Pubdate: Oct,  4 Oct 2002
Source: AlterNet (US Web)
Copyright: 2002 Independent Media Institute
Author: Bobbi Murray, AlterNet


Sergeant Joe Friday would probably flip in his fictional grave at the sight
of HBO's new cop show, which just concluded its first season last month.

The Wire looks at the war on drugs as it is waged in the inner cities of
Baltimore by an inter-agency team of federal agents and local police
officers. The cop genre has come a long way from the strait-laced corn
served up on Dragnet, the mother of all TV police dramas, but The Wire may
pioneering a sub-genre of its own. Created by David Simon, a former reporter
for the Baltimore Sun, and co-written by ex-police officer Ed Burns, The
Wire challenges some of the core assumptions that underlie the typical cop

While most such series allude to the broader politics that drive law
enforcement, Wire takes the next step. Here the agencies are portrayed not
as zealous guardians of the public good, but rather as political entities
pursuing their vested interests - whose actions often have unjust and cruel
consequences. As Simon told Salon magazine when the series debuted in June,
"Once you're at war, you have an enemy. Once you have an enemy, you can do
whatever you want...I'm not supportive of the idea of drugs, but what drugs
have not destroyed, the war on them has."

Here is the story set-up in brief: D'Angelo Barksdale, a young lieutenant in
a large Baltimore drug organization run by his uncle, Avon Barksdale, is
acquitted on a homicide charge after the star witness is intimidated into
recanting her story. Detective James McNulty is brought in by the presiding
judge to assess just how the case went south and finds out that the
Barksdales appear to be linked to quite a few murders. The deputy
commissioner then calls for a task force to wipe out Barksdale's operation;
it includes federal agents, the tenacious McNulty, hot-shot undercover cop
Shakima Greggs and another savvy detective, Bunk Morehead.

Corrupt cops, burnt-out cops, even homicidal cops are not new in Hollywood.
But The Wire is different in that we see how department politics affect the
execution of the drug war. The series makes clear, for example, that the
task force is intended as a public relations measure after the botched
homicide prosecution. "Keep the papers off it, make an arrest or two,"
directs one higher-up. The policemen also don't always show great commitment
to their job. Two officers balk and get testy with McNulty when he
dispatches them to cross-check some records, a basic, ground-floor tactic in
a thorough investigation.

Kevin Zeese, founder of Common Sense for Drug Policy, hasn't watched The
Wire regularly, but welcomes its realism about the conduct of the war on
drugs. "All these shows with a more realistic portrayal open the
conversation to a more sensible level of discourse about the issue instead
of one based on emotion," he says. Traffic, the surprise Hollywood
blockbuster directed by Steven Soderbergh, did portray the futility of the
drug war. But Zeese says, "It didn't show how blacks are treated differently
by the criminal justice system at every step of the way."

What is most unusual about The Wire is that the series depicts both sides of
the drug war. Darnell M. Hunt, professor of sociology, says The Wire takes
an unconventional approach to its depictions of African- Americans. Hunt,
who is also Director the UCLA Department of African-American Studies, and is
conducting a five-year study of the depictions of African-Americans on
prime-time television, loves the show.

"It's rare to see African-American characters portrayed across the spectrum
like that -- in terms of sexuality, motivations. I'm not one who typically
likes these kinds of shows, but I am struck by the nuanced, very interesting
portrayals," he says.

The law enforcement task force is racially mixed. McNulty (played by Dominic
West) is Irish- American, while his colleagues Greggs (Sonja Sohn),
Morehead,(Wendall Pierce), and Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) are
African-Americans. Greggs is revealed as a lesbian when she arrives home and
is greeted by her sweetheart, who is also African-American. Morehead is a
genial and dedicated veteran, while Daniels is a careerist, for whom the
badge often trumps race. When two white members of the task force get
liquored up and harass and humiliate the African- American residents,
Daniels advises them get their story straight to avoid an investigation. "He
did not piss you off," he says of the black teenager the two cops beat up.
"He made you fear for your safety and that of your fellow officers."

And the people selling the drugs are just as complex and fully drawn. "Even
the quote-unquote bad characters are humanized in ways you don't usually see
on television," Hunt says. "This show just strikes me as being the most
balanced and realistic portrayal of people involved in drug culture." We
watch D'Angelo (Larry Gilliard, Jr.) as his qualms about the violence of his
trade increase; we see his Uncle Avon (Wood Harris) in an apron as he cooks
at a community event and cuddles D'Angelo's toddler son. "In one episode, we
saw one of the (drug syndicate) lieutenants in the organization going off to
a junior college to take a business management course," Hunt says. "It was
to get better at managing his drug business, but it was an unexpected twist,
there was a feeling of reality about it."

The series also makes clear the fact that a drug economy is the logical
outcome of the overwhelming problems facing the inner cities. Series creator
Simons told Salon that the government has created "war zones where the only
economic engine is the self-perpetuating drug trade...they've spent 34 years
taking neighborhoods and basically divesting them from the rest of America.
We've embraced a permanent war of attrition against the underclass, and it
can't work."

But despite its innovative style and message, there are those who find the
cop/drug war genre objectionable in general. "I saw one episode for maybe 10
minutes and then shut it off," says Anthony Papa, visual artist and activist
working to reform drug law.

"I don't think it neutralizes it just because the cops are corrupt," Papa
says. Someone who knows nothing about drug sales or use would look at The
Wire "and see the violence and would support the war on drugs," Papa says.

Papa has personally experienced the harsh reality of the drug war -- he
served 12 years of a two 15 years-to-life concurrent sentences for passing
41/2 ounces of cocaine in an envelope. Governor George Pataki granted Papa
clemency after his art work, done in prison, was displayed in New York's
acclaimed Whitney Museum and at the Outsider Gallery.

For Papa, The Wire is just the latest example of long history of Hollywood
racism. He points to the fact that the drug dealers are all
African-American. "Most drug users I know are white. I've worked in mid-town
Manhattan, around Wall St., where people were using drugs. I never saw the
police raid Wall Street," Papa says. Virtually everyone depicted as part of
the drug trade in The Wire is black. In the pilot, the one white addict gets
killed after passing a phony $20 bill, in a scam devised by his
African-American lover -- reinforcing the notion that blacks are dangerous
to whites. But it doesn't come off with the same volatility as the scenes in
the film Traffic where the white drug addict daughter of the "drug czar" is
seen turning tricks with African-American customers to feed her habit. "It's
like [the ongoing HBO prison series] Oz -- it's all about exploitation of
the marginalized and disenfranchised," Papa says.

"Most drug dealers are white, many people in the drug trade are white, and
if you didn't already know that, you wouldn't know it from watching the
show," agrees Hunt. But in defense of the series, Hunt says the plot is
based on the real-life case of a drug organization and its young leader in
Washington D.C.

The Wire's shortcomings, however, are important because the view of
African-Americans is still defined by media images. "In an ideal world we'd
have enough variety in representations out there that no one show would have
to represent the racial experience," Hunt says. So while The Wire's
unconventional approach to writing and depiction of the mixed motives of the
drug warriors make it a landmark show, its failings reveal just how much
further we still need to go.
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