'Show Me A Hero' Offers A Nuanced Take On Public Housing Discrimination

Aug 14, 2015
Originally published on August 14, 2015 2:05 pm

By now, viewers know what to expect from a David Simon drama. You expect an intense study of a precise location, as with Baltimore in The Wire and New Orleans in Treme. You expect flawed, fascinating and unforgettable characters — like Omar in The Wire, just to name one. And you expect the story to raise issues, especially about race and politics, that are unfortunately relevant to today.

Show Me a Hero, a six-hour miniseries presented by HBO over three weeks, checks off all those boxes. It's based on Lisa Belkin's nonfiction book of the same name, which examined events and emotions over a heated political issue in a specific place and time.

The time is the late 1980s; the place, Yonkers, New York; and the issue is public housing. The city had been found guilty of building all of its government-mandated public housing units in poor black neighborhoods, and was ordered to build new ones in more affluent areas. Many white Yonkers residents rose up in anger, making the housing issue central to the local election. Into that heated battle steps an ambitious young politician, Nick Wasicsko, played by Oscar Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davis.

David Simon and Show Me a Hero co-creator William F. Zorzi, who contributed to The Wire, approach this complicated piece of history by coming at it from several illuminating angles. We get to know council members, judges, lawyers, newspaper reporters — but we also see the housing issue from the points of view of citizen activists, low-income housing residents and other street-level perspectives.

The same goes for Isaac's character, Nick Wasicsko, who decides to run for mayor of Yonkers against the incumbent. We see him in contentious public and private meetings — but we also see his very human side when he plants a kiss on a young secretary who works in the same government building.

Nick is surrounded by people with more power, played by actors who fill their roles aggressively. Winona Ryder, Alfred Molina, Jim Belushi, Bob Balaban, Peter Riegert, LaTanya Richardson and Catherine Keener all make strong impressions here — and no one makes a stronger impression than Oscar Isaac in the leading role.

Virtually every character in Show Me a Hero has his or her good and bad times, but only Nick seems to take it all so personally. The drama's title comes from the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy," and the title fits.

Show Me a Hero is directed by Paul Haggis, the writer-director of Crash whom TV fans may remember as the man behind the underrated quality classics Due South and EZ Streets. His visual touch and taste are evident here, and he's also a good fit with Simon because he frames scenes in a way that expects, almost demands, that attention must be paid.

You'll need to pay attention to get all the nuances packed into this miniseries — but it's worth it. At a time when racial tensions and blustery politicians are dominating headlines, this 25-year-old true story couldn't seem more timely. Or, since it presents some actual solutions to political posturing and deep-seated racial hostilities, more valuable.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. For the next three Sundays, HBO presents "Show Me A Hero," the latest TV drama from that network by David Simon, creator of "The Wire" and "Treme." "Show Me A Hero" is based on a true story and stars Oscar Isaac as a rising young politician in Yonkers, N.Y., in the late 1980s. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: By now, viewers know what to expect from a David Simon drama. You expect an intense study of a precise location, as with Baltimore in "The Wire" and New Orleans in "Treme." You expect flawed, fascinating and unforgettable characters, like Omar in "The Wire," just to name one. And you expect the story to raise issues, especially about race and politics that are unfortunately relevant to today.

"Show Me A Hero," a six-hour miniseries presented by HBO over three weeks, checks off all those boxes. It's based on Lisa Belkin's nonfiction book of the same name, which examined events and emotions over a heated political issue in a specific time and place. The time is the late 1980s, the place, Yonkers, N.Y., and the issue is public housing. The city had been found guilty of building all of its government-mandated public housing units in poor black neighborhoods and was ordered to build new ones in more affluent areas. Many white Yonkers residents rose up in anger, making the housing issue central to the local election. Into that heated battle steps an ambitious young politician, Nick Wasicsko, played by Oscar Isaac from "Inside Llewyn Davis." David Simon and "Show Me A Hero" co-creator William F. Zorzi, who contributed to "The Wire," approach this complicated piece of history by coming at it from several illuminating angles.

We get to know council-members, judges, lawyers, newspaper reporters. But we also see the housing issue from the points of view of citizen activists, low-income-housing residents and other street-level perspectives. The same goes for Isaac's character of Nick Wasicsko, who decides to run for mayor of Yonkers against the local incumbent. We see him in contentious public and private meetings. But we also see his very human side when he gives a ride home to a young secretary who works in the same government building. She's played by Carla Quevedo. As he drops her off, he leans in and plants an unexpected kiss, then reacts to himself after she leaves.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHOW ME A HERO")

CARLA QUEVEDO: (As Nay Noe Wasicsko) Thanks for the lift.

OSCAR ISAAC: (As Nick Wasicsko) Yeah, no problem. You know, it's on the way to the Italian-American Forum tonight, so...

QUEVEDO: (As Nay Noe Wasicsko) Every night's another event, huh?

ISAAC: (As Nick Wasiscko) (Laughter) Yeah, well...

QUEVEDO: (As Nay Noe Wasicsko) It's crazy.

ISAAC: (Nick Wasicsko) I know. If you want to be the mayor, you got to work at it, right?

QUEVEDO: (As Nay Noe Wasiscko) Yeah.

ISAAC: And well, don't tell anybody, but I always wanted to be the mayor.

QUEVEDO: (As Nay Noe Wasicsko) Really?

ISAAC: (As Nick Wasicsko) Yeah.

QUEVEDO: (As Nay Noe Wasicsko) (Laughter).

ISAAC: (As Nick Wasicsko) It's true, I swear. I used to talk about it all the time growing up. The other kids used to call me the mayor.

QUEVEDO: (As Nay Noe Wasicsko) (Laughter) Really?

ISAAC: (As Nick Wasicsko) It wasn't a compliment.

QUEVEDO: (As Nay Noe Wasicsko) (Laughter).

ISAAC: (As Nick Wasicsko) But, you know, I tried to take it as one, so...

QUEVEDO: (As Nay Noe Wasicsko) Yeah. All right, I better go in. My parents will worry about me.

ISAAC: (As Nick Wasicsko) Yeah, OK.

QUEVEDO: (As Nick Wasicsko) Have a good night, OK?

ISAAC: All right, yeah. It's just...

QUEVEDO: (As Nay Noe Wasicsko) That was weird.

ISAAC: (As Nick Wasicsko) Was it?

QUEVEDO: (As Nay Noe Wasicsko) (Laughter) I just - you kind of caught me off guard. I better go in now.

ISAAC: (As Nick Wasicsko) We should talk.

QUEVEDO: (As Nay Noe Wasicsko) OK, on Monday.

ISAAC: (As Nick Wasicsko) OK.

QUEVEDO: (As Nay Noe Wasicsko) All right, bye.

ISAAC: (As Nick Wasicsko) Goodnight.

QUEVEDO: (As Nay Noe Wasicsko) Yeah, goodnight.

ISAAC: (As Nick Wasicsko) Woo-hoo.

BIANCULLI: In public, Nick is a lot more reserved, at least at first. He's surrounded by people with more power, played by actors who fill their roles aggressively - Winona Ryder, Alfred Molina, Jim Belushi, Bob Balaban, Peter Riegert, LaTonya Richardson and Catherine Keener all make strong impressions here. And no one makes a stronger impression than Oscar Isaac in the leading role. Virtually every character in "Show Me A Hero" has his or her good and bad times. But only Isaac's Nick seems to take it all so personally. The drama's title comes from the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote "show me a hero, and I'll write you a tragedy." And the title fits. "Show Me A Hero" is directed by Paul Haggis, the writer-director of "Crash," whom TV fans may remember as the man behind the underrated quality classics "Due South" and "EZ Streets." His visual touch and taste are evident here. And he's also a good fit with Simon because he frames scenes in a way that expects - almost demands - that attention must be paid. Early on in the first episode, here's a behind-closed-door meeting about the housing issue, presided over by Jim Belushi's mayor. Also present, among others, are local politicians played by Winona Ryder and by Oscar Isaac.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHOW ME A HERO")

WINONA RYDER: (As Vinni Restiano) Two-hundred units and four possible sites. It's not the end of the world, guys. We spread it around. No district gets more than one site. No site gets more than 50 or so units.

JIM BELUSHI: (As Angelo Martinelli) I'm thinking maybe we double the number of proposed housing sites.

ISAAC: (As Nick Wasicsko) Eight sites means less units in any one neighborhood, less anger from voters, we spread the paint thinner.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Or we dump all of them in Spallone's district either way.

(LAUGHTER)

BELUSHI: (As Angelo Martinelli) Like I said, it's better to be on the inside when a deal goes down. I'm asking you all to be co-sponsors. I'm not going to bother with Spallone on them. We know how they stand.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Christ, an election year.

BELUSHI: (As Angelo Martinelli) Tell me about. Look, I know you guys would rather do nothing and let the judge pick the sites himself, but the judge ain't buying that. He put it on us.

NOEL DINNEEN: (As Frank McGovern) I can't be a co-sponsor. I just can't have my name on it.

BELUSHI: (As Angelo Martinelli) Come on, Frank.

RYDER: (As Vinni Restiano) Yeah, but you can vote for it, right?Or Angelo will put 3 of the 8 sites in your district.

(LAUGHTER)

ISAAC: Look, I understand complying and that the law is the law, but what about our appeal?

BELUSHI: (As Angelo Martinelli) We should have never appealed in the first place, not a chance in hell they'll overturn Sand.

ISAAC: (As Nick Wasicsko) But were still paying the lawyers to carry to the Second Circuit so if you wanted to the voters are fighting in the courts, you can.

BELUSHI: (As Angelo Martinelli) Honestly, guys, I think this is the only responsible option we have. You think about it over lunch, and I want a yes.

BIANCULLI: You'll need to pay attention to get all the nuances packed into this miniseries. But it's worth it. At a time when racial tensions and blustery politicians are dominating headlines, this 25-year-old true story couldn't seem more timely, or, since it presents some actual solutions to political posturing and deep-seated racial hostilities, more valuable.

GROSS: David Bianculli is the founder and editor of the online magazine TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. On the next fresh air...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL "FUN HOME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Medium Alison) Caption - I leapt out of the closet. And four months later, my father killed himself by stepping in front of a truck.

GROSS: We'll talk about the Tony Award-winning musical "Fun Home," with Alison Bechdel, who wrote the memoir it's based on, and with the show's songwriters, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori. I hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.