THE BLOG
10/31/2014 05:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why, Eight Years After It Ended, The Wire Remains America's Best Example of Racial Melodrama

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Obama: "He [Omar]'s got to be the no. 1 seed. I mean, what a combination. And that was one of the best shows of all time."
--Barack Obama, interview by Bill Simmons on The B.S. Report, March 1, 2012

Though we might not know precisely why Obama loved Omar, we can ponder our own reactions to this series through the overwhelming adoration of this gay stickup man who robs drug dealers in The Wire. Consider first the fact that Omar never played the role of the "magical negro" of so many other melodramas of black and white.

The first magical negro, strictly speaking, was Uncle Tom. Mainstream American audiences have great sympathy for black characters, especially if they are poor, uneducated and rural, and even more if they exhibit the qualities of love and devotion to whites that were originally exhibited in the Tom story. As a Christ-like human, Tom was a novel object of sympathy for white readers and playgoers who had not previously considered the humanity of slaves. Eventually, of course, the figure of the patient, suffering Tom would seem as demeaning to blacks as the comic minstrel. Figures like Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas, Alex Haley's Kunte Kinte, and blaxploitation's anti-heroes Superfly, Shaft and Sweetback were hypermasculine and "bad" precisely to counter the saintliness of the emasculated Tom, even at the risk of playing into the hands of the even more racist "anti-Tom" myth that has continued to have some kind of valence in American culture since Dixon's The Clansman transmuted into Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. This "black beast" has been kept alive anytime whites feared, envied or scapegoated the sexual appetite or physical strength of black men.

Since the late '90s, the anti-Tom stereotype has taken a backseat to the virtuous, black hero who sacrifices himself for whites. The magical negro narrative, of which Stephen King's serial novel and the 1999 film The Green Mile (Frank Darabont) is the most popular model, seem to re-establish racial harmony from a white hegemonic point of view by falling back on the Tom story's tried and true expressions of interracial sympathy. In this film white guards in a Louisiana prison execute an innocent black man "with love" in a way that we are meant to see as kind.

How a still majority-white America is to carry out the incarceration and execution of more and more African-American men while still feeling racially virtuous seems to be the deeper issue at stake in the films of this tradition. We can legitimately ask why it is not the justice system itself but only the personal racist villains who are exposed, when surely the pressing issue before the nation today is how to introduce real "moral legitimacy" into a system that seems only to know how to incarcerate more and more black men.

"Magical negro" is an appropriate term for these films but we should not forget that these throwbacks to an old-fashioned plantation mentality did not arise suddenly out of the blue. They exist in conflict with more overtly anti-Tom narratives that, although no one would offer them today as entertainment on film or television, have nevertheless played out in the news: the all-white jury that saw Rodney King as a hulking threat even as he was under the baton and taser of the Los Angeles Police Department, or white Bay Area Rapid Transit policeman Johannes Mehserle, who shot and killed the prostrate and unarmed Oscar Grant on New Year's Day 2009 in Oakland, California.

Because the anti-Tom "black best" lurks beneath the surface of even these overt Tom stories, I prefer to hold on to Leslie Fiedler's older formulation of "Tom" and "anti-Tom" for their longer term historical understanding of the back and forth nature of these racial feelings as well as the white hegemony within which they were originally generated. The melodrama of black and white is ongoing, and all racially based stories are grist for its mill. To understand the power of this melodrama of black and white is to see why repeated calls for more accurate, or more "realistic" representations of racially marked characters are powerless to overturn deeply embedded racial stereotypes that seem hopelessly outmoded, yet live on in the culture.

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This is where we might begin to understand President Obama's privileging of Omar as "the best Wire character." In The Wire, bad racist whites are not pitted against good liberal ones. Most refreshingly, the series does not pretend to exist in a colorblind world. Baltimore is majority black and not all blacks are in a ghetto. If the melodrama of black and white begins, as I have argued, in an initial attempt to include blacks within the fold of humanity and democratic citizenship, then it begins itself as a form of (liberal) white supremacy. Its "anti-Tom" reaction simply reasserts the more overt sense of this supremacy by turning blacks into racial villains.

The Wire writes the epitaph to these familiar melodramas of black and white but not because it achieves a state of colorblindness in which race does not matter. Rather, because it is no longer part of the black-and-white, tit-for-tat scorekeeping of racial injury that began with Uncle Tom and continues through every incident of racial violence, from Rodney King, to O.J. Simpson, through Ferguson, MO.

Though his life is short, Omar is neither a racial villain nor victim. He appreciates the consequences of the game he plays and he plays it openly, rarely lurking in the shadows. Clearly Omar prefers to play rather than to get played. He does not perceive himself as a victim of any specially racialized villainy. And though he may certainly be a victim of homophobia, Omar does not act the part of the victim. He knows that the only recourse is to seek his personal revenge and he uses the police in what amounts to a momentary collaboration. When he lands in jail and is in special danger as a known homosexual, his friend Butchie sends two lifers to help him defend himself. They bundle him up in phone books to protect his body and give him a shiv. When he is predictably attacked while in line for breakfast, Omar not only overcomes his attacker but enjoys taunting, and even kissing, this man before he shoves the shiv up his ass. This too is all in the game, play or be played, kill or be killed (4.7 "Unto Others").

The second time Omar utters "all in the game," he expands the meaning of "game" beyond the world of drug dealer and stash stealers. In the second season, working with police to seek his revenge on the Barksdales, he gives false testimony against a Barksdale operative. On cross-examination, the Barksdale defense attorney Maurice Levy condemns Omar as "a parasite who leeches off the culture of drugs..." but Omar interrupts him to draw the comparison between himself and Levy. When Levy registers offense at the comparison, Omar genially explains, "I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. It's all in the game though, right?" (2.6 "All Prologue")

Of course "the game" only means what any powerful player says it means and it does not have to mean anything beyond the acquisition of money and power. At the limit, the game with no rules is pure unbridled capitalism, and if it is explored the most through the lives of the drug dealers, it is because the drug dealers operate, like neoliberal capitalism, outside conventional systems of constraint. If Marlo offers a vision of neoliberal subjectivity at its most ruthless, Omar offers a vision of its more creative, flexible possibilities. The point is not to redeem neoliberalism but to recognize that the old economic system "back in the day" -- so worshiped by the dockworkers or the cops in their white ethnic pride singing in bars -- may never have been all it was cracked up to be, at least for minorities and women.

Already a folk hero by the time we meet him in the first season, Omar is affiliated with no institution and moves freely throughout the projects and vacants, his presence usually announced before him either by kids and hoppers calling out "Omar coming! Omar coming!" or by his own whistling. He has only to stand near a building with a stash in it to have it magically dropped at his feet. Robbing the currency of the realm (drugs) from the one group that, if any, deserves to be robbed, Omar readily gives it back to the drug-dependent community, or sells it over again to the same people he stole it from. Omar belongs to none of the institutions profiled in the series, though he forms temporary associations with various groups and even his own ad hoc gangs from whom he demand, unlike the feudal Barksdales, no fealty. He is, in every way a "free spirit" whose heists are carried out creatively and with panache. He defies all laws, written and unwritten. He especially defies that most important code of the black male underclass: to be hard and macho.

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This especially is where Omar differs from every previous black hero of folklore, film or television. He is "bad" in the grand tradition of Stagger Lee's outlaw "bad nigger" who kills for a Stetson hat, or any of the cool pimps or macho "Sweetback" or "Shaft" figures of Blaxploitation lore who prove their masculine hardness (always measured, however distantly, against the feminine softness of the loyal Tom) through violence against whites or blacks. Omar differs from these legendary figures not simply because he only robs dope dealers who are already robbers, not simply because he has a Robin Hood ethic, and not simply because he has a finely honed sense of justice, but mostly because he "feels" and shows his feelings in a way that the traditional "baad ass nigger" does not. Indeed, he sometimes even flaunts his feelings.

Omar's most emblematic phrase is the question posed repeatedly to any and sundry characters: "You feel me?" Though it simply means "do you understand me?" or, "do you think the same way I do?" more carefully examined it is not just a matter of thinking or understanding, but quite literally an assent to feeling--"do you feel the way I do?" In asking this question, Omar exposes his raw feelings, both to those whose will he wants to influence -- as when looking down the barrel of a gun -- but also in simple conversations with lovers. The question "do you feel me" cannot be separated from his position as a queer man of color in a black community that is particularly homophobic.

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Political scientist Wendy Brown has argued that liberalism as a political doctrine has long functioned as "a modest ethical gap between economy and polity." Melodrama has worked that gap. The end of liberal democracy, to the extent that it has ended, has also meant the closing of this gap: "There is nothing," she writes, "in liberal democracy's basic institutions or values -- from free elections, representative democracy, and individual liberties equally distributed to modest power-sharing, or even more substantive political participation--that inherently meets the test of serving economic competitiveness or inherently withstands a cost-benefit analysis." Neoliberal rationality has hastened the dismantling of democracy in the post-9/11 period. When America fights wars against terror to defend "our way of life," Brown argues, this way of life is less and less understood as classical liberal democracy and more and more as the ability of an "entrepreneurial subject" to maneuver in a world where only market rationality rules. Could this really be what Snot Boogie meant when he said, in the cold open to season 1, episode 1: "It's America, man"? If so, The Wire was prescient. The America of equal opportunity has been reduced to the opportunity to steal.

Brown argues further that for leftists to hold on to the tenants of liberal democracy in the face of their erosion by neoliberalism, is a hopeless exercise of melancholic dependency upon a "lost object." This dependency only enshrines and fixes the lost object -- equal opportunity, guaranteed work, the welfare state -- as if it were the key. It is to over idealize, indeed, to fetishize, the imperfect democratic institutions and values. This is what the white ethnic cops and dockworkers mourn in their long wakes and bar sings in The Wire. The love of "back in the day," is the American dream that was never realized for many minorities and women although the ideology lives on in small ways.

Omar, however, has no nostalgia for "back in the day." He has no liberal democratic illusions. He does not rely on racial injury, or any other kind of injury, to define himself. He has access to institutions but he is not vested in them. He may be the product of a neoliberal rationality that has placed him outside existing institutions of power but it is that very place outside, yet also in between, that he has the freedom to invent himself. Omar may have a fresh moral authority, but for once not because we perceive him as a racial victim. Rather, because he has imagination to challenge or maneuver around all the existing institutions of power. No wonder Obama admires him!

Excerpt from Chapter 6 of On The Wire by Linda Williams (Duke University Press)
"The Wire and the American Melodrama of Black and White"