David Simon of THE WIRE on African-American viewers, characters, directors and writers

The Wire is one of my favourite television shows ever, not only because so many episodes are directed by the superb Br. Ernest Dickerson, but because the writers have woven such a complex kente of American life, particularly the suffering that silenced people experience during the era of the so-called War on Drugs.

Below is an excerpt from Slate's interview with series creator, writer and producer David Simon, whose insights into the world he depicts come from years of work as a Baltimore Sun crime reporter, and a year's "ride-along" with the Homicide unit (which formed the basis for his nonfiction masterpiece Homicide and the excellent Tom Fontana TV series of the same name, for which Simon also eventually worked as a writer and producer).

"Slate: Some of our readers have been offering up what amounts to a racialist critique of white, middle-class writers presuming to tell black ghetto stories. And in Slate's "TV Club" on The Wire, Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz touch on a question that they have been asked (and asked themselves) over the years: Can a white person honestly and accurately capture black culture?

"Simon: Well, I have a couple answers to that. On one level, I'm becoming impatient, because I feel the work has answered the question. But let me answer. The people in that room on The Wire miss certain things because we're white. I'm sure we do. We miss certain things about black life—or not entirely; we miss the subtlety that a black writer of a commensurate skill could achieve. But it is possible that there are things we catch because we are who we are—we are not necessarily of the place, and this may allow for whatever distance is necessary to see some things.

"The other thing is that I didn't ask for this gig. I got hired out of University of Maryland by the Baltimore Sun to be a crime reporter in a city that was 65 percent African-Americans. If I didn't do my best to listen to those voices, to acquire some of those voices for my storytelling, I wouldn't have been doing my job. If I'd been a higher-education reporter, maybe I wouldn't have written The Wire. But I didn't ask for the job. They gave me that beat. I wasn't after these stories. (Likewise, Ed grew up in Baltimore and, after he came back from Vietnam, he became a patrolman, and they put him in the Western District.) If we tried to tell these stories, and they were not credible, and if the voices weren't sufficiently authentic, we'd have our heads handed to us—not only by social critics and literati, but by viewers, by regular folk.

"I don't know how popular The Wire is on the Upper West Side of New York or Westwood or Des Moines. But I know that in West Baltimore, Omar can't get to the set, because we have people going nuts. Or Stringer Bell or Prop Joe. The show has an allegiance in that community. That's its own answer—not that it's popular, but that it's credible. I was just on 92Q, the hip-hop station. The call came in with someone who said, why did you kill Stringer Bell when the real Stringer Bell is still alive? And I said, oh, you mean Mr. Reed? I explained that Reed was not the real Stringer, but that we mix and match stories. But there we were, talking intimately about the history of West Baltimore drug trade as if we were talking about baseball. If it was as lamely white and unnuanced as some people claim, we'd have been found out a long time ago.

"Having said all that, the show is very conscious of trying to bring in African-American writers. I tell agents in Hollywood, don't send me scripts unless they're by African-American writers. From the moment the show was conceived, I asked David Mills to produce it with me. I would have loved to have his voice in the show—not just because he's African-American but because he can write the hell out of it. A young writer named Joy Lusco did a few episodes. Kia Corthron, the African-American playwright (Breath, Boom), penned a fine episode for us this year. We've been trying to leaven the writers' room in that way. But it's a very hard show to write, as you can imagine. It's not as if all these scripts came in from agents, and we read them and think, 'Based on this spec script from NYPD Blue, I'm confident I'll get what we need.' You're looking for people who've worked on this level before, and when you find them, you beg them to help out.

"We have done better in having an African-American hand in some of our crew departments and in directing. Nobody has directed more episodes than Ernest Dickerson—he's Spike Lee's former cinematographer. We've also broken someone: Anthony Hemingway, AD, directed our first episode last year. And now we may not be able to get him back, he's got so much work.

"It's our hope—this is a little premature—to get Spike Lee for the first episode next year. He said he was interested last year, but we had some miscommunication. His agent said he wasn't available. We are very conscious of the race disparity. We look around the room and see, oh shit, we're a bunch of white guys! But you look at what Price and Pelecanos and Lehane and Burns have done. … We're not trying to exclude in any sense, and it's not a good-old-boy network, because some of these people never met before this show."

Comments

Paul Levinson said…
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Paul Levinson said…
Fine interview - many thanks for posting! I'm a big fan of The Wire - I devoted two recent episodes of my http://lightonlightthrough.com podcast to the show - I think it (along with the Battlestar Galactica) are the best two shows on television.