute for Lower Learning. The above is part of Wire Week at The House, with a new article each day leading up to the HBO drama’s fourth season premiere on Sunday, Sept. 10. For more, see “On The Wire” in the sidebar at right.