Breaking Down The Wire

What The Wire Gets Wrong.
Talking television.
Oct. 2 2006 2:24 PM

Breaking Down The Wire

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Steve,
 
This episode felt like a seventh-inning stretch. An interlude. A moment to catch our breath. Poor Prez. He's so damn earnest, so trying to do the right thing. He wants his students to talk about the incident last week, when one girl sliced up the face of another. But he never gets to deliver his speech. The kids don't want anyone telling them how to feel. They know all too well. And, well, the major-crimes unit has been pretty much decimated, and just as Marlo, the drug kingpin and the object of the unit's wiretapping, emerges as a character this season. Marlo swaggers around like some Third World dictator. He sees the smallest slights as something much larger. And he clearly likes to taunt the powers that be, as he did in filching three Tootsie Roll Pops in clear view of a grocery store's security guard. Marlo isn't the steadiest of fellows. We're going to be seeing more of him, for sure.

Given the lull in the action, I figure this is probably as good a moment as any to talk about one character who particularly intrigues me, though he only makes a brief appearance in this week's episode: the white professor. We've talked about how The Wire gets it so right. But the prof (I can't recall his name) seems like a bit of a caricature: the do-gooder white man who's a bumbling fool with black people. Which is a surprise, since the creators of this series are white—and they're clearly no fools. This is, I guess, a roundabout way to address something both you and I have been asked (and asked ourselves) over the years: Can a white person honestly and accurately capture black culture? To which I say, of course. But it can be treacherous turf. A brief exchange like this feels inadequate to this subject, but I figured I'd at least give it a go.

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One Slate reader e-mailed:

Isn't it inevitably a little presumptuous for a white movie director and a white NPR/New Yorker magazine type to palaver about how authentic this show is? Do black people in Baltimore really act and talk and look like that? Black guys I work with (certainly not poor and inner city) detest this show.

There are really two questions here. Is it the place of white journalists or artists to try to capture the African-American experience? Soon after There Are NoChildren Here came out, I was invited to speak to a group of 200 social workers from the Chicago public schools. Most were African-American. The book hadn't been out long, so most hadn't read it. That didn't make a difference. They harangued me. Who was I to write about their community? I understood their anger. But, look, I told them, I've got two choices. One is I see what I see, hear what I hear, and I turn my head. I walk away. Or I use my skills as a storyteller to bear witness. Which is it? Keep the silence—or try to break it? The social workers also brought up something that the letter writer above touched on: The inner city is only a sliver of black America, and it distorts white America's view of African-Americans. To which I say, you're right, it does. But it speaks less to depictions like those in The Wire than it does to TV and journalism's inability to capture middle-class black America.

The tougher question though is, can a white writer or filmmaker get it right? Well, I suppose The Wire answers that. And its writers have come by it honestly. David Simon spent years as a journalist on the streets of Baltimore, with both the cops and the guys on the corner. Ed Burns worked as a cop and as a teacher. Richard Price, in researching his recent books, spent weeks hanging out in the projects of, I believe, Newark. There's no real magic here. Storytellers (fiction and nonfiction) have long written about the unfamiliar, and they've done it by immersing themselves in the lives of others. And they do it with an ear both to that which astonishes and that which resonates. In other words, you spend time in a place like the West Side of Chicago, and there's plenty there to make you wide-eyed (like the omnipresence of the violence, including informal street-side memorials to slain gang members), but there's also so much that feels familiar. In both the best and worst senses. Like ambition for a better life … which, as it does everywhere—in the suburbs and the inner city—ranges from a quest for the spiritual to a quest for the money.

When you were shooting Hoop Dreams, I suspect you took some heat. In my case, the principal of Lafeyette and Pharoah's school, who was African-American, wouldn't let me in the door; she didn't like the idea that I was writing a book on her community. I heard she told someone I'd just get it all wrong. Maybe. Maybe not. But she was going to make it as difficult as she could for me to get it right. (I ended up contacting teachers at home and visiting the school for public events.) I don't know, Steve; call me old-fashioned, but if you spend enough time with people, however unfamiliar their world might be—and if you can, as best you're able, put away your assumptions and preconceptions (or at least be conscious of them)—I think you can get it right. Or at least pretty damn close. What do you think?

Alex

Alex Kotlowitz is author of There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River.