Show Me a Hero: American Skin

HOW DOES A POLITICIAN KNOW HE’S DOING THE RIGHT THING? WE MAKE HIM PAY.

showmeaheroThis miniseries is not like binge-watching a new season of House of Cards. It takes some effort. A co-worker of mine saw the first episode and gave up, but that’s normal. No one wants to see more after the first episode. It’s gloomy and serious, it deals with public housing. You’ll be bored after one episode. But sometimes it’s worth eating your vegetables. Writer David Simon created The Wire and the miniseries shares many ingredients with that show. I certainly didn’t feel like watching more after the first episodes of The Wire. But Simon knows how to reward his audience.

In 1987, the people of Yonkers in New York State are divided after a decision by a federal judge to issue a desegregation order, resulting in public housing for 200 units to be built in an area of the city that is very white and middle-class. As those citizens get up in arms over the decision, they find support among some politicians, including the very populist Hank Spallone (Alfred Molina) who wants to oppose the order. That’s also true for the 28-year-old Democrat Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) who runs for mayor on the platform of resisting desegregation by legal appeals. Once in office, Nick realizes that he stands no chance of winning the case in court and starts working for the enforcement of the order. But he faces severe opposition from mobs and Spallone smells an opportunity…

Taking advantage of the rage
This project began in 2001 when Simon gave the Baltimore Sun reporter and future Wire writer William F. Zorzi Lisa Belkin’s book chronicling the public-housing drama in Yonkers. Zorzi started working on an adaptation but it would take many years until the opportunity to make an HBO miniseries emerged. Paul Haggis was originally only asked to direct an episode or two but wanted to do the whole thing and so, with a stellar cast, Show Me a Hero became a high-quality project.

Comparisons with The Wire are fair to make; after all, both projects share an interest in depicting life in a big, American city and its political challenges as realistically as possible. The issue of desegregation may sound very 1950s, but the reason why that Yonkers decision was made in the first place was an obvious situation where the poorest residents were forced to live in a part of the city where drugs and crime dominated everything. The prospect of creating houses where some of those residents could begin a new life in a stable community frightened middle-class whites to the degree that they resorted to racist protests; at the same time, some politicians took advantage of that rage. Haggis and the writers’ aim is clearheaded. The Yonkers project was largely a success and many regular black and white residents learned not to fear each other.

Still, looking back at the violent reaction against it in the late 1980s is interesting as a study of how the politicians handle the crisis, in negative and positive ways, and how it affects the people, including a woman called Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener) who starts out as a fierce protester but evolves over the years. Focus lies a lot on Wasicsko and his journey; Isaac gives a great performance. Molina is also a pleasure to watch as the unashamed populist; did he study Donald Trump…?

This issue keeps reappearing in different guises, which makes this a miniseries that won’t age. Show Me a Hero finally reaches an emotional climax, not least because of the way Bruce Springsteen’s songs are used throughout (a full 12 of ‘em). A working-class voice uniting black and white perspectives; beautifully done.

Show Me a Hero 2015-U.S. Made for TV. 350 min. Color. Produced by Gail Mutrux. Directed by Paul Haggis. Teleplay: David Simon, William F. Zorzi. Book: Lisa Belkin. Cast: Oscar Isaac (Nick Wasicsko), Carla Quevedo (Nay Noe), Catherine Keener (Mary Dorman), Winona Ryder, Alfred Molina, Peter Riegert… Jim Belushi, Bob Balaban.

Trivia: Originally shown in six episodes.

Golden Globe: Best Actor (Isaac).

Last word: “All credit to HBO for indulging me, and Bill Zorzi and Paul Haggis and whoever else worked on the project, with a story on the actual political scale of what’s happening, rather than something aspirational, like ‘The West Wing,’ something we want to have. Or something hyperbolic, where politicians are completely evil or killing each other or whatever. To me, anything I can pull through the keyhole that’s actually the argument feels like a subversive victory.” (Simon, Indiewire)

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