David Simon on Show Me a Hero, race relations and The Wire

The award-winning writer's new series explores racial tensions in 1980s New York

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In a year in which a horrified world has witnessed race riots in Baltimore and the massacre of nine black worshippers in a Charleston church, for which Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, is awaiting trial, the latest series for the man behind cult hit The Wire seems spookily prescient.

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However, David Simon, the journalist turned author who created The Wire – a gritty, realistic portrayal of the drugs war that’s routinely called one of America’s greatest dramas – actually came up with the concept for his new series, Show Me a Hero, about race in Yonkers, New York, more than 15 years ago, when he optioned the book on which it is based, written by Lisa Belkin and published in 1999.

“But it kept getting bumped for stuff that had a news peg,” explains the 55-year-old Simon. “It was going to the first mini-series I made after The Wire, and then I wrote Generation Kill, which had to be pegged to the Iraq War, and then Treme [set in New Orleans], which had to be pegged to Hurricane Katrina.”

Show Me a Hero, in contrast to such contemporary topics, is set in the mid-1980s. “But the American pathology over race isn’t exactly disappearing from the national scene,” notes Simon. “When HBO needed to know whether to renew the option on the book, I told them: whenever we do this, the argument’s still going to be ongoing.

“Certainly, race has come, aggressively, to the forefront of the public consciousness, but I don’t think it actually ever went away. There have been a series of events that have pulled up a lot of the country and made us think. Some of the events have been appalling, but the thinking and the arguing and the discussing is valuable.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8VpChKfkd8

We meet in a hotel in Los Angeles, shortly before the show’s US premiere. The six-part series stars Oscar Isaac as Nick Wasicsko, a first-time mayor who finds himself thrust into controversy when a federal court orders low-income housing units to be built (and populated largely by black families) in the white neighbourhood of Yonkers. The mini-series also features Catherine Keener, Jim Belushi and (in a surprising but effective piece of casting) Winona Ryder.

Simon, who was inspired by The Washington Post’s coverage of the Watergate scandal and began his career as a crime reporter on The Baltimore Sun, believes that in certain respects little has changed since the real-life events portrayed in Show Me a Hero.

“The whole notion of not-in-my-back-yard hasn’t improved,” he says. “In fact, if you go two stops further up that train line, the same fight that was happening in Yonkers is now happening today in Tarrytown [a small commuter suburb]. There’s a demagogue up there who’s trying to argue against the notion that there is a single and shared America. The same fights over integration are happening in the same county, as if they haven’t learnt a goddamn thing.”

The writer is clearly outraged by all of this, but his manner is calm and unruffled, his delivery equable. Though Simon’s fierce intelligence and in-depth knowledge on matters such as this is obvious within seconds of meeting him, he wears it admirably lightly.

“The truth is that public housing was looked upon with great favour when it was for white people, as part of the New Deal in the 1930s and 1940s, for families in the wake of the Great Depression, and then, later, for returning veterans. It was a marvellous programme that was much heralded, until it was applied to the last immigrant wave to America, which happened to be African-American and Latino, coming from either the South or from the Caribbean or from Central America.

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“We are not good at sharing in this country,” he continues, a little sorrowfully. “There was a moment in time when the idea of a shared America was plausible. But we are not very good at sharing any more.”