Halfway through the final episode of the HBO miniseries "Show Me a Hero," protagonist Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) begins grasping at straws. The former mayor of Yonkers turned marginalized councilman ventures to a row of freshly occupied public housing townhomes and knocks on doors. These are the court-ordered public housing units that helped him ascend to the mayor’s office at 28 years of age—Wasiscko unseated a six-term incumbent by promising to appeal the court’s decision and stay construction—and the public housing units he eventually came to champion as mayor, thus alienating his fickle base and catalyzing the slow-demise of his administration and eventual unseating in the next election.
Wasiscko knocks on the doors of these public housing units in hopes of finding some form of salvation. His once promising political career has entered a tailspin, and there seems to be little he can do to change that. But he seems to believe that if he can talk to the new residents and explain to them that he was the mayor responsible for bringing these homes to fruition, he might receive a dash of the love and adulation he so desperately craves.
Instead of finding salvation, Wasicsko is served a heavy dose of reality by the black residents he encounters. One person slams a door in his face, two others treat him with a skepticism that approaches indignation. When he finally comes face to face with a woman who recognizes him and remembers the struggles he endured while advocating or the housing, he doesn’t receive gratitude. When he asks her if she is happy with the house, a question he poses because he’d like to think the price he paid for championing the housing cause was, in his words, “worth it,” she wryly responds, “I could ask you the same thing.” At this point, Wasicsko’s face becomes ashen and what little gumption remains in his person slowly drains into oblivion. He trudges off into the night, having come to terms with the fact that no hero’s welcome awaits him.
With this scene "Show Me a Hero" does something that is at once unexpected and very necessary: it subverts the familiar and played-out Hollywood trope of the great white savior. In his mind, Nick Wasicsko believes the black residents who now occupy the public housing units should consider him something of a hero. He thinks that because his stance on public housing landed on the right side of history—though his evolution on the issue took place after a wave of rabid anti-housing sentiment in Yonkers swept him into the city’s highest office—that he should be celebrated for his efforts. Instead he learns the truth, which is the black residents don’t afford him hero status because the system — of which he is, at that point, still a part and a visible symbol — remains rigged against them. Later in the episode, viewers come to see just how the petty rules enforced by the housing authority infantilize the minority residents.
The minor victory of obtaining the housing doesn’t begin to erase the years of segregation and racism the black citizens of Yonkers have endured. The people Wasicsko encounters understand a harder truth, one no naïve white politician could possibly grasp: If they are to succeed in turning these housing units into homes, and if they are to make good lives for themselves and their families, they will have to endure ongoing resentment from white neighbors and fend for themselves. No white savior can make those harsh realities disappear through the pounding of a politician’s gavel. It’s their struggle to own, whether they want it or not.
That scene’s callous treatment of the great white savior trope is one reason "Show Me a Hero," which was co-written by "The Wire"’s David Simon, felt like a breath of fresh air. In Hollywood, struggles for racial equality too often unfold in a manner that credits some benevolent white paternal figure for brokering peace and fostering newfound understanding between black characters struggling to obtain something they should come by naturally and an intrinsically bigoted Caucasian element propagating the legacy of America’s original sin. The result? Art that obscures the gaze of the oppressed so that it can instead proclaim and valorize the essential goodness of the entitled. White savior films relegate black characters to second-class citizen status even as they allegedly present a liberal viewpoint.
The first four episodes of "Show Me A Hero," which is based on Lisa Belkin's nonfiction book of the same name, flirted with this formulaic approach to storytelling, and for a brief moment, the miniseries appeared destined to take its place within the pantheon of great white savior works. In the early episodes, the Wasicsko storyline dominated the overall narrative at the expense of the stories of the black characters living in Yonkers current public housing units and struggling to improve their lives. Wasicsko, and Isaac who portrays him, is so charismatic, and the scenes of him breaking the opposition through creative political means are so compelling that the minority characters, mostly black women—a single mother who beats a crack addiction, another young mother with a partner who's in and out of prison, an older diabetic woman with waning eyesight, a hardworking single immigrant mother of three from the Dominican Republic—are consigned to secondary status.
This dynamic flips during the final two installments of the miniseries, which aired this past Sunday night. In these episodes it’s Wasicsko's storyline that feels secondary to those of the black characters. As Wasicsko struggles to cope with his newfound irrelevance, Doreen Henderson (Natalie Paul) evolves into a strong voice for the public housing occupants, one capable of forging relationships with kind white neighbors while standing up to those who pigheadedly reject the public housing initiative. Billie Rowan (Dominique Fishback) struggles to raise two children as their father refuses to reform his criminal ways, and shows exceptional resilience in the process. Carmen Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera) holds onto hope even after her family isn’t chosen in the lottery for the new townhomes. Each of these stories feels more and more compelling as the miniseries enters the homestretch.
If you haven't finished watching and haven't read the book and the news accounts, this is a major spoiler: "Show Me a Hero" concludes with Wasicsko committing suicide. It’s a tragic ending for a fundamentally decent man. Though the series makes Wasicsko’s true motivations for championing public housing and seeking the mayoral gavel something of an open question, his willingness to comply with the law, even as doing so exacts a ruinous toll on his career and person, is admirable in its own right, and even radical when considered within our current political climate. What’s even more radical is the way the miniseries refuses to treat Wasicsko like a hero or turn him into the only hope of public housing residents. He is one cog in a complex and often brutal social machine, and like all the other cogs he must struggle to exert individual agency. The public housing units around which "Show Me a Hero" revolves would may not have been built without Wasicsko’s efforts as mayor, but the show makes it clear that this still doesn’t make him the show's hero. In this miniseries, as in reality, the lower-income residents who are on the receiving end of both policy-based racism, in the form of past segregation efforts, and opportunities to start anew in different environments have to be their own heroes. It’s a sobering message, and one more films and television shows would be wise to repeat.