Written by: Maciej Gadzala, Egle Talandyte, My Pham, Mart van de Logt, Poly Petrova, Soobin Song, Tim Schriever, Sophie Lasala
Accurate portrayal of reality has always been sought in many forms of art, from landscapes and portraits in painting to biopics and documentaries in film making. But in the contemporary media landscape, full of eye-catching content, glitz and blitz of Hollywood and unfathomable array of stories readily available for consumption, how does one stay close to reality and capture it? How, in the fictional work, can reality be even presented?
The Wire attempts to approach this challenge with extraordinary attention to detail, honest portrayal of poverty-stricken city in the midst of a 90’s heroin epidemic, and skillful use of reality effects aimed at providing the aura of authenticity to the experience of watching the events on the screen unfold. In the background to all of this, the desire of the filmmakers to produce a piece which would affect the reality they try to portray is at play as well, immensely affecting the production and the feel of the series. In this liaison of realism, desire for social justice and the larger-than-life issues, there is a lot to untangle. Let’s start with an explanation of what exactly makes for the Wire– meaning from where exactly it got its inspirations from– and how the post-war Italian cinematography and Latin American Third Cinema movement are involved in this.
Neorealism and Third Cinema in Baltimore
The neorealism arose in post-war Italy, in pursuit of the filmmakers to capture the anxieties of a society affected by poverty, injustice and despair of a rebuilding society. (Wilson, 2014). The Neorealists, such as Luchio Viscontini and Roberto Rossellini sought to not only represent reality, but also– by portraying street-level stories of everyday issues shot in real location with non professional actors– invoke social change. (Britannica.com, n.d.). The Wire draws a lot of inspiration from the movement, as it was filmed exclusively within the city itself, with most of its airtime dedicated to showcasing Baltimore’s poverty in projects, neighbourhoods and docks. The actors also have been chosen to highlight the city rather than the cast, with many non-professional and less known actors taking part in the production. (Wilson, 2014).
The writers for the show do this with a goal in mind– they want to fill in the void left by investigative journalism in local newspapers that has been severely undercut in the 90’s by the rise of the internet. In fact, a number of writers of the show come from the Baltimore Sun, a local newspaper, including producer David Simon himself. (Wilson, 2014). Perhaps this commitment is what led them to additionally draw from the Third Cinema movement, a grouping of Latin American filmmakers which aimed to disrupt narrative pleasure and question passive viewership by exploring social totality and creating uneasy, hard-for-consumption pictures. (Wilson, 2014). This kind of thinking transpired to the Wire, where the viewer really has to follow multiple threads of the story happening across many episodes, and does not experience narrative closure– akin to a journalistic article.
The Reality effect
Cinematographic journalism however cannot create the experience of reality alone. In order to represent the totality of the city and accurately portray the lives of Baltimore’s marginalized segment of society, the show really tries to achieve the ‘reality effect’ – “the pure and simple representation of the real”. This is what Roland Barthes, a french literary theorist, described as the array of aesthetic and textual techniques aimed at producing an effect of reality by referring to the real world (as opposed to the text) without pushing the course of actions forward. (Barthes, 1989). The Wire aptly makes use of this technique, putting it to use in the multiplicity of methods– for instance, in the course of writing the script, the writers mostly used situations which really took place in Baltimore, weaving them into the story.
Another element that authenticates the series is its slow pace– depictions of bureaucracy, mundane daily life, low-stakes drug deals– all are components of the greater impression of city life, which authors ultimately want to convey. Also, as mentioned previously, the show avoids the use of well known actors, as – in words of David Simon– “this can throw viewers right out of their senses’’. (Hbo.com, 2020) if they are engrossed in watching the city and their attention shifts to a famous actor.
Additionally the show employs Baltimore natives in the cast as well, so that the connection with the real city is even more present. In general, the actors are really not a crux of the show and the emphasis is put much more on the life, institutions and what lies between characters rather than the individual story arcs of several of them. In the words of Wilson, this shifts “The focus from a fascinating individual criminal to a broader analysis of the culture that creates and destroys him”. (Wilson, p. 67, 2014). That kind of work is further done by the camera, which does not retort to use of flashy cuts and sleek editing, but rather stays with characters (rarely moving from their eye-level, often doing it from the perspective of the characters themselves), mostly works with long shots, and often uses wide shots in order to create the feeling of real street-level engagement (Wilson, 2014), as well as a feeling of being embedded in the city from the perspective of the viewer– as camera does not access places that a human being would be able to be in. The presence of the viewer in general is important to the series, as it also plays with this concept when things happen off camera and we are left to see just the aftermath of an event, contributing to the general reality effect of the show.
The Writers and the City
The reality effect has its use in cinematography and resides solely there. Apart from cinematography however, the Wire stands the test of reality of Baltimore and sincerely engages with the city and its problems through not just the reality effect, but an earnest and accurate portrayal of it. It comes with sacrifices: not sticking to the cliches of spectacle-saturated Hollywood cinema.
The Wire encounters a hurdle – audiences can misinterpret and not bother with the reality of society, which the series is aiming for.
In other words, the main problem of The Wire is how to raise awareness of real phenomena by using fictional techniques. In response to this challenge however, The Wire did not tone down its tone of realiness and focus on the city– on the contrary, the writers relentlessly tried to submerge themselves in the city so that they would not lose the sense of it. David Simon himself used to be a journalist of the Baltimore Sun; his writers, crew and cast are also people from the backgrounds close to the city– such as detectives, reporters, the citizens themselves who are familiar with social and political issues of Baltimore. To bring more realness for his drama, Simon even encouraged his writer and actors doing field research. Doman, who plays the role of deputy commissioner William Rawls, mentioned their research field in one interview:
“Wendell Pierce, Dominic West and myself went out on some ride-alongs with Baltimore cops. The cops were so blase. We went to the hospital, and one guy had been shot 13 times. The cops were standing around drinking coffee. It was another day at the office for these guys, but our eyes were popping out of our heads.” (Lynskey, 2020)
What also makes The Wire outstanding from other Hollywood cinema products is the meditation- evoking capability. Simon commented about the series: “If people are merely entertained, then we’ve failed what ambitions we had, I’m afraid.”. (Wilson, p. 63, 2014). From the beginning, what Simon and his team aimed for is exposing social and political issues, challenging the easily consuming norms in the capitalist Hollywood market and creating new ways of consuming popular culture. That kind of approach was not without its difficulties, as Simon wrote in his foreword to Alvarez’s 2010 book about the show, The Wire: Truth be Told: “The first thing we had to do was teach folks to watch television in a different way.”. (Alvarez, 2010).
This problem became evident in the case of one the characters, Omar. Being one of the only characters inte series which was ascribed mystical elements, as well “as an archetypical Robin Hood-style bandit” (Wilson, p. 72, 2014) he attracted audience admiration– contrary to the aim of the writers. Being bojected to this, they engaged with the audience reverence of him and addressed it. In the words of Jason Vest:
"Simon and the writing staff, therefore, incorporate this development [the growing popularity of Omar] into the show’s third season in “Dead Soldiers,” by having Omar’s squad raid a Barksdale stash house, which provokes a street fight that kills Tosha Mitchell (Edwina Findley), one of Omar’s squad members. Omar and his two surviving partners leave Mitchell’s corpse lying in the street while escaping the scene. Bunk Moreland arrives to investigate Mitchell’s death but appears sickened when he sees five neighborhood children vying to play the role of Omar while enthusiastically reenacting the shootout” (Wilson, p. 73, 2014)
The writers did something unique here they directly critiqued the audience for misinterpreting the show and admiring somebody who, in the end, was also one of the most violent characters in the series. Such unwavering commitment to realism and the city itself is seldom found in the cinema, and it perhaps explains the cult status that the series amassed over the years.
The Wire truly deserves the fandom. Its skillful portrayal of the city and focus not just on one story, but multiple entangled ones that complement each other makes for a modern classic, a cinematic version of a cityscape. The uncompromising attitude of the writers and the commitment to give a homage to the city and its particular period in a way that challenged what a series should be makes for a purpose driven, socially engaged piece of cinematography that stays true to its purpose of presenting the reality of poverty, institutionalised racism and corruption of an American city. Filling in for the role of investigative journalism, the show also tries its best to stay true to its social mission in the portrayal of Baltimore, which makes it stand out from the products of Hollywood, as it truly aims to present the viewer with something that is not just engaging and entertaining, but truthful and thoughtful. An effort like this is especially commendable, as its representation doesn't shy away from keeping the focus on people as the people– not just merely individuals and characters, but Baltimorians. After all, what is a city without its people?
Q&A with class:
How does realism and history affect the positive ways this show can be viewed as dated?
A: A particular aspect of this film that demonstrates realism and history includes dysfunctions. This dysfunction relates to inconsistency of technology and politics in the 21st century. An example of this includes the way Simon depicts the difficulty with media in regard to buyouts and the altering of business models. This holds significance to realism and history since The Wire is able to grasp elements of truth of the time period and portray it in a fictional lense. Although this can be seen as dated, what is truly demonstrated is the ability to capture contemporary life.
Does The Wire hold more, less, or the same relevance today?
NPR in 2015 conducted an opinion piece about The Wire and discussed how after watching the series it feels as though it is more applicable today. A particular area where NPR addresses this includes the “urban failure, policing and race”. The article observes how this series addresses the lifestyle of young black individuals in Baltimore and how their daily lives greatly differ from the everyday life of people in a different area in addition to the presence of danger in this neighborhood. It also discusses police brutality and the inability for justice. The final part of the article draws on the collapse of neighborhoods while crime persists. Each of these components can be connected to situations in 2002 and in 2015. With this being the case, I find that it shows the importance of these issues along with the change that must follow so The Wire can be rewatched and no longer resemble the current climate.
Wilson G. “The Bigger the Lie, the More They Believe”: Cinematic Realism and the Anxiety of Representation in David Simon’s The Wire. South Central Review. 2014;31(2):63. doi:10.1353/scr.2014.0015
Neorealism | Italian art. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/art/Neorealism-Italian-art. Published 2020. Accessed April 20, 2020.
Barthes R. The Rustle Of Language. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1989.
Lynskey D. The Wire, 10 years on: ‘We tore the cover off a city and showed the American dream was dead’. the Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/mar/06/the-wire-10-years-o.... Published 2020. Accessed April 20, 2020.
The Wire - A Final Thank You to The Wire Fans, From Show Creator David Simon. HBO. https://www.hbo.com/the-wire/a-final-thank-you-to-the-wire-fans. Published 2020. Accessed April 20, 2020.
Alvarez R. The Wire: Truth Be Told. S.L.: Grove Press; 2010.