A civics lesson does not sound very engrossing or appealing as a television show. However, the HBO six-part miniseries that started airing Sunday, Show Me a Hero, offers a generally engrossing lesson in the politics of desegregation, in this real-life-based case in 1980s Yonkers, NY, when the issues of race relations and social injustice are in the forefront today.
The story, based on a 1999 book of the same name by Lisa Belkin, is about chaos in Yonkers in the late ’80s over an attempt by the mayor Nick Wasicsko to desegregate low-income housing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The series was a pet project for David Simon (known for other HBO shows like The Wire and Treme), who wrote the screenplay with Bill Zorzi. Simon sought to look at the complexities involved in integration in Yonkers, a city just north of the Bronx borough of New York City (the residents of Yonkers voted not to become part of NYC in 1894). The series examines the resistance and anger surrounding the issue.
While there are at least a dozen major characters, Show Me a Hero focuses largely on Wasicsko, played by Oscar Isaac. Wasicsko became mayor in 1987 at age 28 largely by campaigning against affordable housing in the area’s middle-class white neighborhoods. When a judge ordered the units to be constructed, the mayor was caught between his constituency and upholding the court order. Wasicsko comes to embrace integration as he tries to govern effectively but finds himself thwarted by angry white homeowners worried about their racially-coded “property values.” His story is summed up by book’s and miniseries’ title, which is taken from an F. Scott Fitzgerald line: “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.”
Director Paul Haggis artfully shows the drama and chaos of the council meetings, which here are like watching a battle scene rather than a boring civics session. Besides the angry council meetings, the series also has quieter interludes that introduce some of the poor African-American and Latino people who view the prospect of moving to white neighborhoods unease topped off with hope. It also shows that people on both sides of the argument often embody the behaviors they fear from the other, like when the white become the lawless hooligans they thought would move in.
The Show Me a Hero all-star cast is generally outstanding. The ensemble includes Oscar Isaac (trying to balance youth, maturity, nervous energy, joy and disappointment); Catharine Keener as anti-integration activist Mary Dorman; Alfred Molina offers a somewhat over-the-top caricature of a machine politician; Winona Ryder as City Councilwoman Vinni Restiano; and Jim Belushi, as the underhanded former mayor Angelo Martinelli. There are also noteworthy efforts from Ilfenesh Hadera as a Dominican immigrant, Carla Quevedo as the mayor’s wife and Natalie Paul as a community organizer working toward desegration.
They and the timeliness of the topic all contribute to making Show Me a Hero and the lesson it offers on the politics of desegregation worthwhile. While the results are known, the road to them and civics lesson (as well as the push for racial tolerance) are welcome. The miniseries runs for two hours over three Sundays starting August 16.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
The Daily Beast: HBO Takes on Racism and Politics in ‘Show Me a Hero,’ David Simon’s Powerful New Drama
NJ.com: ‘Show Me a Hero’ review: A civics lesson you shouldn’t miss
New York Times: Review: ‘Show Me a Hero’ Focuses on a Mayor in the Maelstrom of Desegregation
Photo courtesy of HBO