While the players change, the cycle of dysfunction and the game of life that “The Wire” unmasked has not.
“When The Wire debuted in 2002, it introduced a different level of Black humanity to television,” notes Odell Hall, one of the many essayists featured in Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter, a book which commemorates the 20thanniversary of the iconic show’s inaugural season on HBO. Prior to The Wire, shows favored cops dominated TV. In that universe, the cops were clearly the good guys and the criminals, who stereotypically veered almost exclusively Black and male, were the bad. “Neither the cops nor the crooks were the heroes of The Wire,” explains Hall in his essay “The Wire and the Games We Play”. Instead, they were shades of grey. “We saw both our violence and our vulnerability. The show featured both a rogue gay antihero stickup artist and a drug dealer taking business school classes."
As a series, The Wire amplified the harsh reality far too many Black people still endure. It was not trauma porn and, instead, highlighted the dysfunction behind it all—the causes and not just the effects. And, for once, Black people were not the scapegoats for everything wrong in Baltimore and, by proxy, Chicago’s South Side, Brooklyn’s Brownsville and any other hood in the USA.
Avon, Stringer, Omar, Wee-Bey, Prop Joe, Wallace, D’Angelo, Bubbles were like real people. And that was for the actors too. “On The Wire, Omar’s tenacity and swagger were based on people I knew and grew up with,” the late great actor Michael K. Williams shared in Scenes From My Life: A Memoir, his posthumous book out this August. “But his pain, his raw nerves, I didn’t have to look anywhere for that. I was built on that stuff.”
Drug addiction didn’t and doesn’t discriminate, concurred Sheree Renée Thomas in her essay “Walking The Wire,” Anybody can get that pain. “[W]hat the writers and cast of The Wire were able to do, over five seasons, is raise a mirror to and challenge the distorted representations of Black people, puncture a hole in the hardened silence and idolatry surrounding the Blue Shield, render ridiculous the arguments against police accountability and the notion of treating drug addiction as a criminal offense rather than a health epidemic, and make clearer the connection between direct and indirect public policy on Black lives,” she writes.
Working as a corrections officer a few years after The Wire’s debut, Scott Wilson discovered Omar, Michael K. Williams character, was very real. “What I quickly learned is Omar’s seemingly out-of-the-ordinary life marrying crime and loving the same sex was more routine than society acknowledged. Omar’s human experience was no less valid than mine,” he explains. And that discovery, he feels, paved the way for the greater acceptance of openly gay Black men in pop culture and in life.
In his essay “The Power of Omar and Michael K. Williams,” Wilson candidly confides how the Brooklyn native’s portrayal expanded his humanity. “I grew to accept his homosexuality as simply a part of who he was, as much as my sexual orientation was part of who I am.”
But The Wire was not perfect.
In his essay “Finding the Greater Truth: The Wire and Journalism," Seve Chambers notes the show’s failure in representing Black-owned newspapers like the Baltimore Afro-American, which has covered the city for over 100 years now, in its critique of the profession. While Clark Johnson’s highly principled and capable Gus Haynes trying to steer the mainstream media ship is great representation, not having Black-owned media represented in Baltimore, a predominantly Black city, is extremely problematic. Without the Black press, the truth about us and what really matters would go unnoted.
Baltimore native and self-proclaimed "Wire-cologist" Julia Chance, shared in her essay “Reflections on The Wire and the Black Baltimore It Misses,” how she “cannot recall any mention of, or reference to, Baltimore’s rich Black heritage in the sixty episodes of The Wire” and that this is despite a lot of the show being filmed in what was once “Baltimore’s Harlem.”
And while there are other issues of the hit HBO series to be debated for sure, the acting is one thing that will never be criticized. Through the show’s tense storylines and life struggles, the actors shined. Wood Harris and Idris Elba as partners and brothers from another mother who disagree and fall out over whether to stay in the game or go legit was both a serious conversation and compelling drama. Despite his many roles since the series, Michael B. Jordan as Wallace is still one of the best performances in his career to date. We also fondly recall our beloved Glynn Turman as Mayor Royce; Frankie Faison as the police commissioner Ervin Burrell; Robert Wisdom as Bunny Colvin, one of Baltimore PD’s finest who tries to do right by us; Hasan Johnson as faithful street soldier Wee-Bey; Wendell Pierce as police detective Bunk Moreland. Sonja Sohn's Baltimore detective Kima Greggs was a groundbreaking role representing for Black lesbians. Plus, the late great Michael K. Williams as Omar, Baltimore native Felicia Pearson as Snoop, Robert F. Chew as Prop Joe, Jamie Hector as the always one step ahead drug dealer Marlo Stanfield, Andre Royo’s Bubbles
—and the list of great performances just goes on and on—showing that not only do “all the pieces matter,” all the actors do too.
Because The Wire actors have gone on to bless so many other great TV shows, the series should be held in the same regard as the Yale School of Drama and Juilliard for its elite caliber of actors. Unbelievably, though, the Emmys never recognized one actor from The Wire—not Elba nor Williams. The NAACP Image Awards, however, did do much better by nominating these two brilliant actors and a few others.
By bringing humanity to those previously deemed just Thug #1 or #2, as well as showcasing Black folks as mayors, police commissioners and more in intricate and complex storylines, there’s absolutely no denying The Wire changed TV for us. It’s truly hard to imagine the success of 50 Cent’s Power franchise, Lena Waithe’s The Chi, or the John Singleton-created Snowfall without The Wire.
Twenty years and counting, what two white guys David Simon and Ed Burns created, and our forever GOATs brought to life, still endures. And that’s because, while the players change, the cycle of dysfunction and the game of life that The Wire unmasked has not.
Ronda Racha Penrice is the editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter and author of Black American History For Dummies.