David Simon, Paul Haggis Talk ‘Tragedy’ of Oscar Isaac’s ‘Show Me a Hero’ Character, Race Relations in America

TCA 2015: Writer and producer also talks the repetitive nature of race relations in the U.S., why 20-year-old true story still resonates

HBO’s “Show Me a Hero” deals with race as one of its central themes, and it’s a topic all too familiar to writer and executive producer David Simon.

Simon had intended to tackle the story of Nick Wasicsko not long after finishing his seminal crime drama “The Wire,” but world events pulled him away to bring forth more timely series, including “Generation Kill” after the Iraq War and “Treme,” which tackled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

He told TheWrap that he always intended to come back, however, to “Show Me a Hero,” which feels eternally relevant.

In the 1980s set six-part drama directed by Paul Haggis, Oscar Isaac plays Nick Wasicsko, the youngest mayor ever elected to Yonkers, New York, who finds himself legally bound to build low-income housing in his mostly white and affluent neighborhood — despite running on a platform to oppose the measure in his campaign.

“The whole quote is ‘Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy,’ and I see it as a tragedy,” Simon said of Wasicsko’s story. “I see Nick as having a very stoic and heroic moment, which is that he came to that moment unready to do the right thing. He was someone who was playing politics purely for the game, he wasn’t attendant on the housing issue and what it was going to mean, and what was required, and then it presented itself to him suddenly. So he had to reach down and figure out he had it in himself to do the right thing and whether he would pay the cost of that. And I think he did.”

Wasicsko’s fight for desegregation is not a unique one, and Simon cites the same fight over public housing currently ongoing in Tarrytown, which is just two towns over from Yonkers. But Simon found value in returning to the 1988-set legal battle.

“There’s the power of Nick’s story, which is a pretty powerful personal narrative,” he said. “His rise and fall is almost Shakespearean, so that’s one reason to go back. The other reason is when you go back a generation, you can actually see the outcome. There are people still arguing that if they build low-income housing in Tarrytown right now, or in any of the other jurisdictions where people are fighting … people are arguing about what will happen, what will be destroyed and what will be put at risk. They’re arguing about the outcome still. But in Yonkers we now know the outcome. And the outcome was those houses didn’t upend anything … The worst fears highlighted in the fight, we now know didn’t come true.”

Race relations is a theme Simon has tackled time and again on his other series, and it’s because he believes race is a large part of an enduring American pathology.

“Sometimes I think the country is being responsive in at least contending with it and trying to grapple with it,” he said. “Other times I think the country is willfully ignoring it. But the dynamic of the American city is shaped around race. Segregation didn’t just happen. American cities became segregated because we had plans to segregate them. I’m not speaking of Jim Crow or slavery or anything that distant. If you read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, he makes a very cogent, very empirical argument that this is the society that, for a long time, we wanted, going back to the New Deal, going back to Federal Housing Administration redlining, where you could get a mortgage, where you couldn’t … These are the programs that built modern America.”

Haggis, who directed the Oscar-winning “Crash” and all six episodes of “Show Me a Hero,” also sees the repetitive and back-and-forth nature of race relations, but also forward progress.

“I’m glad that we’re continuing to address it,” he said. “We have to continue looking at it, because every time we think we’ve fixed it, we haven’t. We do make progress. Things do get better in some ways, and things get worse in others. And they get ignored largely because they’re ignored, because we think we’ve fixed it. So it’s good that we’ve made progress, but we need to make a lot more.”

“Show Me a Hero” premieres Sunday, Aug. 16 on HBO.

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