Less than a generation ago, Yonkers, New York, became the face of segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation in my backyard. A federal court order to construct 200 units of low-income residences east of the Saw Mill Parkway, i.e., in the white part of town, led to riots and bombings, death threats against the city council, and an unhappy cycle of four mayors in six years. The anger in Yonkers made national headlines and served as an example not just of the persistence of Northern racism but also of democracy in action when citizens unite against justice.
Yonkers’ ignoble fight, which the city would continue for nearly 20 more years, is a tale The Wire and Treme creator David Simon has wanted to tell for decades. With co-writer William F. Zorzi and director Paul Haggis (Crash), Simon finally does just that — while vehemently arguing that desegregation was a step forward despite the personal costs involved — in the ambitious but uneven Show Me a Hero, a six-hour HBO miniseries that will air in two-hour installments on three Sunday nights starting Aug. 16.
Based on Lisa Belkin’s nonfiction account of the same name, Show Me a Hero takes its title from an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that concludes, “and I'll write you a tragedy.” In Simon and Zorzi’s mix of political drama, psychological portrait and sociological study, the semi-accidental hero is real-life personage Nick Wasicsko (played by an outstanding Oscar Isaac), a 28-year-old Democratic city councilman who successfully runs for mayor by opposing the public-housing plans, then finds himself forced to defend them to a rabid mob of betrayed voters.
Forming a sea of screaming rage at municipal meetings, white Yonkersonians, at least one in a KKK T-shirt, accuse Wasicsko of “raping the voters.” A citizen activist named Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener) declares, “These people, they don't live the way we do. They don’t want what we want,” sounding not unlike Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who shot Michael Brown (“They’re so wrapped up in a different culture than — what I’m trying to say is, the right culture, the better one to pick from,” he told The New Yorker). The white residents insist, and likely believe, that they’re not racist. But they can’t imagine having anything in common with their new neighbors, either. Wasicsko’s Republican rival (Alfred Molina) stokes the fires by warning that newcomers will turn Yonkers into a “crack jungle” and cautioning against “trap[ping] innocent people in the name of helping minorities,” as if minorities couldn’t also be innocent people trapped by circumstances beyond their control.
Simon and Zorzi don’t bother endowing the white, angry residents with humanity. They’re on the wrong side of history, as far as the writers are concerned, and besides, their reasons for clinging to their racial and economic privilege are self-evident. Though housing discrimination isn't as big a part of conversations about race as it used to be, its ongoing repercussions — including the recently publicized but centuries-long pattern of police brutality against racial minorities — make Show Me a Hero a remarkably timely story, sometimes excruciatingly so. Still, an acknowledgement of rising urban crime and omnipresent media scaremongering would have provided greater context for the white residents’ fear and fury.
Shooting on location, Haggis ably captures the gray-skied, bricks-and-concrete drugscape the Schlobohm Houses used to be. (The production team threw garbage around the public residences and tagged the buildings as they used to be in the '80s, then cleaned up after filming.) Dedication to period hair and costuming means that everyone looks suitably hideous in tapered jeans and granny glasses. But the events in Yonkers are so charged and so familiar that they feel as if they could have taken place nearly anywhere in the country in the second half of the 20th century.
Explored alongside the ideological reversals of Wasicsko and Dorman are the lives of four women (played by Natalie Paul, Ilfenesh Hadera, Dominique Fishback, and LaTanya Richardson Jackson) — all based on real people — for whom the new residences represent a lifeline, particularly for the three who are single mothers with young children. While moving, these individual subplots don’t bloom into relevance until the final episode, and even then, Simon and Zorzi treat them more as inspirational or cautionary stories than as characters in their own right. The frequent time jumps necessary to encompass five years of events in six hours of storytelling occasionally render character development abrupt; Paul’s Doreen Henderson, for example, sets some kind of record for going from newlywed to widow to drug addict to community leader.
The miniseries’ only real character is Wasicsko, a restless political animal who stumbles into doing the right thing and never gives up the right to feel sanctimonious about it. Other than in the last episode, Show Me a Hero hits its stride in hours two and three, when Wasicsko steels himself against a citizenry that would rather bankrupt its own city — with the federal court eventually fining the city $1 million a day for noncompliance with the public-housing order — than kowtow to a faraway judge (Bob Balaban). (“A Jew,” one sneers.) Though bewildered by the extremism of his irrational electorate, Wasicsko never stops calculating to see how he can use this scandal of hate as a stepping stone, maybe to Congress. Though he’s devoted to his wife (Carla Quevedo), Wasicsko’s true soul mate is Vinni Restiano (a surprisingly gritty Winona Ryder), the city council’s sole female member and the only other politician as addicted to the election game.
Though the miniseries loses much of its momentum once Wasicsko leaves the mayor’s office, it’s impossible to look away from Isaac’s searching, craving eyes or to root against his character. And if you know the circumstances of Wasicsko’s early death, it naturally makes the events of Hero all the more tragic.
Simon and Zorzi’s script is unrelentingly intelligent, even when the drama is flabby, as when entire scenes are devoted to elucidating why the phrase “housing project” is offensive to residents, or when city planner Oscar Newman (Peter Riegert) explains why single-family homes are preferable to towers. Roiling underneath the sedate drama lies a blood-boiling, incontrovertible fact: The battle to keep Yonkers segregated is just one of the many times when the tyranny of the masses was used to stomp on the already downtrodden.
Perhaps miraculously, Show Me a Hero doesn't engender cynicism or hopelessness. But it is a work that demands we look plainly at our past, for that's the only way we can clearly see our present, too.
Inkoo Kang is the TV critic for the Village Voice. She publishes widely on film and television.