Sunday, April 3, 2011

Black American Lives and THE WIRE

A friend of mine who's also a reader of this blog sent me a question today. He just finished watching the fifth season of The Wire. He went back and read this post, written after I had watched the first two seasons and a few episodes of the third. In the post, I reflect on how the show's focus on crime and punishment narrows the range of black American lives considered in the show.

My friend wondered if I thought the later episodes and seasons of The Wire address this issue:

Do you feel the show successfully presented a broader range of black American lives in the later seasons than the narrower range of criminals and crime-fighters which you identified in the first few seasons?

I guess my answer would be yes and no. Season Four brings in all of the schoolkids and widens the scope a bit. The character of Cutty also provides an interesting example of someone who forges a life outside of the world of crime and punishment. Bunny Colvin becomes a very interesting example of a middle-class black character who struggles heroically, at times quixotically, to change the world for the better.

In the end, though, the show is still about crime and punishment. We root for the cops to defeat the bad guys. Now, it must be said that the show does an incredible job of blurring the lines: showing us the corruption and dysfunction of the cops—even some of the ones we might admire most—and showing us the humanity of the bad guys. The Wire is a remarkable work of art, one that can actually make us feel more empathy for a character after he brutally beats another character to death. (I'm thinking of Chris Partlow's killing of Michael's stepfather.) And the film's cast of characters does include an impressive number of what Zora Neale Hurston called "average, struggling, non-morbid Negroes." Many of these characters are committed to the apprehension of black criminals—but there are white criminals as well, some of whom operate on a much wider scale than the black criminals. (I'm thinking of Vondas and the Greek, of course.)

So yes, I think the later seasons do add important and interesting nuance to the show's portrayal of black Americans' lives. And yet, at the same time, I still think everything I said in my earlier post is true.

I still need to watch David Simon's earlier mini-series The Corner, which other readers of this blog have urged me to look at in the context of this question. And Simon's most recent show Treme would probably also be interesting to watch with this issue in mind. My understanding is that it's not about crime and punishment at all.


Euripides said...

Interesting thoughts, Frank. I'd also add the character of the middle school language arts teacher, the woman Cutty is interested, whose name I have forgotten, to the list of (albeit minor) characters that expand the range of people that The Wire frames for the viewer (though she, like Omar, verges on the edge of having things too figured out).

Interestingly, I don't see any mention of Gus in this reflection, a man who winds up being one of the more important thwarted heroes of season 5. Is the problem that he's too little too late in your estimation?

framiko said...

Those are two great examples, Euripides. Especially Gus. I guess I would say, though, that neither of those two characters is developed fully. The language arts teacher is little more than a cameo, as I recall. And Gus, though I like him a lot, is never really given much of a story outside of his heroic efforts at the newspaper, is he?