Disclaimer: This post is based on the first two seasons, which I saw.
“The Wire” (2002-2008) was a police show on American television that viewed the city of Baltimore from a different angle each season:
- Drug dealers
- Dock workers
- News reporters
Left out: Television screenwriters.
In each season the police work on a related criminal case. Each one-hour episode is like a chapter of a book, giving “The Wire” the depth of a novel.
The show is largely the creation of David Simon and Ed Burns. Simon was a news reporter for the Baltimore Sun from 1982 to 1995. Ed Burns was a Baltimore police officer for 20 years and then a schoolteacher.
The show is based on years of research and their White middle-class experience of West Baltimore, a poor Black neighbourhood, during the height of the Crack Epidemic.
Realism: Drug dealers, news reporters and police officers (at least some of them) say it is pretty true to life. It was shot in Baltimore, using Baltimore actors for lesser characters, like Prop Joe. Some characters, like Bubbs and Omar, are based on real people.
Institutional dysfunction: A huge theme is how institutions – police departments, schools, labour unions, newspapers, governments, drug gangs – are self-preserving, even to the point of undermining their stated mission (law and order, education, profits, truth, etc). They protect themselves against those who want to change things for the better. They are creatures of the status quo and help to preserve it, no matter how screwed up it is.
Race: In addition to White characters it has plenty of fleshed-out Black characters, complete with home lives and moral complexity. They even talk to each other about something other than White characters! This puts it leagues beyond most of Hollywood.
Stereotypes: Yet all this wonderful realism, research and writing is used to pump life into stereotypes: Black males as violent, armed drug dealers, Black women as baby mamas and strippers, a small Black middle-class that is noble but boring, etc. Most drug dealers and drug users are – Black.
White gaze: The only Blacks who matter are those who matter to Whites, like criminals, students and co-workers. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in West Baltimore at the very time Simon and Burns were there. But since he did not shoot people, have trouble at school or live in poverty, he would never appear on their White radar of Black dysfunction.
Colour-blind racism: “The Wire” views West Baltimore through the four frames of colour-blind racism:
- Abstract liberalism – racial equality as desirable but unattainable.
- Minimization of racism – Whites and their institutions as well-meaning or just indifferent. Institutional dysfunction rather than institutional racism. Little to nothing on, say, racial profiling, police brutality or the mass incarceration of Black men.
- Cultural racism – Black pathologies as the main thing that screws up Black people.
- Naturalization of racism – racial segregation as natural, no one’s fault, no other way it could be.
In short, despite its apparent realism and sympathy for Blacks, “The Wire” confirms rather than challenges the racism of most White viewers.
- colour-blind racism
- Black pathologies
- stereotypes about Black people on American television – “The Wire” uses many of them
- Compare and contrast:
- Idris Elba