"You tell me that the riots are a good thing? F*ck you. Come to Baltimore and say that": David Simon on police brutality, the legacy of "The Wire" and the future of American cities

Salon talks to David Simon on why he'd rather make a show about public housing than "dragons and zombies"

Published August 4, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Chris Pizzello/HBO)
(AP/Chris Pizzello/HBO)

The legendary showrunner David Simon isn’t so sure about his “legendary” status—as wide-ranging and influential as his masterwork “The Wire” has been, to his mind, it’s never quite enough. To wit: This month, HBO is debuting a six-part miniseries from Simon called “Show Me a Hero,” based on Lisa Belkin’s 1993 book of the same name, about real-life Yonkers Mayor Nick Wasickso (played by Oscar Isaac in the miniseries). Wasickso was an opportunist politician who ended up caught in the rancorous politicking around public housing that reveals an uncomfortable sticking point for communities the world over: Where do we house our poorest?

It’s a topic that reveals Simon’s passion for politics at the city level—zoning ordinances, federal funds, section 8 housing, property tax codes. Topics with a reputation for being boring—but Simon’s life work has been bringing the drama of civic politics to life. “Show Me a Hero,” like “The Wire,” is gutting: The title comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line, “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.” It’s poised to be the next game-changing drama in the televisual canon—another show that transforms political consciousness for millions. I’ll be writing more about the miniseries as we approach the premiere; in the meantime, I sat down with Simon to talk about how he makes the mundane into the sublime, how “The Wire” has aged, and the rising profile of police brutality in America.

You’re clearly very passionate about civic politics and making that interesting for audiences—

That’s part of the problem with my TV career.

[Laughs.] Because it’s inherently not as interesting?

I’m sort of paddling up the stream, yeah.

Well, it’s interesting. You’re a showrunner, but you have the stature of a public intellectual because you do bring this consciousness to viewers.

Yeah, I have that. But I have no audience; I better have the public intellectual part. Listen, a lot of things that were my impulses that brought me into journalism are still with me. This is not journalism — I’m being a dramatist with stuff — but I’m trying to engage in an argument, which is a little different than a lot of TV, I think.

People typically don’t care about city politics because, to be completely blunt, it’s boring. But, “Show Me a Hero,” from what I’ve seen, is not boring. How do you do that? How did you make that happen?

There’s an issue at stake that’s almost perennial in terms of race and class and hyper-segregation that the show gives us an opportunity to address. One of the reasons for that is you have this arc for Nick Wasicsko. To invoke the quote from Lisa Belkin’s book title: “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy,” by Fitzgerald. It’s a pretty classic Shakesperean arc, in terms of the tragedy. You’ve got this incredible spine that can sustain people if it’s addressed by a good actor, and Oscar Isaac is certainly a good actor. We have a chance to pull people through the keyhole and make them attend to the issue. We have that going for us.

The other thing is—I can concede that, on paper, if you hear that HBO’s made a six-hour miniseries about building 200 units of low-income housing in East Yonkers, you’d think, my God, they don’t know what they’re doing. Someone needs to get ahold of that network. On paper, it sounds that way. But to me, it’s the core of where the American experience is suffering. It’s self-governance. How do we govern all this? Is this country still a utilitarian experiment? Are we governing in a way that’s best for the most of us? Or do we not even give a fuck anymore? That’s not a flippant question. You look around you, and you say, I’m not even sure anyone’s the right questions anymore. To me, I’m not bored by it. I’d be bored by dragons and zombies and whatever else. Not that those aren’t well-made shows, because they are. But I can’t live there—it’s not who I am, and it’s not who [“Show Me a Hero” co-writer] Bill Zorzi is. We live where we live. We pick up the paper. We go to the A-section. We go to the metro section.

So, “The Wire” has become the gold standard, in some ways—

Not when it was on! It’s a very funny outcome. I’m grateful, but I’m deeply amused.

It’s still held up as this window into inner-city life, even though it’s 15 years old.

I can enumerate the things that aren’t in “The Wire.” Show me a story that’s about everything, and I’ll show you a story that’s about nothing. That’s just a fundamental of storytelling. You pick your targets, you do the best you can, you use your existing resources, and you make the points you have room to make. You hold up “The Wire” and you try to have an argument about gender studies, and you’re not going to have very much to argue with. You hold up “The Wire” and you want to talk about environmental policy, and there’s nothing there.

And yet, there is this sort of universality that anything with black people in Baltimore, let’s hold up “The Wire”—it’s almost a juvenile notion of what storytelling is. There is a narrative there, and it makes good points about the drug war, and it makes good points about the over-policing that results in the drug war, but it doesn’t make every point that you could conceivably make.

How do you feel about its continued idolization, at this point?

I think we told a good story, and it’s a story that has resonance. I’m proud of the work. But it isn’t everything. The reason we did “Treme” was: A lot of people saw “The Wire” and thought it was an argument against the city. There was a libertarian notion that by showing bad governance, we were arguing against government. It’s a juvenile notion, to think that the solution for bad governance is no governance. And yet, that’s the temperament of people who watch “The Wire” and are of that political persuasion. For me, “The Wire” presumed, maybe naively, that nobody would be so obtuse as to think that it was an argument against self-governance and the city as the American future. Hamilton and Jefferson had that argument, and guess what? Jefferson lost. We’re not going back to some agrarian ideal. Our future is in the city. We need to figure out how to prevail with this increasingly compacted multicultural beast, or we fail as a society.

It came time to look at New Orleans and the re-establishment of this city, and to use that moment to say, “What does the American city promise? What has it given us?” The multiculturalism by which New Orleans has given us our greatest gifts seemed a particularly apt response to what was clearly missing in “The Wire,” which was the argument for the city.

But at the moment, when you’re airing episode-by-episode, making those arguments is irrelevant. People are either digging the characters or they’re in it as an adventure or they’re watching it for what they’re getting—or they’re not. If you lose them, you lose them. We lost a lot of people on “Treme.” But to me, that story was as well-executed as anything I’ve ever done. I look at it, and I think: It’s on the shelf. We made it. We got to say a lot of what we intended to say, and we executed at a very high level. It’s there, thank God it’s there. No one found “Generation Kill” [Simon’s 2008 miniseries about the Iraq war, starring Alexander Skarsgård and James Ransome] and now you can’t find a Marine anywhere in the corps who can’t recite Ray Person’s dialogue verbatim, the same way they used to do Lee Ermey in the first 20 minutes of “Full Metal Jacket.” Now every Marine knows the Ray Person shtick—it’s hilarious.

And it’s all you can do. I know I can’t write something that gets you an audience the moment I put it on, and especially if everyone is presumptive of what the reasons are for it from the very beginning. But what I can do is I can make a film. I can try to get from the beginning to the middle to the end. I can put it up on a shelf. I can hope that in the weird lending library that is modern television—that is HBOGo, that is Netflix—because it’s up on the shelf people will find it. If we’ve executed well, the story will eventually prevail and find a place.

Something in the first episode of “Show Me a Hero” reminded me of “The Wire” and “Treme”: Your television works really well as television. The scene-setting is phenomenal. I have no familiarity with Yonkers housing projects, but I felt that what I was seeing was very authentic. How do you cultivate that richness? Are you hiring experts for this?

You try to hire the best art department and production designer. We’ve always shot in the real places, and that’s really the Schlobohm [Housing Projects]. It’s still there, and it’s built that way. Has it been cleaned up since that terrible period? Yes. That graffiti on the walls and the trash outside, that was all us. We had to ask permission politely from the community association. They let us trash it up the way it was in the late ‘80s, and we very quickly cleaned it up. There was a lot of research that went into trying to be precise with the details. That’s where God lives: in the details. If you’re making a period piece like this, you don’t want to get caught up and have people bounce out of it because you cheated.

What do you mean, that’s where God is, in the details? People usually say the devil’s in the details.

No, I usually say God’s in the details. You ever notice when people make shit up? When they have these reporters that make shit up? The stuff they make up is almost ersatz cliché. Whenever reporters make up their bullshit, you can tell they were cooking their quotes. You look at the actual quotes and they’re never actually as interesting as the real. The real always gives you the improbable twists and turns of human experience. The quotes are a little bit more believable because they’re not so clean. The same is true of human life. When I went to a drug corner to do a book on the corner, the things that I thought I would see, I saw some of them. Some of the clichés became true very quickly. But the things that made it really human and really grievous and made me care about what I was saying were completely idiosyncratic—things that I could not have imagined if I had not gone there and met Gary McCullough or met George Epps or met Fran Boyd. The same is true in filmmaking—pay attention to details.

The first fight I had with anybody at HBO over any single note: We were doing “The Corner.” There was a scene where a Baltimore arabber cart—a junk-dealer with a horse-drawn carriage, still a few of them in evidence in Baltimore, it was a Baltimore tradition—was parked on Mount Street, and this was part of a real scene. The guy is off the horse and he’s getting high, and the horse pissed on a ground stash, on some drugs that were in a trash bag, hidden in plain sight. The dealer, who had horse piss on him, got mad and punched the horse. He started hitting the horse with a stick. He’s beating the horse for obeying the call of nature.

It was such a Kafkaesque moment that I was determined to re-create it. So the script comes out, and the executive bought everything in the script but the horse. “What is this horse doing in the middle of fucking Baltimore? What? Nobody’s going to know that this is a tradition.” And I’m just like, “It’s not the most unreasonable thing. They have fucking horses in Central Park. What the fuck?!” And we fought and we fought. She came to set one day, it was Anne Thomopoulous, very funny moment. We’re up in East Baltimore getting ready to shoot the scene. She’s standing up by the video monitors, and all of a sudden we hear this jingling down the street. And here comes a fucking junk dealer. And she says to me, “You paid that guy.” And I’m saying, “Anne, I swear to God, it’s Baltimore! That’s a fucking arabber.” God’s in the details. I don’t know what to tell you. Could the scene have worked without it? [Shrugs.] But sometimes, if you start shaving off all the improbabilities, you end up with nothing worth watching.

You wrote about the Freddie Gray murder in Baltimore. Why do you think police brutality has become such a major flashpoint now?

[Simon reaches into his pocket and pulls out his smartphone.]

Oh, that’s it?

I was a police reporter. You know that the police are sanitizing their version of events. They can. The last great tyranny in American society was always the patrolmen. It’s my word against yours. If I’m a good guy, I’m going to respect the people on my post, and I’m only going to kick ass when I have to kick ass. If I know how to write, and I don’t do something in the middle of so many witnesses from a particular walk of life who will be believed when they complain about what I did, I’m going to get away with it.

The police department was always only as good as its worst offender. Even the cops who are the good cops, by the way, because being a cop in a place like Baltimore—the government is basically telling you to enforce an unenforceable prohibition against an industry that is citywide and is one of the few things employing people. So you’re basically an army of occupation. You’re going to get into fights. A lot of people would say that any time the police win a fight, it’s police brutality. I would not. Any fight that does happen, the police are supposed to win it, not lose it. I respect the dynamic by which a cop has to operate, even if I don’t respect the drug prohibition that is the overlay that creates that brutality.

Having said that, the drug war, it allowed the culture of policing to include just about any behavior. It said there were no rules. The Fourth Amendment, out the window. Probable cause? That’s a joke. This is Soweto. This is Gaza. That’s how it feels to be policed in a place like West Baltimore. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book [“Between the World and Me”] captures this so beautifully. His sense of progress is a little more minimal than mine, in terms of racial progress. But you know what? He’s entitled to that point of view. He’s earned it by growing up in Baltimore, where you learn to hate the police.

The dynamic is so complicated in the sense that, yes, the drug war allowed the poor to be over-policed to the point of toxicity, but what it’s done is destroy all relationship to the community so that nobody picks up the phone when somebody shoots somebody else. Nobody’s a witness in front of a grand jury. Nobody wants to testify in court. Nobody wants to be a juror and convict anybody of killing someone else. What’s the clearance rate in Baltimore right now for murder? Thirty-six percent, and the only people dying are black males. Same thing in Compton. Or in Florence, in south central [Los Angeles].

Jill Leovy’s book [“Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America], which just came out of L.A., argues the opposite: Black communities are being under-policed. Are both things true? Absolutely. They’re being over-policed with the shit that doesn’t matter, which is destroying police work, which is destroying the relationship between the police and minority communities, and they’re being under-policed for things that might actually make those communities more livable. That’s a horror show.

What’s happened in Baltimore with that riot was inevitable and understandable — but what drove me crazy about a lot of the immediate response, particularly from outside of Baltimore, was it’s not only inevitable and understandable — it’s good. I’m not talking about the protests, which were epic and good. But a riot is a riot is a riot. And burning is burning and looting is looting.

The demeanor of the people writing from London and New York with the dilettante’s stance of saying, “This is how these people get to be heard, and they won’t be heard otherwise,” you know what? Right now we’re trying to end mass incarceration, we’re trying to end over-policing, we’re trying to end this draconian behavior. The optics are such that for the votes and for the consensus you need in the rest of America, what’s playing on CNN and what’s going to play on CNN, inevitably, is the fires and the looting, and the optics were horrible.

Also, I live in a city [Baltimore] that hasn’t recovered from the riots of 1968. L.A. can have a riot, New York can have a riot, London can have a riot, and they’ll be fine in a year. Something bad happens in Crown Heights in New York? Eh, it’s bad for Crown Heights, but New York’s going to go right. It’s the financial capital of the world. London, a world capital. Baltimore is a second-tier city. We just stopped losing population for the first time in 40 years three years ago, and you tell me that the riots are a good thing? Fuck you. Come to Baltimore and say that. I live there. I was particularly incensed at the insouciance with which people were proclaiming that the riot — that when it gravitated from being mass civil disobedience, which I admire in every sense and want to see continue, to what we were seeing — was a good thing. Fuck you. You don’t live here. You don’t know what a riot is. You don’t know what it could do to the civic firmament.

By Sonia Saraiya

MORE FROM Sonia Saraiya

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