“It’s a testament to the audience,” says Andre Royo, who played Bubbles on the hit HBO series. “They are the ones that keep The Wire going.” 

And that’s true. In an era where gritty TV dramas prominently featuring Black actors are increasingly more plentiful, HBO’s iconic series is still adding fans twenty years after its June 2002 premiere.

Set in Baltimore, The Wire distinguished itself from other cop shows by putting a spotlight on the war on drugs, questioning its impact and effectiveness in a time when others blindly accepted it. That perspective gave those most targeted by the war on drugs a voice. Atypical for the times, The Wire became a show where Black people on different sides, including the streets, also weighed in. It’s a critical difference that attracted Black viewers in real time. So, while the popular narrative surrounding The Wire in mainstream press is about how the show struggled with low ratings, for many Black people, The Wire was always a hit show. 

That reaction is something Wire creator David Simon tells EBONY he noticed as they continued filming in Baltimore. “By the end of the first season, they weren't being greeted as if they were folks from around the way,” he says of the actors. “I was a bystander to the reactions that we were getting in these neighborhoods, and it was great.”

Black actors were such a critical part to the show’s success. Royo, who played one of the few characters to make it through all five seasons of the show, shares that the “cast was so engrossed on just making sure the story was told the right way, and then executed the right way with pure authenticity.” 

Jamie Hector, whose character Marlo was introduced in the third season and basically took over in the fourth, recalls being in awe of the show’s many great actors. “That was my first series regular [role] so it couldn’t have [gone] bad. But it just so happened to be that it was great,” he recalled. “[I] get on set and I see Michael K. Williams [who played Omar]. I meet Chad L. Coleman [who played Cutty]. I respected his work. I knew Dre [Andre Royo] before The Wire [because] we worked on a film [The Day the Ponies Come Back]. I was familiar with Wood’s work. I worked with him on a film [Paid in Full] right before [I joined] The Wire. So stepping into that space, I was ready to play ball.”

Hector admits to also being wowed by the storylines. “I saw season two when Wallace [Michael B. Jordan] was taken out by his friends and that blew my mind. To the point where I was like ‘they do this on TV?’” Probably more accurately for the times was that Black actors were allowed to do this on TV. But, as Royo told Hector, ‘this wasn’t TV—this was HBO.’

Still HBO didn’t always recognize what it had. Simon credits fellow producer Nina K. Noble for keeping the show cheap enough for the network to keep it on the air. Simon also knew the series benefitted greatly from the many talented Black actors Hector referenced. “The industry did not exactly have a lot of storytelling narrative that required all of the talent among Black actors that was there,” he explains. “We had a lot of people who were very hungry for good work.”

For Black actors, the TV landscape was much different back then than it is now he stresses. “You have to really lean back 20 years to remember that there wasn't as much content then, and a lot of people with a lot of talent were not getting their due.”

Speaking with EBONY about Michael K. Williams, who sadly passed away almost a year ago, and what he brought to the show as Omar, a lone wolf who made his way robbing drug dealers and lived in his own truth as a Black gay man in the hood, Noble remembers that “he was a very unique character and especially for the time. You didn't see any characters like that on television. And Michael K. brought so much passion to that character. He was somebody who came to set every day happy to be there, but also really thinking intensely about this character. He really wanted to embrace this character over the years, and I think that resonated with people.”

Wendell Pierce shares with EBONY how he worked hard to ensure his character Detective Bunk Moreland reflected the reason most African American men and women join the police force. "They wanted to have a positive impact on the community that is 99% hardworking, family-loving people,” shares Pierce. He adds that he hoped that was the enduring legacy of his character to viewers.

“Whether it was watching Bunk and McNulty drinking in bars or whether it was the equal [storytelling] treatment of criminals and police and showing the flaws and the virtues of both, The Wire showed our common humanity,” says actor Dominic West. “I think that’s really what the show’s legacy is and why it’s still so important.”

The Wire is available to stream on HBO Max.

Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter.