"The Wire" Characters: We Don't Know Them in Any Real Sense

It's always baffled me how anyone could read that show as any kind of vindication of gangster culture, but apparently a lot of people do.

This is a really interesting point, and it came up on... I believe it was James Forman Jr., author of Locking Up Our Own, being interviewed by Adam Conover for his podcast. (You may find Conover's schtick unpleasant; the point is in the book as well.)

When Obama declared that he has "no sympathy" or "no tolerance" for those who have committed violent offenses, he effectively marked this larger group of violent offenders as permanently out-of-bounds. Such talk draws no distinctions and admits no exceptions. It allows for no individual consideration of the violent offense. The context, the story, the mitigating factors--none of it matters. Any act of violence in your past casts you as undeserving forever.


Yet despite [The Wire]'s rampant violence, most viewers, including apparently Obama himself, don't think of the show as being primarily about a bunch of ruthless thugs. Why not? Because their violent acts are not the only things we know about them. We know them fully, as people, not just by their charge sheets or criminal records. Obama said as much, telling [David] Simon, "But part of the challenge [of criminal justice reform] is going to be making sure, number one, that we humanize what so often on the local news is just a bunch of shadowy characters, and tell their stories. And that's where the work you've done has been so important."

What Forman says about the Wire characters though isn't true though, because we don't know them. We like to think we know them, sympathize with them, because we have more of a window into their lives than we do with the average street corner thug we only hear about on the local news. But we don't know them in any real sense, not just because they don't really exist, or because we're only shown what would be a limited sample of the totality of their lives, but because we never have to deal with any of the consequences of what knowing someone like that in the real world would entail. Avon Barksdale is never going to ask us to kill someone. We're never going to be in a situation where Stringer Bell thinks we're ratting him out. Weebay isn't going to beat us up for losing part of the package. Most of all, we never have to deal with the consequences of living in a West Baltimore that exists because of people like this. All of it is entertainment, viewed from the safety of our homes.

Years ago there was an Independent Lens documentry about a young Iraqi filmmaker whose life was devastated by the war whom an independent filmmaker took under her wing. She got him a job as an assistant producer for a Liev Schreiber movie that was being filmed in the Czech Republic. When that project ended, though, he didn't want to go back to Iraq while the war was still raging, so he convinced her to help him look for another project in Europe. The rest of the film is a sad deterioration of their relationship where the Iraqi man takes advantage of her generosity while she is slowly drained emotionally and financially. He shows no independent initiative and makes no effort to improve his situation, but continually looks to her for assistance while he goofs off and uses the reality of his home situation as emotional blackmail. The film ends where she admits she's at the end of her rope but doesn't have an exit strategy.

The filmmaker discovered the young man after he made a video about how his school in Iraq was destroyed in the war, and felt sorry for him. I get the impression that most of the sob stories you hear are similar to this, except instead of being an asshole the subjects are actually violent. It's one thing to see a guy tell his story on his own terms, and quite another to deal with antisocial behavior on a day-to-day basis.