In the late 1980s, Yonkers was in chaos. After decades of using public housing to illegally segregate its minorities, the city — just north of the Bronx in New York — faced judgment from a federal court. Yet after the order to desegregate came down, Yonkers refused to let go of the past. Politicians whipped up outrage among residents, and council meetings were mobbed with hordes, furious that minorities would no longer be sequestered and screaming insults and disrupting the proceedings. Those politicians willing to accept the court’s decision were harassed and received death threats. Meanwhile, the federal judge overseeing the case was issuing fines hefty enough to bankrupt Yonkers if it did not comply.
This real-life turmoil was the subject of David Simon’s six-hour HBO miniseries, Show Me a Hero: a series that premiered in 2015, but has become an underseen and forgotten masterwork. In large part, David Simon called this: As one of television’s most self-effacing brand-name storytellers (he’s brought series like The Wire, Treme, and The Deuce to the small-screen) who loves to revel in his shows’ exclusive audiences, in interviews leading up to Show Me a Hero‘s premiere he openly joked and said how no one would watch the show, especially with such harrowing subject matter. Well, he was sadly right. The miniseries’ ratings were quite poor and the awards races came up mixed, but as the years have passed the timeliness has stayed the same.
For the miniseries Simon reteamed with his former Baltimore Sun colleague William F. Zorzi to adapt Show Me a Hero from the non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin of the same title, which tackles the aforementioned city-wide, racially charged conflict around a plan to build two-hundred units of affordable public housing in the white, middle-class east side of Yonkers. Humans beings need safe, comfortable homes to live in. It sounds simple enough, at least to Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac, who would go onto win a Golden Globe for his work here), who at twenty-eight had just become the country’s youngest mayor. “The thing is, people just want a home, right? It’s the same for everybody,” he says, in one of his many displays of willful naivete. Throughout the series, Isaac continually embodies the contradictions of the situation his character finds himself in. He plays Wasicsko as optimistic, ambitious, good-humored, and a little underhanded. Like a lot of people who are hungry for power — and not necessarily committed to any ideals — Isaac’s Nick learns that while it’s easy to whip up a mob, it’s almost impossible to control one. (How he responds to a mess partly of his own making is what gives this miniseries its tension and its heart.)
But everything started when Wasicsko cruised to victory on the support of the middle-class and mostly white residents of east Yonkers, who were fighting tooth-and-nail to block the housing from moving into their neighborhood. And they were willing to push out former mayor (who had been in office for six-straight terms previous) Angelo Martinelli (Jim Belushi) and rightfully expected an ally in Wasicsko, and got just the opposite. Wasicsko quickly learns the folly of campaign pandering when a state judge (Bob Balaban) makes good on his promise to levy a million dollars in fines against the city of Yonkers for every day Wasicsko can’t convince his intractable city councilmen to approve a housing resolution. Which comes with gripping ups and downs, and one of the miniseries’ many avenues, but it’s probably safe to say that its the post-resolution phase where Show Me a Hero hits even higher peaks.
Public-housing regulations are complex and can be boring to some, but Simon digs human stories out from under the avalanche of legal briefs; showing the lives that are being affected and impacts of racial politics. We step beyond city hall, with each episode spending time and following White, Black, and Latino citizens, as they progress through their day-to-day, some immediately involved in the housing conflict, some just trying to survive. We see middle-class white voters who’ve become increasingly obsintate and unrepentant, after decades of being called bigots for resisting social progress; and we see Black voters who’ve become cynical and exhausted, after hearing a litany of empty promises from opportunistic politicians (of which we get to see a plenty, with Alfred Molina as Henry Spallone being a standout).
A battle like the one waged in Show Me a Hero is, after all, about nuances. It’s about small but heartbreaking moments, like when Norma (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), a former home nurse aide forced into early retirement by diabetes complications, sits with her son waiting for a nurse aide of her own to show up. He tires to convince her someone will be brave enough to stroll into their rougher housing area to take care of her, but she knows better. “Son, no one’s coming,” Norma says, as if she never believed it to begin with. There’s as well two stories chronicling the ups and downs of single mothers, one the story of Carmen Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera), who balances supporting her two kids moving back and forth from the Dominican Republic; and the story of Billie Rowan (Dominique Fishback), a teen mom with an always-in-trouble baby-daddy. And there’s also real people on the other side of the issue too, people like Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener) who elevate pretzel logic to an art form as they explain why their opposition to the housing — so fierce that someone planted a pipe bomb once construction began — is anything but racism. Show Me a Hero‘s issues and themes are endlessly thorny. Between its unsettling subject matter and celebration of shades of gray, it’s actually remarkable who the miniseries’ director is: the controversial Paul Haggis, the same man who delivered the broad, bludgeoning (and sadly Best-Picture-winning) Crash. In many ways, it’s as if Show Me a Hero is an apology for such a disastrous previous look at race.
For a miniseries set in the late ’80s and early ’90s Show Me a Hero still serves as a reminder how little progress the country has made toward racial harmony. It’s a miniseries that isn’t always easy to watch, but it’s continually compelling, and almost unfairly stocked with stellar performances (with some great supporting turns from the likes of Winona Ryder, Jon Bernthal, and Peter Riegert). There’s definitely some out there that will play off that these are issues of the past, that this is a series set decades ago. But Show Me a Hero is still, sadly, relevant. From larger events like what was directly happening in Ferguson or Baltimore at the time of the miniseries’ release or even more finite; the battle for school integration in the Normandy school district of Missouri. The miniseries’ title “Show Me a Hero” comes from the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.” In relation to the miniseries and its conflicts, it’s a haunting statement. One that still reverberates to the current day, as the everyday fight merely has happy endings or bright and shiny heroes.
Show Me a Hero is available to stream on HBO, HBO GO, & HBO Now