This is all just a friendly reminder that it won’t hurt for you to watch the six-part miniseries SHOW ME A HERO coming Sundays in August. With two installments airing back-to-back the series will play out over three nights. They are 08.16 with parts 1 & 2; 08.23 shows parts 3 & 4 and it concludes on 08.30 with parts 5 & 6. Each airs beginning at 8:00pm ET each night. We have a number of items to share about the miniseries before it airs and we start with a reminder about the plot.
Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Lisa Belkin, the miniseries explores notions of home, race and community through the lives of elected officials, bureaucrats, activists and ordinary citizens in Yonkers, NY. Lisa Belkin was a New York Times reporter in the late 1980s, when Yonkers, a city of 200,000 located just north of The Bronx and nearly 80% white, was suddenly confronted by a politically unpopular reality. A lawsuit undertaken by the U.S. Justice Department and the NAACP had proven definitively that Yonkers officials had used federal housing funds to purposely segregate the city for decades, and while elected officials vowed to appeal that ruling, even the city’s own lawyers saw little chance it could be overturned on the merits. The remedy for the civil rights violations is simple, but politically fraught: Yonkers must build 200 units of low-income housing somewhere on the white side of the Saw Mill River Parkway in East Yonkers, followed by another 800 units of affordable housing.
Then all hell broke loose and a hero was needed to face the issue. That man was Nick Wasicsko. This young mayor was faced with a federal court order that says he must build a small number of low-income housing units in the white neighborhoods of his town. His attempt to do so tears the entire city apart, paralyzes the municipal government and, ultimately, destroys the mayor and his political future.
Anyone who is a fan of the works of David Simon, which include, among other works, THE WIRE and TREME will not want to missthis presentation which he co-wrote and co-produced Also, all six parts are directed by Paul Haggis of Crash fame. David Simon wanted to help shed light on the story prior to premiere and has offered the following interview through HBO.
Q: When did you become aware of Lisa Belkin’s book (pictured)? What initially struck you about it, and when did you see the potential for adapting it for the screen?
DAVID SIMON: The book was actually forwarded to me by Gail Mutrux, whose judgment about such things I am obliged to take very seriously: She was the producer, working with Barry Levinson, who found a book that I wrote called “Homicide” in 1991 and sparked its transformation into the NBC television show. So when Gail recommends a book, I do listen. I thought “Show Me a Hero” offered a perfect storm of a narrative about our enduring racial and class pathologies and the not-in-my-back-yard, don’t-tread-on-me sensibilities of modern libertarian and neoliberal politics. This is the grievous state of the American political dialectic, in which the only two operant currencies seem to be greed and fear.
I showed the book to my longtime newspaper colleague, Bill Zorzi, who was then an editor on the metro desk of the Baltimore Sun and asked him what he thought. As a veteran political reporter, Zorzi astutely realized that in the story of what happened to Yonkers, and in the powerful narrative arc of Nick Wasicsko, we had a story in which we could precisely depict how government actually works in America. Or doesn’t. So we were sold.
Q: The events of SHOW ME A HERO seem less like history from a quarter-century ago, and more like a variation on current situations. Do you agree? Do you see any hints in the story of ways to avoid the “Groundhog Day”-like replay of such conflicts in the future?
DS: The American obsession with race and class – and the political uses of greed and fear – is still very much our national paradigm. We are getting better, slowly and inexorably, generation by generation; but there is much work still to be done to reconcile many Americans to the idea of a desegregated society, to power-sharing, to the very idea that all of us must share in the same national future….We are growing up, but when it comes to issues of race and class, we are still fighting through our adolescence.
Q: Although many characters figure in SHOW ME A HERO, do you see this first of all as Nick Wasicsko’s story? Could he be viewed as a tragic hero, albeit one who is initially reluctant to do the right thing?
DS: Like most heroes – and most villains – Nick Wasicsko (pictured) was not wholly one thing or the other. He had his flaws and he was blind to certain realities. But when push came to shove, he believed in the rule of law and he came to understand that he had a responsibility to lead his city under the rule of law, and more than that, he came to realize that the housing consent decree was offering some of his most vulnerable constituents a chance at a better life. He is, to that extent, quite heroic. And yes, our six-hour narrative is structured around Mr. Wasickso’s journey. After all, the fights over the remaining phases of the housing and school desegregation orders in Yonkers went on long after our story concludes in 1994. The entire case wasn’t settled until 2007.
Q: You’ve worked with William Zorzi (pictured) for a long time. What is the writing process like for the two of you, since you obviously know each other well? What were the biggest challenges in adapting the book?
DS: He took Lisa Belkin’s worthy book as a jumping-off point and immersed himself in the world of Yonkers for more than a decade before production began on this miniseries. He knew all of the surviving characters in the story, including many who he met and interviewed in detail who are no longer with us today. And he has been rigorous about trying to pull as much of the story as possible through the keyhole of six hours. In that sense, he has been the creative flame here, script-wise, and I have had the benefit of beginning with enough material for ten or twelve hours. My job has been to tighten and reshape some of the story arcs so that they fit within the time we have, and to prioritize the material and find shorthand ways of explaining, or at least acknowledging, complex political realities and nuances.
Q: Paul Haggis (pictured) is a new creative collaborator for you. How did he get involved?
DS: I was looking for a director who had a strong visual sense, who understood the parameters not simply of feature films, but of hour drama – and Paul has done both – and who had a political temperament that could believe in a story that had very little sex, or gunplay, or broad humor. This is about a coming reckoning in the American future: Are we a society, or is it every man for himself? Do we all share in the same collective national narrative, or are there separate stories for those at the margins? And practically, Paul shoots a bit more poetically and elegantly than I am used to, and I write a more quotidian and low-to-the-ground script than he might. The collaboration was good in that he pushed me to allow some better measure of honest emotion into what could have been a dry political narrative, and maybe I pushed him to tolerate some dialogue that wasn’t clean or rounded. Our differences fostered good debate, and ultimately, some compromises that I think served the work very well.
Q: Did you envision Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, Alfred Molina and the others in their roles as you were writing the scripts, or did casting the parts come later?
DS: All of it came after the scripts were largely in their final or near-final drafts. You have to remember that this project has been in development at HBO for 15 years. But here’s the thing that Kary Antholis, who runs the miniseries division at HBO and who is extremely astute about both story and political reality, understands fully: The American racial dynamic wasn’t going to go away, and what happened in Yonkers, as a political and social allegory, remained pretty damn timeless. When we came back to SHOW ME A HERO, we would still be landing it on a country that would still be traveling the same hard road. Recent events in Ferguson, in Baltimore, in Charleston make this all too clear. That said, we pulled an incredible cast. Everywhere we pointed the camera, we caught committed actors bringing this entire world to life. And again, they could have done other things, flashier things. But for me, who always feels ill at ease in the entertainment industry, this is why I get up in the morning, imagining something that isn’t merely an entertainment, but is instead a chance to dramatize the actual fault lines in our society and do so on a scale that is careful and plausible and human. I think the same ambition appealed to a lot of our actors and I’m incredibly grateful for it.
That is a lot to take in, but if you want any more insight than the featurette below should solidify the message we want to get across. After all this detail we hope you will watch, on the platform of your choice, the HBO Miniseries: SHOW ME A HERO. Remember, it begins 08.16.