Citation
Tales of urban decline in black gangster fims and the Wire

Material Information

Title:
Tales of urban decline in black gangster fims and the Wire
Creator:
Davenport, Mark Henry
Publication Date:
Language:
English
Physical Description:
viii, 99 leaves : illustrations ; 28 cm

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Wire (Television program) ( lcsh )
Gangster films -- History and criticism ( lcsh )
Detective and mystery films -- History and criticism ( lcsh )
African Americans in motion pictures ( lcsh )
Inner cities -- On television -- History and criticism ( lcsh )
Genre:
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 96-99).
General Note:
Department of English
Statement of Responsibility:
by Mark Henry Davenport.

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
747028934 ( OCLC )
ocn747028934
Classification:
LD1193.L54 2011m D38 ( lcc )

Full Text
/)
TALES OF URBAN DECLINE IN BLACK GANGSTER FILMS AND THE
WIRE
by
Mark Henry Davenport
B.A., Metro State College of Denver, 2006.
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
English
2011


This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
Mark Henry Davenport
has been approved
Dr. Susan Linville
Ar:l 6 3o t(
Date
Dr. Nancy Ciccone


Davenport, Mark Henry (M.A. Literature)
Tales of Urban Decline in Black Gangster Films and The Wire
Thesis directed by Professor Philip Joseph
Abstract
This thesis explores the riveting HBO series The Wire in the context of other
urban dramas such as black gangster films of the 90s and detective films of the
70s. Through both of those lenses, this project looks primarily to recent
representations of built environments and characters in film and television. In the
former, this thesis focuses on how filmmakers in both the black gangster tradition
and The Wire code urban spaces as hellish war zones plagued by repression and
entrapment. The end result of such coding, according to this thesis, is that filmic
representations of legal and illegal city spaces become indistinguishable. In other
words, legal spaces are ghettoized and ghetto spaces are corporatized in The Wire
and black gangster films. As for the latter, this thesis compares legal figures in
The Wire to detectives in film history. Ultimately, the thesis questions filmic
representations of vigilante detectives and the roles they play in recuperating
police power. While vigilante cops, both past and present, speak to social
insecurities about security and justice, The Wires vigilante police figure falls
victim to the very system he tries to mend. As such, this figure comes to
represent corruption of both 21st century American politics and the modern city.
Vigilante police work, in The Wire, is on par with political deceit in the 21st
century and is an allegory for Americas War with Iraq and Afghanistan. By
examining urban space and the characters that inhabitant this space in modem city
dramas, this thesis concludes by determining how The Wire fits in with other
contemporary tales about urban decline.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis,
recommend its publication.
Signed
Philip Joseph


DEDICATION
I dedicate this thesis to my biological family and to my academic family. To my
father for helping me see the cinematography hidden in the scene, to my mother
for genetically and instructionally instilling within me the desire to solve the
equation and for nurturing/encouraging the incessant curiosity this project
required of me, and to my brother for providing the time, the eyes, and the
knowledge of a fellow teacher of English. To friends, students, colleagues, and
Wire fanatics abound. And finally, I dedicate this thesis to the outstanding faculty
at the University of Colorado at Denver.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
I want to thank Philip Joseph for the incredible amount of time he gave to this
project and for his organizational insights and instruction on more structured
approaches to argumentation. Our discussions about The Wire were most
stimulating, and I will not soon forget how he challenged me to unearth the more
profound questions and to articulate my findings. I also want to thank Susan
Linville for her steadfast patience and reservoir of knowledge, for her
accessibility and eagerness, and for her enthusiastic encouragement and
commitment. And I thank Nancy Ciccone for the enlightening conversations
ranging from Greek Tragedy to American penal systems. I do genuinely want to
express my gratitude for these advisors. They have been exemplary scholars,
exceptional teachers, and admirable role models in general. Without their
tutelage, the following would not have been possible. Additional thanks to Brian
Davenport, Julie Schenk, Brandi Saturley, Jackie Smilack, and Jason Hernanadez
for their time, energy and feedback.


TABLE OF CONTENTS
Images..............................................vii
INTRODUCTION
TALES OF URBAN DECLINE IN BLACK GANGSTER FILMS AND
THE WIRE...................................... 1
CHAPTER
1. THE CORPORATE GHETTO AND THE CRIMINAL STATE:
REPRESENTATIONS OF URBAN SPACE IN THE BLACK
GANGSTER TRADITION AND THE WIRE.....................9
Surveying Surveillance: BoyzN the Hoods Assessment of the
Police State..................................10
Capitalism Vs. Community Policing: New Jack Citys
Reinvigoration of Street Knowledge......... 15
The Wires Thin Line: Diminishing Separations Between
Reputable and Ghetto Space....................22
The Wires Complete Collapse of Legal Space...38
2. THE LAST TRUE DICTATORSHIP IN AMERICA: THE BEAT
COP, VIGILANTE DETECTIVES, AND COMMUNITY POLICING.. 49
A Brief History of the Cop Film...............55
Witnessing the Strnth of Street Knowledge....58
Maybe They Need the Make-Believe: Lying as a Form of
Enforcing Peace...............................64
CONCLUSION
THE GREATER GOOD?: LIES, LAWBREAKING, AND LEGAL
FIGURES IN AMERICAN HISTORY AND CULTURE............79
ENDNOTES.................................................85
FILMOGRAPHY..............................................92
WORKS CITED..............................................96
vi


LIST OF IMAGES
Images
1.1 ....................................................................page 15
1.2 ...................................................................page 15
1.3 ...................................................................page 15
1.4 ...................................................................page 21
1.5 ...................................................................page 21
1.6 ...................................................................page 21
1.7 ...................................................................page 25
1.8 ...................................................................page 25
1.9 ...................................................................page 25
1.10 .....................................................................page 29
1.11 .....................................................................page 29
1.12 .....................................................................page 29
1.13 .....................................................................page 32
1.14 .....................................................................page 32
1.15 .....................................................................page 32
1.16 .....................................................................page 33
1.17 .....................................................................page 33
1.18 .....................................................................page 34
1.19 .....................................................................page 34
1.20 .....................................................................page 34
2.1 ....................................................................page 65
2.2 ...................................................................page 65
vii


2.3 ..............................................................page 65
2.4 ..............................................................page 77
2.5 ..............................................................page 77
2.6 ..............................................................page 77
viii


INTRODUCTION
Tales of Urban Decline in Black Gangster Films and The Wire
In the final season of The Wire, HBOs series about inner-city Baltimore, three of
drug kingpin Mario Stanfields (Jamie Hector) soldiers scope out a drug corner
while discussing the best course of action for seizing the prime real estate for their
boss. It is night, the corner is dark, and the three wait in their Ford Explorer for
an opening to pop off on rival dealers. They want to send a message to other
competing slingers that they have a choice: rivals can either become a subsidy
of the Stanfield operation or can die. One of the three offers a plan: he proposes
that a drive-by is the best way to take the others down and says, Lets go all
West Coast with this.. .drop a mother-fucka and not slow down. Like Boyz N the
Hood. Shit was tight, remember? (5.2). After they blow by the comer, spraying
it down with bullets and missing every target, Snoop (Felicia Pearson) gets out of
the car and shoots a fleeing dealer in the back of the head. Snoop then comments
on the failed operation, saying, Fuck them West Coast niggas. In B-more, we
aim and hit a nigga, ya heard (5.2).
As far as murder scenes go in The Wire, this botched drive-by attempt is a
rare digression into gangster stereotypes. Generally, The Wires murder scenes
are fairly proletarian, non-sensational, and matter-of-fact. Yet there is a call to
reality layered within Snoops dialogue, as her comment calls attention to the
1


intersection of fiction and real life by questioning Boyz N the Hoods (Singleton,
1991) representation of gangster procedures. Intertextual moments of this sort
serve as a litmus test to determine the series likeness with filmic representations
of gang life and the ghetto and the underlying reality that inspires those
representations. This scene suggests both the influence of neo-black gangster
films of the 1990s on The Wire and a claim that the depiction of urban violence
in those films no longer obtains in Baltimore. Wire gangsters, after all, aim to kill
and leave nothing to chance.
Realism is murky water in regards to cinema, and it is not my intent to
debate The Wires realism in this thesis. Its realism is undeniable; the shows
employment of retired,1 real-life gangsters such as Felicia Pearson (Snoop) and
Little Melvin Williams2 (the Deacon), along with its incorporation of Baltimore
history, demonstrate that the series seeks to capture the local reality. This
authenticity is, perhaps, what captivates viewers who watch the series with an
anthropological fascination (Potter and Marshal 9). Viewer fascination is also a
result of The Wires enrapturing capacity to create a world so close to our own
that it urges viewers to question the very principles upon which American society
is founded. But the fact remains: The Wire is fiction and cannot be real. As
Robert Stam and Louise Spence, authors of Colonialism, Racism, and
Representation,3 rightly point out, the emphasis on realism has often betrayed
an exaggerated faith in the possibilities of verisimilitude in art in general and the
2


cinema in particular (752). Following Stam and Spence, I contend here that in
order to make its claim on historical truth, and in order to establish a lasting place
in American culture, The Wire must first define itself in relation to recent fictional
depictions of the American ghetto in film. This thesis examines how the show
extends themes from the black gangster tradition and the genre known as True
Crime journalism en route to presenting a unique version of contemporary urban
reality in America. The Wire offers a new iteration of the black gangster tradition,
giving us a city deprived of heroic characters capable of remedying the effects of
American hyper-capitalism.
As the BoyzN the Hood reference indicates, The Wires treatment of the
inner-city exposes points of contact with other artistic genres and American urban
history to produce a complex criticism of both. Nicole Raftners text Shots in the
Mirror contends that crime films hold up a mirror to society, offering viewers
both a critique of some societal dimension and an escape to adventures of
lawlessness. In a similar way, The Wire provides a mirror in which viewers can
critique the failure of a system characterized by destructive capitalism and the
descent of urban police departments into militarization and into an obsession with
statistics. This fall of the American city is the broader scope of my thesis. The
critical work done by the series positions it as a political tract masquerading as a
cop show, as Simon proclaims.4 But in order to function effectively as a political
tract, the show must contend with black gangster films and True Crime
3


journalism, both of which offer their own critiques of the contemporary American
city.
The first clue that The Wire builds on the aforementioned genres is that, as
John Kraniauskas points out,5 the series is a culmination of David Simon and Ed
Burns previous series Homicide (1993) and The Corner (2000). Initially, the
shows debt to these projects is obscured because the series is firmly grounded in
the 21st century with constant references to 9/11 and George W. Bushs War on
Terror. However, the coding of urban space as hell and the transformation of
police work into soldiering collides with motifs in genres of previous decades
that, likewise, address Reagans War on Drugs. Certain moments in the show
clearly identify how Reagans policies affected police work; for example, when
Major Colvin (Robert Wisdom) tells one of his lieutenants, soldiering and
policing, they aint the same thing, and before we went and took the wrong turn
and started up with these war games, the cop walked a beat, and he learned that
post (3.10). Colvins comment is evidence that the War on Drugs transformed
police work and specifically police interaction with citizens. Similarly, the
ramifications of this alteration are a main source of many representations of police
work and urban living conditions in the black gangster tradition. This approach to
the changes in law enforcement techniques stems from what media and film
scholar S. Craig Watkins terms, the ghettocentric imagination.6 Watkins text
Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema, along with
4


Raftners Shots in the Mirror and Christopher Wilsons Cop Knowledge, informs
a major portion of this thesis.
Watkins text is instrumental in indentifying the various trends and
structures within the black gangster film genre. He argues that black gangster
filmmakers often code ghetto environments as areas of entrapment and repression
and tend to highlight the presence of coercive police technologies such as
surveillance in their films.7 Representing urban space as mutated war zones, films
such as Boyz N the Hood draw out the escalating tension between police and
urban citizens to illustrate how protect and serve has become harass and
brutalize. This representation, in my opinion, also often relies on a hellish
aesthetic, characterized by zombie-like addicts, decimated neighborhoods covered
with bodies and debris, and suffering citizens. The Wire builds upon these war-
like representations present in black gangster films and further portrays how this
kind of environment erodes legal boundaries between the state and the street and
between corporate and criminal cultures.
In addition to representing urban space as a militarized hell, The Wire also
represents urban characters as gangsters that believe drug dealing is simply an
extension of economic principles. The series most economically grounded
gangster, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), says, about the product he is selling, we do
worse and we get paid more, the government do better and don't mean no never
5


mind. This shit right here [drug dealing], D, is forever (1.3). Stringers
identification of the inherent contradictions of supply and demand place him
within a discourse that ascribes drug dealing to capitalism, an attitude present
within gang films and rap culture. Stringers character is a direct descendant of
characters such as Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) in New Jack City (Van Peebles,
1991). New Jack City's finale reinforces the belief that the lethal combination of
business and government is to blame, since the drug trade is truly an unseen
derivative of the way in which law intervenes in capitalism, lifting regulation in
certain realms while prohibiting trades in others. Nino says,
I am not guilty. You are the ones who are guilty. The lawmakers,
the politicians, the Columbian druglords, all you who lobby against
making drugs legal. Just like you did with alcohol during the
prohibition... This thing is bigger than Nino Brown this is big
business. This is the American way.
By equating drug dealing with the American way, Nino incorporates the drug
trade into the countrys economy as big business, legitimizing it as a viable
form of economic entrepreneurship. Despite the obvious dangers with this type of
thinking which I discuss in more detail in the first chapter the argument that
gangs and drug dealing came out of capitalisms gutters is a historical point that
Eric Schneider makes in Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings. The Wire
6


attributes the descent of the American city to economic models that value profit
over human life.
In both black gangster films of the 1990s and The Wire, the descent of the
American city, then, is linked not simply to the drug dealer, but also to capitalism
at large. All of these narratives, set in the American inner city, tell the story of
this descent by emphasizing the complete collapse of boundaries that separate
official and ghetto space. The end result is that the entire modern city becomes a
symptom of a criminal hyper-capitalist society that makes war with the
underclass.9 In my first chapter, I focus on the collapse of conventional
divisions marking off the inner city from areas of the city associated with
corporate capitalism and the state. My argument here is that The Wire continues
the presentation of urban space offered up in recent black gangster films.
In my second chapter, I turn my focus from setting to character and look
more closely at police in the black gangster tradition and The Wire, the vigilante
cop in particular. While I do discuss character as it pertains to the urban
environment in the first chapter, the second chapter is exclusively a character
study on vigilante police in film history, True Crime, the black gangster tradition,
and The Wire. In, Cop Knowledge: Police Power and Cultural Narrative in the
Twentieth Century, Christopher Wilson details how the genre of True Crime has a
tendency to depict police as hard-bitten-knights of the city.10 These knightly
7


detectives are typically pitted against administrators and departments that have
become overrun by efficiency measurements, such as clearance rates. True Crime
identifies this shift in police work, positioning the vigilante cop in opposition to it.
Similarly, Detective McNulty (Dominick West), one of the protagonists of The
Wire, repeatedly says, the numbers destroyed this department. Yet the series is
hesitant to always align itself with McNultys critical and rebellious ways.
Whereas True Crime and black gangster films often treat the vigilante cop as a
figure capable of redeeming the city, The Wire presents him as symptomatic of
the lawless city in decline.
In the pages that follow, I will attempt to explain how The Wire tweaks
black gangster and True Crime conventions to critique Reagan era hyper-
capitalism and the War on Drugs. Although relocated in the 21st century within
the unrest of Americas wars with Iraq and Afghanistan The Wire echoes central
tenets of True Crime and black gangster film discourse, extending critiques of the
police department, crime, and urban space into the new century.
END NOTES
8


CHAPTER 1
The Corporate Ghetto and the Criminal State: Representations of Urban
Space in the Black Gangster Tradition and The Wire
The following chapter explores the representations of urban space, drug dealers,
and police in black gangster films and the groundbreaking HBO series, The Wire.
Beginning with Boyz N the Hood (Singleton 1991), moving into New Jack City
(Van Peebles 1991), and finishing with The Wire (2002-2008), I will argue that
The Wire builds upon black gangster film tropes, reinforcing the concept that
Reagan era hyper-capitalism is responsible for the decline of urban space. While
most black gangster films depict the urban ghetto as an area of entrapment or
repression,1 they also disconnect ghetto criminality from class demographics and
race, reversing monolithic stereotypes of unlawful hoods by coupling them with
legitimate characters. Boyz N the Hood and New Jack City communicate similar
messages about the presence of surveillance and the nature of criminality: the true
criminals are state and corporate institutions. The Wire similarly resists basic
divisions between ghetto and official space to offer a vision in which
conventional distinctions between spaces of law and lawlessness break down.
Boyz N the Hood's, New Jack City's, and The Wire's roots are firmly grounded in
a discourse that attributes urban decay to Reagans economic and social policies.
9


Surveying Surveillance: BoyzN the Hood's Assessment of the Police State
While critic Jacquie Jones contends that this new homeboy cinema is only a
modification of sensationalist Hollywood formulae (33) and does not provoke,
politicize, or reconstruct American iconography (43) as poignantly as rap music
does,3 black gangster films do not always shy away from politicizing messages
and from challenging mainstream explanations for urban crime in post-Reagan era
America. A film like Boyz N the Hood critiques modem American existence by
displaying the effect of surveillance and of the police state on suffering citizens
who struggle within these hellish environments. In this way, the film directly
rebuts reality based, docu-cop programming such as Cops that promote the false
appearance of police presence through effective police work.4 By doing so,
Boyz looks beyond stereotypical depictions of homeboys and cops and beyond
Manichean representations of bad ghetto citizens and good police.
Using Boyz as my example, I will argue at the beginning of this chapter
that black gangster films of the 1990s sometimes criminalize the very act of
surveillance, thus blurring the boundaries between lawmen and criminals. These
films are not always simple sensationalism; they reconstruct the ghetto landscape
from the insiders perspective, providing an aesthetic that redeems normally
demonized citizens. Film and media Scholar S. Craig Watkins uses the term the
10


ghettocentric imagination to describe the creative yet aggressive youth
discourse that informs hip-hop culture, rap, and black gangster films, a culture
that ineluctably centers on state surveillance. He writes,
the ghettocentric imagination also produces representations of the
urban ghetto as a theater for state coercion and militarization. The
critique of postindustrial life, in this instance, is a direct reference
to the surveillance operations that deploy coercive technologies
against ghetto communities as a means of exercising greater
control. (Watkins 215).
Meditations from within the ghettocentric imagination produce a variety of black
gangster film that critiques state surveillance operations which purportedly make
the city a safer place. In other words, a film like Boyz N the Hood turns the tables
and offers a kind of surveillance of the criminal state.
Filmmakers within the black gangster tradition frequently create their
settings by accenting police surveillance technologies within the diegetic
soundtrack.5 For example, in Boyz N the Hood a dominant motif structuring the
representation of space is the selection of offscreen space associated with the
coercive technologies of the state police sirens, helicopters, and other
surveillance mechanisms (Watkins 217). The reverberations of state surveillance
inundate the setting of Boyz, and this motif echoes throughout the tradition, filling
11


the sonic space of urban settings with police surveillance technologies. Given
the potentially redeeming qualities of the films main characters, the diegetic
contrast provides a space in which the film can critique the criminal-like
intrusions of the state.
Watkins argues that in Boyz, the government falsely criminalizes its
citizens when Singleton combines the war-like off-screen space with shots of
blacks engaged in non-threatening acts (217). By doing so, the film participates
in the ghettocentric imaginations critique of surveillance efficacy by asking who
is the real criminal: the state or its citizens? The most blatant depiction of false
criminalization in Boyz a moment that Watkins does not touch on is when Tre
(Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Brandy (Nia Long) are losing their virginities to one
another with the ambience of helicopters and sirens in the background. The film
treats this moment as pure until the penetrating spotlight from a helicopter
profanes the act, repeatedly passing over their embracing bodies. Boyz account
of state surveillance, thus, is that it intrudes upon intimate and sacred moments,
regardless of innocence and guilt.
Although this moment occurs relatively late in the film, false
criminalization of black citizens is part of Boyz message from the onset, and it
revolves around childrenss point of view on surveillance. This adolescent
viewpoint is in part how the film accentuates the obtrusive nature of police
12


technologies and the effects it has upon urban citizens, even the youth. Normally
black gangster films such as Straight Out of Brooklyn (Rich, 1991), New Jack
City, Juice (Dickerson, 1992), and Menace II Society (Albert and Allen Hughes,
1993) open with either helicopter shots or wide shots of the city perspectives
typically privileged to legal officials. Whether intentionally or not, these
perspectives tend to place the films characters in a criminal light, although each
film varies in its exploration of criminality.6 Boyz does not provide this standard
aerial shot, but instead begins with a tilt shot of an airplane in the sky, moving
down to a stop sign, and then shifting into a ground-level odyssey of ghetto
kids lives.7 Beginning his gritty city-saga with children, Singleton collocates the
innocence of this urban space with images of surveillance and murder to infer
once again a complicity not of the young residents of the urban space, but rather
of the coercive presence of the police.
Furthermore, the tilt shot initiates a youthful critique for the story:
adolescence filters the narrative, and these kids reaction to a picture of President
Reagan broadens the critique to the federal level. Boyz blames former President
Ronald Reagan for reducing the ghetto to an impoverished warzone by integrating
his profile within the mise-en-scene of the opening street scene. Following the tilt
shot down from the sky, the camera follows the kids as they revisit an old crime
scene. Once the kids approach the alley, the camera moves into a series of close-
up shots of weathered, Reagan reelection posters. Non-diegetic, gun-shot sound-
13


effects match the series of close-ups on Reagan, providing the bullet holes in his
head with corresponding western shootout noises (image 1.1). Emphasizing the
films contempt for Reagan further, one of the kids walks up to the poster and
gives the President the finger. Reagans impact on the nature of policing and the
quality of urban existence is the result of his War on Drugs, among other forms of
n
legislature, and thus he is the likely recipient of the ghettos scorn. This opening
scene suggests that both urban crime committed by black youth and the
surveillance of these youths by the state are the fault of a criminal cowboy
president who serves classes that reside in other areas of the city.
Despite this atypical introduction, the film does call attention to
conventional surveillance shots of the city in its opening sequences, but once
again filters these setting shots through an adolescent lens. Following these kids
exploration of the old crime scene, the film moves into their classroom, and
Singleton emphasizes the elementary illustrations on the classroom wall. These
crayon drawings depict the harsh realities of urban existence images that include
helicopters, cops, and dead bodies (image 1.2/1.3). In Boyz, pictures of
interrogative police, terrified citizens, and ghetto birds replace typical
classroom drawings of families, flowers, or love. These sketchy representations
of urban police surveillance reinforce Boyz criminalization of the state by
exhibiting how ghetto imaginations swarm with police presence. The same
oppressive gaze that monitors the streets taints urban classroom space.
14


Ultimately, what Singleton does in this introduction is to make the black
gangster film contemporary, providing commentary about the cause of criminality
and poverty during the 1980s and early 1990s. The opening sequence
contextualizes urban poverty within Reagans War on Drugs, and, paired with the
stop sign the film opens with, provides a street-level request for the War to end.
Boyz use of sonic space/diegetic sound, its underscoring of politics and history,
and its identification of police presence make the film an essential starting point
to discuss filmic representations of urban space and the relationship between
citizens, criminals, and cops. It is also a significant contrast to films, such as New
Jack City, that choose to prioritize citizen guilt over innocence. Nonetheless,
Boyz criminalizes the state by depicting this era in American history as the nadir
of urban existence, where surveillance is destructive and ever-present.
image 1.1 Reagan's rcelccticm image 1.2 Police presence image 1.3 State surveillance
Capitalism vs. Community Policing: New Jack City's Reinvigoration of
Street Knowledge
New Jack City another gangster film from 1991 elects to focus on the feuds
between detectives and dealers rather than the hardships of ghetto youths. Like
15


Boyz, the film also incriminates Reagan, but in doing so, it likewise criminalizes
urban citizens that mirror his neoliberal mentality. Rather than depicting citizens
as innocent and cops as abusive,9 New Jack City operates on the presumption that
everyone is guilty, having already been corrupted by hyper-capitalism. In Van
Peebles rendition of urban crime, police are good (vigilante police, that is),
criminals are bad, citizens are stuck, and market-driven philosophies destroy the
lower class and their habitats. But unlike Boyz's attention to police oppression,
New Jack City aims its critique at capitalism, yet both films connect these issues
to Reagan. In New Jack City, the ghetto offers a hell-like reflection of the
corporate capitalism that orders affluent parts of the city. The result is that the
state is criminal in Boyz, the ghetto corporate in New Jack City.
New Jack City echoes Boyz resentment towards Reagan but does so by
showing the excess of capitalism via destructive characters and by depicting the
citys underbelly as hell as a result of the influence of such characters. The films
antagonist the flashy-fresh, charismatic and cutthroat drug kingpin, Nino Brown
- proclaims, You have to rob to get rich in the Reagan era. Ninos assertion,
according to Mark Winokur, is a confession that American politics and drug
sales inhabit the same aesthetic universe (26), and it demonstrates how both
conterminously order urban space.10 Winokur goes on to say, behind Ninos
moralizing apologia is the ironic detachment of the authorial voice suggesting that
Nino is like Ronald Reagan (26). By conflating the murderous, money-
16


gluttonous ways of Nino Brown with Reagan, Van Peebles exposes the cause of
poverty in decimated urban environments: private enterprise, open markets, and
entrepreneurial attitudes that trump morality and ethics.
Although it takes some time to establish that Nino represents neoliberal
ideals in the film, Van Peebles sound design and establishing shots begin the
work of sorting out guilt and innocence within the city. The opening helicopter
shots of the city contain voice-over news stories about rising unemployment rates
and city-crime, and the aerial shots cover the most iconic, burgeoning, American
metropolis and its economic mainframe New York City. Coming from
reputable journalists reporting on the way things really are, the blanketing of these
news stories over helicopter shots implies that the city is laden with crime. But it
is not until the camera stops at a bridge to watch Nino Brown drop a negligent -
and white business partner into the water that the opening truly recommends
that surveillance of the entire capitalist system is necessary. The bridge,
furthermore, functions as a visual metaphor, connecting criminal behavior with
the legitimate city. After this murder scene, Van Peebles moves closer into
poorer neighborhoods to emphasize the similarities between the two supposedly
separate worlds. Legal and illicit worlds are at once bridged in this scene, and the
patchwork of crime stories of which Ninos fresh murder becomes a part calls
for a solution to urban crime: street knowledge.
17


NJC does not stop at blaming the hoodwinked dealer and his misdirected
theories as the sole cause for urban strife; it also implicates the larger community
for letting the city become a corporate hive of crime and violence. Paired with the
succession of tragic news stories that the film layers on top of helicopter shots, the
films opening track also calls attention to the need for change. After the Warner
Bros title card, a vocalist on a Queen Latifah rap track bellows, Yo, you are
about to witness the strenth of street knowledge. The first impression of street
knowledge is that the following story will be of a savvy, rags-to-riches character
who transcends economic constraints with ingenuity and hard work. Van Peebles
invokes this tradition by framing the Statue of Liberty within the first aerial shot.
Additionally, since many viewers and critics consider black gangsters as modern
day counterparts to Horatio Alger-like classic gangsters,11 or even as pastiches
of Tony Camonte,12 the American Dream mythos should already be present.
Van Peebles runs the risk, therefore, that his gangster character will be
romanticized by viewing audiences despite the inherent critique,13 just as The
Godfather was enormously popular to viewers even though Coppola offered the
Corleones as an extended metaphor for the ruthless and predatory aspects of
capitalist America (Papke 3). In an attempt to avoid this misinterpretation, NJC
goes about disassembling unethical characters that champion Americas business
ethic by showing how true street knowledge is actually an awareness of the
destruction that drug dealing and business-driven economic philosophies cause.
18


By the end of the film, Nino has brought death to everyone around him: his family
and friends included.
While NJC's urban metropolis buzzes with criminal activity and
commerce, the ghetto appears to be a corporate, hellish reflection as a result of the
drug trade. After the aerial shots of downtown New York, the film moves closer
into impoverished parts of town, tightening up on sets of dilapidated, low-income
apartments. Then a long take begins with a tilt shot that moves down the face of a
building that contains a mural. The mural relays a biblical verse from Corinthians
6:9 and details what type of evil people including idolators will not inherit
the kingdom of God. Underneath the quotation, two lightning bolts separate the
prophetic words and extend downwards into depraved ghetto space, indicating the
hood is being struck down for immoral action. This establishing shot binds
ignorance with immorality, implying false idols such as capital accumulation,
commodities, and drugs mislead citizens. Hence, ghetto space in NJC takes on a
hellish tone by the insertion of apocalyptic scripture followed by fitting imagery,
such as starving citizens fighting around a fire-in-a-barrel. These conditions are
typical of a hyper-capitalist city-in-decline.
Although this mural encapsulates the films major themes, more direct
correlations between Nino and the hell he creates surface further along in the film.
When Ninos power and criminal behavior worsen the already mediocre quality
19


of life for citizens, Detective Appleton (Ice T) starts to build a case. His case is
built around the rehabilitated drug addict, Pooky (Chris Rock), who commits to
go undercover to infiltrate the CMBs (Cash Money Brothas) headquarters, which
is set up at the Carter housing projects. At the midpoint of their investigation,
Pooky explains, Nino has the whole place hooked up like Mission Impossible.
Yo, walking through that courtyard is like walking through a nightmare; its like a
nation of zombies. Pookys comment expresses how Ninos corporate operation
dovetails with a nightmarish existence for Carter inhabitants. In other words,
Ninos economic headquarters has transformed the city into a living hell.
The effect of economically-inspired drug consortiums on the city is most
salient when Van Peebles juxtaposes Ninos profile with aerial shots of city
buildings, the Carter Apartments in particular. The first major plot-point in NJC
is when Nino and his gang (the CMB) decide to take over the Carter from
competing dealers. During the devising of this plan, a close-up shot of Nino
picking up a bottle of crack is cut with a close-up of his profile while he brings
the bottle closer to his face to examine the product. He says, Damn. Crack,
verbally acknowledging the to-be power of the benign-looking white powder.
After this comment, a slow cross dissolve blends Ninos face and the crack bottle
with an aerial shot of the Carter Apartments (images 1.4/1.5/1.6). This visual
combination is the most literal available to film: drug dealers and their corporate
frames of mind destroy urban space.
20


Despite these blatant messages about immorality and ignorance, Jacquie
Jones argues that NJCs representation of the ghetto limits its capability to
convey inner-city struggle accurately. Jones insists, U[NJC\ suggests that the
problem with communities plagued by drugs and crime is that the residents are
either dealers, users or complicit bystanders all unwilling or unable to help
themselves (34). Jones argument does not consider the films conclusion. As I
will discuss in more detail in the second chapter, it is a vigilante resident of the
ghetto that ultimately redeems the city. Additionally, Detective Appletons
efforts that get Nino into the courtroom are done outside of the departments
knowledge, so he is actually a civilian during much of his police work. NJC
might seem to reify ghetto stereotypes, whereas Boyz breaks them down, but the
film actually problematizes this characterization by integrating the drug dealer
with the President, thus commenting on Reagan-era history. Moreover, the
complicit bystanders, as Jones would have it, are in fact both residents and
heroes: a civilian and an unsanctioned, undercover, vigilante detective return the
city to some semblance of law and order.
21


Both Boyz and NJC provide essential portraits of criminality and urban
space to commence the discussion of The Wire's, representation of inner-city
struggle. While one operates under the assumption of unseen innocence and the
other of inherent guilt, and while one portrays vigilantism as futile and the other
embraces it,14 both visions of urban space distribute criminality to areas of the city
often considered immune to it. Ultimately, both films function to educate: NJC
treats the black gangster film as an education against the perils of capitalist
ideology, and Boyz treats its tragedy as an education against the shortcomings of
state institutions. While urban space is a hellish vortex of criminality in both
films, the criminalization of the ghetto is redistributed, incriminating both state
and corporate institutions.
The Wires Thin Line: Diminishing Separations Between Reputable and
Ghetto Space
Characters in The Wire are aware of the flimsy divisions that separate one urban
world from another. During a political fundraiser, Major Burrell (Frankie Faison)
tells Lieutenant Daniels (Lance Reddick), well, you're not wrong lieutenant. In
this state, there's a thin line between campaign posters and photo arrays (1.7).
Burrells statement is a concession that politicians and criminals are not so
different. In a previous episode, criminal informant and self-proclaimed game
specialist/heroin user Bubbles (Andre Arroyo) motions to his home on the street
22


and tells McNulty there is a thin line between heaven and here (1.4). Bubbles
comment is of course made sarcastically as he implies the opposite: his home is
hell. Yet Bubbless adjacency to heaven can also be seen in the deadly risks of
living in the ghetto, with the constant reminders of the impending afterlife. These
moments in The Wire call attention to how the legal world and the criminal world,
the utopic and dystopic, are merging and colliding.
The following section explores further the collapse of divisions through
the workspaces of detectives, dealers, politicians, and lawyers. The Wire, like
films in the black gangster tradition, treats the entire city as a space of criminality,
further eroding power and moral hierarchies that once existed between dealers
and detectives. Drawing upon the ghettocentric imagination of the previous
decade, the series handles the entire modern city as an area of entrapment and
repression that is constantly under surveillance. In The Wire, the arrangement of
the mise-en-scene, the placement of characters amidst city architectures, the
creation of uncanny15 living quarters, and the emphasis on characters power or
lack thereof within these environments displays the deterioration of dividing
lines and conflation of procedures between detectives and dealers, between state
and street.
The Wire accomplishes this even distribution of feelings of entrapment
and repression first by illustrating the universality of surveillance. Whereas Boyz
23


depicts ghetto residents as the exclusive victims of state surveillance, The Wire
stresses how police officials are under surveillance as much as drug dealers. For
example, in the first episode, there are numerous surveillance shots of police
(images 1.7, 1.8, 1.9) and not a single one of dealers. And although these
instances technically involve police watching police, there are several moments
where drug dealers use surveillance technology to monitor the police as well. In
The Pager (1.5), during a stakeout of the Barksdale headquarters, Detective
Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) says, what kind of strip joint has a video camera
looking out? This very security camera is the one by which Avon watches swat
teams surround the strip club in Cleaning Up (1.12) when he says, look at
these Delta Force motherfuckers. Both of these moments convey how, like the
police department, the drug-dealing subculture employs similar surveillance
techniques. The Wires aesthetic consists of constant surveillance, and these
cameras within the mise-en-scene urge viewers to consider the series narrative as
pieces of intel or evidence on a deteriorating system, a society in decline.
image 1.7- 1.1 Bunk & McNulty image i.8- Rawls & I'orresler image 1.9- .McNulty at FBI
24


By highlighting the universality of surveillance, The Wire treats police and
dealers simultaneously as the perpetrators and victims of surveillance. Not all
critics agree with that premise, however. In The Lost Boys of Baltimore: Beauty
and Desire in the Hood, James Williams contends that the instruments of police
surveillance (CCTV camera, telephoto lens) make the black figures.. .an object of
the camera's obsessive, almost voyeuristic gaze" (59). Williams argues that this
constant watching produces an eroticization of the hood, an argument that rests
upon Laura Mulveys theories in Visual Pleasure in the Narrative Film.16 The
gaze in The Wire is more complicated than Williams suggests for the show
emphasizes the presence of surveillance everywhere even beyond the police
precinct and the Pit, the courtyard space in the low-rise projects. In this way, The
Wires world is constantly under the voyeuristic watch of some recording device.
By Williams line of reasoning, The Wire produces an eroticization of state
officials as well, since the panoptic gaze of the state also makes legal officials the
subject of its incessant gaze.
The Wire creators code both dealer and police workplaces as areas of
entrapment and repression by emphasizing the universality of surveillance. These
spaces, furthermore, become mirrors of one another, blending legal and illegal
worlds by connecting drug dealing to politics and capitalism, and most
importantly, to war-strategy and hierarchies. Another result of the citys
transformation into a war zone is that both workspaces become uncanny doubles
25


that strive to be home-like. The framing of shots, the elements within the mise-
en-scene, and the cinematography all help to transmit how war mentality and
capitalism corrupt street and legal spaces alike.
The courtyard space of the Pit revolves around a recently discharged felon,
DAngelo Barksdale (Larry Guillard Jr.), a dealer who progressively grapples
with his place in the system. Housing complexes surround the Pits aptly titled
square courtyard, harboring addicts and dealers alike and shielding them to some
extent from the police. There are competing images that indicate the presence of
a community within the drug dealing sub culture nexus: people sit on their
porches and talk while others play music out of their windows. A couch rests in
the middle of the space. However, despite these images, and despite the amount
of time D and the others spend in the Pit, its sense of homeliness and
community is deceptive; it still is an area of entrapment since, as D laments, you
just grow up in this shit (episode 1.13). Discussions within the Pit about dealing
reveal that the seemingly autonomous space of the Pit is spawn of military
hierarchies and capitalist philosophy, and thus, inhabitants can either participate
in the game or die.
Much of the camerawork in the Pit speciously indicates freedom. Most of
the shots are ground level and are either handheld or steadicam camerawork. For
example, the first shot of D entering the Pit is a scanning, 360-degree, steadicam
26


shot that finishes from the perspective of the upwardly mobile and militant Bodie
(J.D. Williams). This shot matches those of Strike (Mekhi Phifer) clocking in
Spike Lees film Clockers (1995) a film Simon openly admits borrowing from17
- and similarly gives the sense of vision and intimacy. However, despite these
deceptive techniques that imply mobility, the final shot of the Pit in season 1,
episode 1 along with repeated reminders of the confinement visited upon Pit
residents ends up trumping the camera movement.
The final shot of the Pit (image 1.10) in its first sequence is from a rooftop
and through a fence, and thus gives the sense that the city imprisons its citizens.
Additionally, the final crane shot of DAngelo walking away from a crime scene
in The Target (1.1) pays homage to Straight Out of Brooklyn, builds upon
ghettocentric imagination motifs, and thus conveys a sense of paralysis and a lack
of mobility (image 1.11). These choices strengthen The Wires relationship to the
black gangster traditions notions of entrapment and repression. So too does a
conversation between DAngelo and Stringer that is set in the Pit. This
conversation reinforces both the managerial arrangement of Pit activity and the
immobility of poor ghetto citizens:
Stringer
27


You tell them you not happy with what they fucking pass as work
down here. And when you not happy then they aint getting paid,
feel me?
DAngelo
Yeah, but String, man, if you dont pay a nigga he aint gonna work
for you.
Stringer
What you think a nigga is gonna get a job? (laughs) You think
these niggas gonna be like, fuck it, let me quit this game here and
go to college? Nah, they gonna buck a little, but they not gonna
walk. And in the end, you gonna get respect.
The fact that none of these kids can quit the game and go to college ensures
their enslavement to dealing drugs. This scene showcases how low-level child
dealers are stuck in entangled worlds of crime, how poverty checkmates them
before they can even move. DAngelos final response confirms this reality; he
says, Damn. You know how to play a nigga into a comer, String. Economic
mobility, or the lack thereof, determines the profession of these ghetto citizens,
and thus urban neighborhoods become stifling areas of struggle where people are
caged in convoluted drug worlds (image 1.11).
28


Just as capitalism entraps these low-level dealers, so too detectives appear
to be ghettoized in their workspaces. After McNulty talks to the judge and gets
the detail, the special unit sets up in the courthouse basement. The first image
of the detectives entering the basement forebodes disaster (image 1.12): the
majority of the frame is black, and the detectives pause hesitantly before entering,
as if penitently approaching a hellish underworld. To further emphasize the
spaces immuring essence, low-key lighting gives it a dull, dark, and stale aura.
Both the Pit and the special detail in the bowels of the courthouse share similar
feelings of imprisonment feelings constructed through light, space, and framing
that gives the sense of fixidity.
In addition to being captive spaces, both the polices workspace and the
Pit have home-like essences and contain homemakers people who coddle up-
and-coming, young players/police by instructing them with the procedures of the
profession. For the detectives, it is Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), the cuddley
house-cat (1.2) turned ace detective, who constantly fills the basements with his
miniature furniture and wisdom. While he schools the other detectives Pres
29


(Jim True-Frost) in particular he furnishes the space with dollhouse furniture, a
habit he acquired while policing in the pawnshop unit for thirteen years.
Although the stripper turned informant, Shardine (Wendy Grantham) thinks it is
kind of sad (1.9) that Lester does not have a house for his furniture, it is the
reality of police work in The Wire your job is your home. Both the out-of-place
sofa in the Pit and the household furniture miniatures in the basement give The
Wire aesthetic an uncanny essence. And just as the home of the Pit gets shattered
by the capitalist values of the Barksdale organization, so too does the home of
the detail become a site of criminality. Normally police would not think twice
about arresting a murderer, but McNulty asks Lester, Are we still cops?(1.8)
after they let Omar (Michael K. Williams) go while knowing he killed Stinkum
(Brandon Price). Due to the extraordinary situation of the detail, and the stakes of
the sophisticated war going on between the detectives and the Barksdale
organization, rules are broken, thus demonstrating that police space is susceptible
to criminality.
On the street side, DAngelo orchestrates and explains the Pits
procedures, many of which show an influx of corporate structure and hierarchy,
while the young dealers struggle to create a home like space. As the couch turns
the courtyard into an outdoor living room, D schools the other dealers on the
game, offering them a basic understanding about their roles through chess
analogies (image 1.11) a popular motif in black gangster films such as Fresh
30


(Yakin, 1994).19 During this conversation, the hierarchical structure of the drug
world becomes apparent. Furthermore, since Bodie and Wallace (Michael B.
Jordan) are playing checkers on a chess set, this moment is symbolic of the
fundamental connection between drug dealing and capitalism as voiced by the
ghettocentric imagination; lower class citizens are playing an illegal game with
economic rules that have already been put in place. In other words, they are
playing the game slightly differently but are using the same boards and pieces.
In another discussion, Wallace and Poot (Tray Chaney) argue about how
rich the inventor of the chicken McNugget must be until D quickly corrects their
misunderstanding. He insists that while the owner is making bank, the inventor
is locked in the basement a basement clearly parallel to the police detail, since
real police work is kept hidden in the basement, while Commissioners and
Deputies pose for pictures with dope on the table. He goes on further to say,
Its not about right; its about money, when one of his pupils questions the
logic. This conversation immediately displays the hierarchy that exists between
themselves and their CEOs Stringer and Avon. It implies that D, Wallace, and
Poot are mid-level hoppers who simply do the dirty work while others capitalize.
This scene is an exposition of the labor hierarchy in a hyper-capitalist economy:
drug dealing, like policing, is a blue-collar profession for most. The shot of the
McNugget conversation through clotheslines (image 1.13) reinforces that the Pit
is a working-class space.
31


This type of professional questioning is also typical for the police in the
series. While DAngelo and his crew question the game, the detectives
constantly complain about chain of command and the stats game. During one
such conversation, the detectives discuss how they can keep parts of their case a
secret so that Major Rawls does not close the case down to get quick clearances.
It is against the backdrop of a legal building that this secretive conversation
about subverting chain of command takes on an illegal nature. In addition to
competing images of official architecture and illegal behavior, a telephoto shot of
this conversation adds a surveillance-like texture, while also introducing concepts
of war strategy and hierarchy. This shot passes through a chess match, which
connects evasive police work with Pit labor (image 1.17), rendering the two
worlds as indistinguishable. United by chess analogies and rule breaking
behavior, the Pit dealers and detectives use one anothers methods to survive
within their economically and criminally stratified worlds. The voyeuristic gaze,
in this scene, is intently focused on criminal police behavior, calling attention to
the polices exterior placement in relation to the states legal system and their
32


buildings/territory. It is through the proximity of legal buildings that the third
season fully reverses normal associations of legality and criminality by
connecting drug dealing with the political realm.
image 1.16 Clandestine conversation image 1.17-Chess motif
Just as NJC hitches criminal behavior to Reagan and his economic
policies, the creators of The Wire pair political and drug dealing operations by
positioning illegal conversations within the shadows of legal architectures. In
Dead Soldiers (3.3), East-Side drug Mafioso, Proposition Joe (Robert Chew)
and Stringer meet under the portico across from City Hall (image 1.20). Prop Joe
tells Stringer about how detectives recently blew a wiretap, and the two discuss
ways to keep their businesses concealed. This conversation directly mirrors the
previously discussed conversation in front of City Hall that occurred between the
detectives in season one. The legal building both illuminates legal exclusivity and
gives credence to these dealers discussion. It legalizes the illicit subculture in an
indirect way: the building suffuses into the conversation, officializing it by sheer
placement.
33


image 1.18 Levy and Stringer image 1.19 Stringer image 1.20 Prop. Joe & Stringer
In a scene that achieves a similar purpose towards the end of the third
season, Stringer meets with Levy (Michael Kolstroff), his lawyer, after his
attempts to legitimize his career through real-estate ventures fail. In
Reformation (3.10), Levy, who is on the Barksdale payroll, laughs at Stringer
and says that the slimy politician, Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who was born
with his hand in someone elses pocket, rain paid Stringer. This scene
reverses stereotypical, moral alignments by portraying the street as vulnerable to
the states criminality. That is, by juxtaposing Stingers profile with the capital,
the frame suggests that the drug dealer only becomes criminal when he enters into
business with the state. For this reason, this scene functions similarly to moments
in Boyz that offer evidence that the state is criminal. The scenes composition,
furthermore, matches Stringers exclusion from the legitimate business world; the
darkness of the corridor envelops him and leaves Levy in the light, like the
Capital building (image 1.18). The collision of street and state legal and illegal
- worlds in this scene reveals the irony of politics and economics. At this
34


moment, it is difficult to distinguish between spaces, as criminality permeates
both.
This scene illustrates the reciprocity between politics and street mentalities
by blending images of illegality and legality. This shot recalls a sequence in
Hitchcocks Strangers on a Train (1951) when Bruno (Robert Walker), an
implicitly homosexual character, is juxtaposed with the Jefferson Memorial. Film
critic Robert J. Corber notes,
Although Bruno is dwarfed by the memorials massive columns
and seemingly endless rows of steps, the stark contrast between his
dark silhouette and the gleaming white marble makes the
government appear vulnerable and unprotected. (72).
At first glance, government vulnerability is the common ground between these
scenes. But after a closer look, The Wire flips Strangers' power arrangement on
its head, displaying the equal size and, thus, equal amount of criminality of the
state and the criminal. Stringers vulnerability to Clay Davis, and the state he
represents, reinforces the victimization of lower-class citizens to intangible
systems of politics and economy. The irony in this juxtaposition is that
criminality comprises as much of the Capital as the dark underbelly of
illegitimate commerce since Clay Davis is the greater criminal in this scene. The
next level of irony is that the government pursues and punishes the street for
35


simply mirroring the social model of the state, namely breaking laws at leisure for
economic gain.
In the same way Nino Brown represents Reagans policies, Stringer is
connected to neo-liberal ideals even beyond scenes that combine his image with
legal architectures. It is, after all, the living space of the dealer that yields clues
that connect drug enterprises with capitalism. While McNulty and Bunk
(Wendell Pierce) are searching Stringers apartment, McNulty pulls The Wealth of
Nations off of the shelf. McNulty then says, who the fuck was I chasing,
expressing bewilderment at Stringers atypical living quarters and anomalistic
approach to drug dealing through economics (unusual at least in respect to other
soldier-like dealers in The Wire, such as his partner Avon). Bell, who was a
capitalist in the truest sense and who, McNulty finds out in the first season,
attends economics classes regularly, dies because of his misplaced faith in
business.
In the scene preceding Stringers murder, Stringer confirms that it is
always business and never personal in response to Avons inquiry. Nino tells
detective Appleton the very same thing in NJC. Both of these scenes are on
rooftops overlooking the city, and both involve characters that lost loved ones to
avarice and an obsession with capital acquisition (Appletons mother and Avons
nephew D). The similarities between these scenes settings, compositions, and
36


dialogue suggests that The Wire retells this scene, but substitutes a conversation
between best friends for one between an undercover detective and dealer. This
arrangement further gets at capitalisms capacity to destroy human relations.
Stringers real-estate investment buildings serve as a final statement on
economically minded drug dealers for the series. These buildings function as
caskets to Stringers murdered body, as he dies in one of his undeveloped B&B
properties (B&B stands for Barksdale and Bell). In We aint got no yard:
Crime, Devolopment, and Urban Environment, scholar Peter Clandfield writes,
The Wire pays tribute to Poe by developing its own distinctive form of structural
or architectural uncanniness (41). Bells murder is a form of structural
uncanniness in that what is supposed to provide a home for Baltimore citizens,
houses the death of an upwardly mobile, capitalist-minded criminal. Yet this
death also symbolizes the failure of black dealers to gentrify. The contradiction,
of course, is that the capital houses criminals such as Clay Davis, whereas living
drug dealers can find no place of residence in the more affluent areas of the city.
To complete the reversal of legal and illegal spaces, The Wire presents
several street courts that get verdicts right, whereas the three longer trials in the
series all get the verdicts wrong. First by illustrating how The Wire degrades and
profanes official legal space and then by looking at three different shadow
courts, I will be concluding this chapter by explaining how these street trials
37


adhere to courtroom drama conventions and existing as such, help to create a
world where legal and illegal spheres are not separate.
The Wire's Complete Collapse of Legal Space
In courtroom dramas and police procedurals, exterior establishing shots of
downtown buildings delineate legal zones. After the first episodes opening
crime scene, the narrative moves from the opening credits to the interior of the
courtroom where DAngelo Barksdale is on trial for murder. While his
movement is typical both of courtroom drama and police procedural fare -
courthouses or precincts eventually follow crimes their exterior architectures are
usually the initial establishing shots. In a vital study of the technical makeup of
courtroom dramas titled, Patterns of Courtroom Justice, Jessica Silbey identifies
structures present in the trial film genre and argues that the space of the
courthouse and courtroom... signify legal processes and laws promise of justice
(97). If courthouses represent laws promise of justice, The Wire, by refusing to
provide the signifier of the exterior courthouse, suggests that justice is homeless.
When the classic introductory exterior shots do finally appear in the first episode,
they follow the trial in a silent montage but are of random downtown buildings
not of the courthouse.20 From the onset, The Wire refuses to mark off the
courtroom as exceptional legal space within the larger urban landscape, and the
absence of these visual icons signifies a disruption in the pattern of justice.
38


In the same way courtroom dramas demarcate law visually, police
procedurals similarly segregate law enforcement spaces, usually with distinct
exterior building establishing shots. The seminal police procedural film, The
Naked City (Dassin, 1948) contains a wide, aerial shot of the city in its
introduction, which gives viewers the sense they are not passive viewers of the
investigation, but secret accomplices (Wilson 58). The introduction includes
various canted, domineering, street-level shots of city architectures, one of which
is the precinct. This precinct building bleeds through a cross dissolve of a
screaming womans face, implying that detectives will protect pure and
vulnerable women.21 According to The Naked City logic, the police department
that follows DAngelos trial would supposedly solve the case and protect citizens
from drug-related violence.
But by placing the only architectural establishing shots at the end of the
trial, the editor reverses the normal sequencing present in trial films and provides
editing that matches the corrupt interior of the courtroom. Such a reversal
suggests that the police department is a step behind and that justice is backwards.
Poetry and jazz metaphors illuminate the eloquence of this sequencing. Through
visual enjambment, or a carrying over of the uncertain feelings from the trial, and
syncopation, or an emphasis on a normally unstressed image, this first trial
suggests that justice as gone awry in Baltimore.
39


The courthouse interior is as abnormal as the opening sequence and absent
courthouse. Normal power hierarchies are upside down and backwards in this
legal area, resulting in a criminalization of reputable space both visually and
narratively. Two items function to collapse courtroom space and redistribute
power: depth of field and reaction shots. Courtroom dramas often establish their
settings with wide-angle shots before moving into close-ups of the trials
participants. In The Wire, the first shot from inside the courtroom the next
scene that follows the opening murder scene is from the point of view of a
witness who has not been introduced yet. The camera then moves rapidly around
the courtroom in an attempt to establish order. As viewers begin to assemble
characters in the courtroom, they confront the possibility that the real trial takes
place in the diegetic audience and is between two characters that are not on trial.
These frantic subjective shots from William Gants (Larry Hull)
perspective are through a lens with a longer focal length and thus are more
sensitive to movement. Originating from the witness stand, this magnification
collapses the courtroom, and brings characters in the back of the courtroom closer
to the front: Director Clark Johnson prioritizes McNulty and Stringers presence
during the trial over that of DAngelo and his lawyer Levy who both appear in
soft focus at the defense table. The condensed depth of field in the courtroom
implies that external forces exercise more power than internal entities. By the
40


visual arrangement of the scene, the court and legal officials appear powerless
to simple glances cast from the courtroom audience.
In addition to the depth of field shots, Johnson uses reaction shots to
deprive the interior courthouse of its sacredness. McNultys and Stringers
looks motivate the scene when courtroom players such as judges, lawyers, and
defendants typically possess this power. The triangular camerawork, shifting
between judges, lawyers, and defendants, is a method that Silbey describes as the
relational composition, and is usually the conduit by which audiences determine
characters innocence or guilt. Viewers also judge characters by casting
polygraphic looks24 a term Carol Clover coined to describe the power of
demeanor evidence in transmitted trials, whether cinema or broadcast television -
upon trial participants. In the opening trial of The Wire, however, the exchange of
looks between McNulty and Stringer takes over the trial, redirecting attention
away from the defendant, DAngelo, and beginning a cat and mouse game that
becomes the overarching plot for the first three seasons.
Removing attention from the person on trial deflates the power of the legal
system and implies that legal space is there for the taking. Courtroom space
generally finalizes the capture, glorifies the detective, and punishes the criminal.
In The Wire, the courtroom is a free area where simple glances dictate the room.
Stringers intimidation of the states witness through such glances is finally what
41


determines the verdict. The series discloses the trials verdict without giving any
explicit information on who is guilty. All viewers have, when arriving at an
anticlimactic climax, are the exchange of glances between various courtroom
players.
In addition to constructing collapsed courtrooms, The Wire creators
crosscut narratives in their depiction of trial scenes. The account of the first trial
(and all following) is interrupted by other narratives, many of which occur on the
street. This choice disrupts the unity of the trial and forms an overlapping
narrative that heightens ambiguity and deteriorates distinctions between the two
separate areas.
The presence of the street in the courtroom becomes apparent again in
All Prologue (2.6) through another interaction between Stringer and McNulty in
the trial audience. Stringer refutes Omars testimony by saying that the street
believes that Omar was nowhere near the crime when it happened, and thus Omar
is not a credible witness. McNulty responds, the problem is String, we are not on
the street we are in a court of law. McNultys ironic concession confesses an
ultimate degradation of legal space, since he willingly puts Omar the protector
and voice of the street on the stand. This statement and action confirm that The
Wires lawman accepts that truth does not matter in the courtroom. If truth is not
regulated and stories are all a matter of hearsay in the courtroom, then there is no
42


way to distinguish between its official area and the jurisdiction of the street.
Hence, the courtrooms legal space in The Wire signifies only the promise of
injustice.
To further blend state and street worlds, The Wire creators place shadow
courts within the same episodes as state trials. The narrative in All Prologue
(2.6) moves between the legal trial for Bird (Fredro Starr), who killed the witness
(Gant) in DAngelos trial in the first episode, and the street trial for a character
named Ziggy (James Ransone), whose Camaro was stolen by Cheese (Method
Man) in response to non-payment on a drug package. This shadow court takes
place in Prop Joes appliance store, with Joe as judge, Ziggys cousin Nick (Pablo
Schreiber) as the plaintiff, and the Russian hitman, Sergei (Chris Asworth) as the
counselor.
The camerawork that moves between these three characters conforms to
Silbeys relational composition, while Nick provides a narrative synopsis of the
case so that Joe can judge it. Furthermore, this trial possesses specific
procedures: Sergei tells Nick not to speak until spoken to, and the hearing is
arranged through diplomacy. Hence, this trial contains all the makings of a
legal trial. In comparison to the three other trials that are dominated by perjury
and that reach unjust verdicts, this trial runs smoothly and ultimately serves
43


justice. Hence, the mirrored legal system operating in the street can seem more
functional than the one in an official court.
In the courtroom drama tradition, there has been a recurring fascination
with exploring whether state sanctioned legal processes are more successful than
vigilante processes. In a pivotal study of filmic representations of justice, law
professor Michael Asimow and film scholar Shannon Mader generate a
dichotomy to describe the oppositional systems that different films embrace.
Films can represent either procedural or substantive justice or both, according to
these scholars. If a film depicts procedural justice, then all legal rules are
followed, whereas if a film dramatizes substantive justice then persons [receive]
what they are due, meaning that the truth has been discovered and the correct
result has occurred (25). The Wire blurs the line between street trials and official
ones by showing that the former often strictly follow a set of procedures and
ultimately reach the right verdict, whereas the latter rarely achieve either type of
justice.
In Collateral Damage (2.2), Sergei, Vondas (Paul Ben-Victor), and the
chief officer of an organized crime cartel, the Greek (Bill Raymond), hold a trial
for a sailor who murders nineteen women women the Greek imported, intending
to sell them into prostitution. The sailors explanation was that the girls witnessed
a rape, and thus were liable to incriminate a member of his crew. Not only does
44


this news displease the Greek since he lost millions, but it also disgusts him and
his two subordinates, as the horrendous crime should. Disapproval of the sailors
actions goes beyond economic disappointment for the Greek and others; their
objection connects this moment in The Wire with other courtroom classics such as
To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan, 1962) and Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger,
1959) and gets at underlying social codes of justice. These films build dramatic
plots around sexually and physically abused women and suggest that often
courtrooms are unable to get the verdicts right.25 Courtroom complications often
lead characters to take the law into their own hands. While the protection of
women and children is a touchstone concept for these films, some treat vigilante
justice and kangaroo courts as dangerous. For example, The Oxbow Incident
(Wellmen, 1943) criticizes the concept of vigilante justice by screening a mob
hanging of an innocent man. A reluctant participant in the hanging, Gil Carter
(Henry Fonda), reads a letter out of which the falsely accused man who writes to
his family says, when you take the law into your own hand, you dont just break
one law, but you break all laws. The German Expressionist film M (Lang, 1931)
is somewhat more neutral in treating mob justice; however, the final trial scene
illuminates the inherent contradictions in killing a killer.
The Wire, by contrast, evokes themes present within these films and
executes the prescribed punishment perfectly Sergei kills the Sailor, enforcing
substantive justice without legal system interference. By the end of the second
45


season, the detectives are able to reconstruct the events that led to the murders:
They do so with the help of a security tape that connects Sergei to the missing
Sailor. After Sergei sees the tape in an interrogation room, he confesses. He
says, the Sailor had to die. Once they know the entire story, the detectives
appear to agree with Sergei. The street is thus able to accurately hear and try
cases, whereas state trials for DAngelo, Bird, and Clay Davis all reach a wrong
verdict. These shadow courts completely blur the dividing lines between state
and street legal space, further complicating the distinction between legitimate and
illegitimate spaces.
Finally, the series last shadow court trial is for the fourth and fifth
seasons major target, Mario Stanfield (Jamie Hector). Due to the dirtiness of
the case the detectives obtained much of the evidence illegally Marios trial
never makes it into a courtroom, but Marios lawyer Levy and the D.A. Pearlman
determine the verdict outside of the courtroom. Mario walks to the chagrin of
Pearlman and the detectives, but his exoneration is the result of legal officials
adopting street forms of justice for their cause. That is to say, the state borrows
methods of shadow courts and street justice when appropriating them for legal
purposes. This appropriation begins with McNultys certain admiration for
Omars do-it-yourself nature (1.8) and with McNultys strategic use of Omar in
the previously discussed trial. The trial for Mario marks the final point in a legal
trajectory that begins in the courtroom in the first episode and finishes outside of
46


it in the final one. A movement of this sort is indicative of the deterioration of
democratic justice.
By starting with a malfunctioning trial in the first episode and ending with
a privately determined trial in the final, The Wire calls into question ancient
systems of justice that have been in place for centuries. In Aeschylus Oresteia
trilogy, for instance, an equitable legal system based on procedure replaces the
tribal system of the past. The trilogy depicts the establishment of order and a
system of justice.26 For its part, The Wire displays similar sets of underlying
tribes or professions but in the case of The Wire, these tribes bring about the
devolution of democracy and the dissolution of the courtroom. The Wire clearly
identifies its competing tribes, reveals the profanation of the supposed sacred
space of the courtroom and courthouse, and portrays a legal system that is broken.
The Wire's competing tribes turn out to be various city professions in
addition to groups of detectives and dealers, all of whom transform the city into a
warzone. McNulty points out these independently operating tribes over the
course of the series. In The Hunt, McNulty tells Levy and Pearlman, I am not
part of your twisted little tribe, implying that lawyers and detectives function by
a different set of standards. To a similar effect in-30- (5.10), McNulty tells
Scott Templeton (Thomas McCarthy), I am not a part of your tribe, showing the
separation between journalists and detectives. McNultys comments demonstrate
47


how he interprets each of the professions in The Wire's world lawyers,
reporters, police, dealers, etc. as competing tribes that autonomously pursue
justice when and wherever it suits them. These comments showcase how what is
supposed to be a collective pursuit of truth and justice has collapsed into
independently segregated quests, which often end up interfering with each other.
In this respect, McNultys interpretation of the system leads logically to his
embrace of vigilante justice.
Films about the modern city, race, and crime tend to convey legal
altercations as Manichean battles between good and bad. In the black gangster
tradition, by contrast, such distinctions often do not hold, as the city becomes a
single space of corruption, destructive violence, and victimization. The Wire
builds on this tradition, depicting subjects throughout the entire urban landscape
as vulnerable to technological surveillance. Additionally, The Wire highlights
how low-level dealers and detectives alike are blue-collar workers stuck in
capitalisms grinding gears, while the administration of justice in the courtroom
and the administration of justice in the street become impossible to distinguish in
any meaningful way. If the black gangster tradition undoes the criminalization of
the ghetto by spreading criminality across the entire American city, The Wire
participates fully in this undoing.
48


CHAPTER 2
The Last True Dictatorship in America: The Beat Cop, Vigilante
Detectives, and Community Policing
Vigilante cops and criminal heroes saturate American storytelling. Tales that
depict characters defending the law by breaking it have captivated viewers for
centuries and have endured many permutations. Beginning with romantic
depictions of police in True Crime, then moving into vigilante cops and private
eyes present in films such as Dirty Harry (1971), Shaft (1971), and New Jack City
(1991), and finishing with The Wire, I will argue that The Wire deflates the figure
of the vigilante detective, breaking from conventional representations of vigilante
police work. As I discussed in the first chapter, like other portrayals of the ghetto
from the turn of the 20th century, The Wire treats the ghetto as an extension of the
lawless capitalist city-in-decline (as opposed to the exclusive site of lawlessness),
but unlike portrayals from the 80s and 90s, The Wire refuses to allow any of its
characters a position outside the fallen city especially its legal officials. As a
result, the vigilante cop, who restores the urban community to the rule of law and
justice in Dirty Harry and New Jack City, becomes merely another casualty of the
lawless, tainted city in The Wire. In this way, The Wire reimagines not only the
character of the vigilante cop but also, perhaps, the future of the American city.
49


Ample scholarship has been generated in regards to detective fiction,
much of which identifies literary precedents and paradigms in American
storytelling.1 One contributor to such criticism, Christopher Wilson, covers more
than a century of American narratives from Stephen Crane to The Boston Globe
in the 1990s and asserts that cop knowledge is a powerful subtext in fiction that
-y
contains a street-level insight to political transformations in modern society. In
Cop Knowledge: Police Power and Cultural Narrative in Twentieth-Century
America, Wilson investigates the genre of detective story known as True Crime,
observing how the implied claim of a secret fraternity (indeed, near equivalence)
between journalism and cop knowledge took on a new meaning (131). What
True Crime contributed to the genre of detective fiction was a fusion of classic
crime narratives and journalism: both brought an obligation to factuality, as
uncovering truth was the primary motivator for solving crimes and for telling
stories, regardless if laws had to be broken in the process.
David Simon was a major contributor to the corpus and development of
True Crime as a Baltimore Sun reporter, and so too was his novel Homicide, the
result of a yearlong apprenticeship under Baltimore Detective Ed Burns.3 These
apprenticeships were fairly typical in the 1980s, and, to Wilson, they compelled
journalists to think their fiction was also detective work. In conjunction with the
tendency towards voyeurism and sensationalism, True Crimes case history
format... [gave] readers the comforting illusion of police expertise (Wilson 134).
50


Moreover, even in their most dismal of assessments of police ineffectiveness -
indeed, almost now taken as a badge of martyrdom they [True Crime authors]
often return to representing policing as the labor of a dedicated, hard-bitten knight
of the city (Wilson 137). That is to say, True Crime characters were imbued
with expertise through an intimacy with the street and were represented as knights
even if appearing ineffectual at the same time. Breaking the law, furthermore,
was often a means to achieving the noble end for these detectives, who share
characteristics with investigators in hard-boiled crime fiction and film noir.
Lawbreaking, in other words, was often at the core of the enterprise for these
stock literary and filmic characters, as demonstrated in recent films like Dirty
Harry, Shaft, and New Jack City. While the lawbreaking True Crime detective is
present in The Wire, a significant shift occurs with regards to the treatment of this
character. The series refuses to buy into the notion of the lawful lawbreaker.
Instead, it turns its back on its vigilante detective, refusing to send the message
that law preservation paradoxically requires a lawbreaker.
Despite the series ultimate critique of its protagonist, Detective Jimmy
McNulty (Dominick West), there are moments where the show clearly
romanticizes him. Most of McNultys romantic representations originate from
other characters admiration for his disregard for police procedure. There are two
factors at work in McNultys anti-establishment philosophy. First, a narrative
pattern from nineteenth-century fiction, which inflates the prestige of superior
51


crime detection, influences McNultys behavior. In Perry Mason Meets Sonny
Crockett: The History of Lawyers and the Police as Television Heroes, Stephen
Stark states, In fact, most nineteenth century detectives, including the illustrious
Sherlock Holmes, worked competitively against the police, implicitly
demonstrating through their success the incompetence of society's official law
enforcement establishment (8). Thus, since the time of Doyle and Poe, a
common theme for crime fiction has been that distinguished detectives had to
combat criminals and incompetent legal officials/systems alike. In other words,
to construct the towering mythos of ace detectives, authors pitted their
protagonists against the double villainy of lawbreakers and a legal system that
constantly gets in the way. These narrative choices, moreover, manufacture
heroes who are superior to both the criminal and the system that ineffectively tries
to catch said criminals.
Secondly, McNulty is an incarnation of True Crimes backlash against the
professionalization of police work. Historians have cited the Knapp Commission,
Rand Report, police reform, efficiency measures, and the exposure of police
departments to academic scrutiny as the cause for the deterioration of police work
in the second half of the twentieth-century.4 In particular, Jack Greene contends
that academic scrutiny brought about productivity measurements and attention to
public perception attention that was sensitive to disorderly conduct. Wilson
argues that this examination of police work also compelled police departments not
52


only to emphasize statistics and the shaping of public opinion, but also to
scrutinize police infrastructure, resulting in a preponderance of characters who are
critical of police procedure in True Crime. McNulty is a descendant of these
characters; he represents the internalization of reform and is largely romanticized
for calling out the flaws within the Baltimore Police Department. For example,
the Baltimore Police hold a mock wake in a bar for McNulty in the final
episode, an event that marks McNultys departure from the department,
symbolizing the tragic death of his life as a police officer. Sergeant Jay
Landsman (Delaney Williams) a character that Simon recycles from Homicide5
- delivers a eulogy that discloses the general idolization of McNultys rule-
breaking work by peers within the department. Landsman says,
He was the black sheep, a permanent pariah. He asked no quarter
of the bosses and none was given. He learned no lessons; he
acknowledged no mistakes; he was as stubborn a Mick as ever
stumbled out of the Northeast parish just to take up a patrolmans
shield. He brooked no authority. He did what he wanted to do and
he said what he wanted to say, and in the end he gave me the
clearances...To conclude, to conclude, I say: He gave us thirteen
years on the line. Not enough for a pension. But enough for us to
know that he was, despite his negligible Irish ancestry, his defects
of personality, and his inconstant sobriety and hygiene, a true
53


murder police. Jimmy, I say this seriously. If I was laying there
dead on some Baltimore street comer, Id want it to be you
standing over me catchin the case. Because brother, when you
were good, you were the best we had. (5.10).
This scene substantiates McNultys martyrdom to the city. His stubborn,
pariah and black sheep ways solidify his otherness to regular police, and are,
in part, the very reasons that he was able to give Jay the clearances. This eulogy
confirms that Landsman considers McNultys police work exceptional, as he was
the best they had. It is moments of this sort in which characters see McNulty as
a hard-bitten knight of the city that belie the series ultimate verdict on vigilante
detectives. While Landsman dramatizes McNultys extraordinary work,
attributing his inevitable fall to it, the series rejects the opportunity to see
McNulty as knightly. Instead, he becomes a casualty to the capitalist city in-
decline just as the criminals he chases do, Stringer Bell in particular.6
Furthermore, McNultys lack of restraint in relation to law his disregard for the
laws governing police conduct leads ultimately to his fabrication of evidence
and his refusal of any obligation to tell the truth.
More often than not, vigilante films address underlying issues of state
maintenance and law, regardless of whether the vigilantes are legal officials or
not. Law professor and media scholar Nicole Raftner contends that vigilante
films often correspond to turbulent moments in American history, times where
54


living conditions fluctuate with war and economy. In the same way criminal
heroes in cinematic history have given hope to Americans in time of desperation
like the Great Depression,7 vigilante cops restore hope to citizens who have lost
faith in the legal system. Conversely, The Wire often exacerbates the already
bleak vision of justice and order by treating the lawlessness of the vigilante cop as
a constituent part of a corrupted system, lacking in any civic restraints. In the
process, The Wire exposes the contradiction behind reform films that are
comprised of themes of lawbreaking.
A Brief History of the Cop Film
The police drama did not make its way into film rotation successfully until 1971
because filmmakers found it difficult to make official good guys interesting
(Raftner 111), especially in contrast to gun-toting characters of Westerns and
noirs. Additionally, the legacy of aloof policemen courtesy of such depictions as
Keystone Cops (1912-1917), Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), Cops (1922) and
many more films, firmly established that lawmen in cinema signified corruption
or dull-wittedness. Hence, breaking free from these stereotypes took the better
half of a century, and although federal lawmen or G men were depicted as
effective and tough, courtesy of James Cagney in G Men (1935), representations
of state police often suggested that the legal system was ineffectual, full of
bumbling bozos.8 Meanwhile, private eye characters in noir and hard-boiled
55


fiction provided alternative representations of astute detectives, indicating,
perhaps, one origin of the vigilante policeman. Dirty Harry was the mold-
breaking film that reinvigorated positive representations of heroic lawmen with a
rigid detective, Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), who tested criminals with a
Cougar Magnum and with acute maxims: Do you feel lucky? became a
hallmark phrase, daring lawbreakers to cross cops in the 70s and thereafter.
In the process of restoring power to police work, Dirty Harry also
addressed social concerns with crime and disorder. In Camera Politica, Michael
Ryan and Douglas Kellner contend that Dirty Harry transcoded the discourse of
the campaign against crime and drugs waged by Nixon and Agnew in the early
seventies, (41-42), while Raftner postulates that Dirty Harry attempted to restore
the image of the police force in the wake of assassinations, including those of
Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X.9 Despite varying
opinions of Harry's function, critics nonetheless maintain that the film
corresponds to political moments in American history. Harrys subversive police
work, then, was an assertion of state order, as he crossed legal boundaries to track
and kill criminals without all the legal red tape. Such a line of reasoning justifies
breaking the law for the greater good of society, and if Harry does die, the film
informs us, it will be because bleeding-heart liberals have tied cops hands,
making it impossible for them to keep criminals off the streets (Raftner 114).
Harrys aggressive and conservative ways, therefore, reclaim power for the police
56


department, weakening legal limitations on crime-busting. While Dirty Harry
was the first of many embodiments of the vigilante detective in film history, other
ethnic variations are crucial for my analysis of detectives in black gangster films
and The Wire, since they invest the vigilante cop with attitudes directly related to
the recuperation of the inner-city.
The most influential black vigilante detective in recent film history
materialized in the blaxploitation film, Shaft (Park, 1971), which appeared on the
screen the same year as Dirty Harry. In addition to the obvious differences such
as race and profession Harry is a cop and Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is a private
eye Shaft contributes characteristics to the vigilante figure, such as sexuality,
that Harry did not. In He is a Bad Mother*$%@!#: Shaft and Contemporary
Black Masculinity Matthew Henry cites Robyn Wiegmans argument that
blaxploitation films such as Shaft were outgrowths of the Black Power
Movement.10 He writes, Wiegman argues that the members of the Black Power
Movement defined the politics of race within a metaphorics of phallic power,
which developed out of male activists desire to counter cultural articulations of
black inferiority (Henry 181). In other words, just as Dirty Harry celebrates
increased police power, Shaft reinscribes the pursuit of black power through the
excess male sexuality of John Shaft, excess that is analogous to Shafts do-it-
yourself crime fighting. Shaft, then, attempted to restore a level of power to the
57


black community by exploiting associations between black men and sexual
potency.
Dirty Harry and Shaft set the standard for white and black legal figures,
and are vital to the discussion of detectives in New Jack City and The Wire. And
although white legal figures in the noir tradition also exude high levels of
masculinity/sexuality, Shaft is a more suitable contrast for New Jack City, due to
the underlying themes of black activism and community policing. In both films,
the black vigilante cop suggests the self-determining power of the community to
police itself, to redress its own criminal activity through violence that rejects any
legal boundaries imposed by the state.
Witnessing the Strnth of Street Knowledge
New Jack City's Detective Appleton (Ice T) fits the rebel lawman mold: he is the
archetypal anti-law legal figure who has to maneuver around an inept police
department on his way to collaring criminals; he prefers to work alone, and thus
represents the iconic individualism of his predecessors; and he stands for a higher
morality, embracing a brand of moral conservatism. What is striking about
Appletons character, by contrast, is how he endorses pro-black values and
morality, especially since they emanate from an actor who wrote the song Cop
Killer.11 Ice Ts role as Detective Appleton in the film takes up the antithetical
approach to the persona he portrays as a prominent rapper in the gangster rap
58


movement,12 providing audiences with a culturally hip, iconoclastic police figure
and a foil for Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes). Van Peebles choice to cast Ice T
appropriates the mystique of the gangster character, glamorizing police work as
assertive rebellion by high-jacking the swagger of an already self-proclaimed
gangster and connecting it with the cop character. By this arrangement, the
retaliating message of rap music ends up advocating autonomous community
policing free of stratified institutions, instead of championing capital,
commodities, and material possession.
Appletons behavior in the films opening scene typifies that of the loose-
cannon lawman archetype he shoots a suspect in the leg after a foot chase for a
smaller scale hand-to-hand drug bust. But the detectives actions are symptomatic
of the impossible task in front of him as other forces that he must fight, in
conjunction with petty criminals, quickly become apparent: big-time drug dealers,
the police department, the legal system, and ultimately economics all become his
adversaries. Through Appletons awareness of street functioning, which allows
him mobility between the worlds, he confirms that police officers are sharers of a
secret knowledge about urban lower-class criminality, human frailty, and political
hypocrisy (Wilson 2). What distinguishes Appleton from those who work within
the legal system to curb crime is his access to street knowledge, the perspective
he gains from being a community insider. Appletons neighborhood ways
make him rough around the edges, or a reject cop to quote Stone (Mario Van
59


Peebles), his commanding police officer, but also give him his advantage in
solving the case.
Appletons individual, insurgent ways are highlighted by his name and his
work: aptly titled Appleton a name that implies the detective is a small
version of the Big Apple he enforces the purported laws of the city without
the citys help. In order to bring a legitimate case against Nino, Appleton builds
an extensive case around the undercover work of a criminal informant, Pooky
(Chris Rock). After the CMB (Cash Money Brothas) discover Pooky is an
informant and kill him, Appleton takes it upon himself to go undercover to bring
Nino Brown down without his departments knowledge. Stone informs Appleton
that higher-ups (Washington) want to close down the case, a bureaucratic
complication that parallels plot motivators in The Wire, and Appleton points out
the shortcomings in police-work structure that revolve around politics and money.
When making introductions with the CMB, Appleton selects the name
Washington, spitefully taking a name associated with the state.
From these elements of plot, and what follows, it is clear Appleton must
fight against the larger legal system in the same way he fights his department and
dealers. Once he finally gets enough evidence to charge Nino and procures a
witness Appleton finds that his efforts are in vain; in the courtroom, the legal
system further fails him, as Nino maneuvers around the case through legal
60


loopholes such as plea-bargaining. When Nino receives a significantly lesser
charge for giving up his drug connection, he tells a reporter after the trial, I think
the American justice system is the greatest in the world. Im proud to be an
American. The trial in NJC, and Ninos comments, reduce the courtroom to a
criminal space where malefactors nullify detective work with ease. While this
space allows criminality, it also requires the vigilante efforts of an enraged citizen
who tries to right the ethical scale. Although Appletons vigilante efforts
conducted outside of the police department are not enough to stop Nino, an Old
Man (Bill Cobbs) finishes his work by murdering Nino in the courtroom lobby.
Through this denouement, the film ultimately embraces vigilante justice as a form
of community policing. The films final words are: if we dont confront the
drug problem realistically...drugs will continue to destroy our country.
Realistically, in New Jack City, means routing drug dealers without the help of
the police department and legal system.
Although Appleton and the Old Man represent anti-authority figures that
question the law, Appleton stands for more than simple lawbreaking, and as such,
represents an elevated moral conservatism, distinguished from the value system of
Nino. Appletons wardrobe, apartment, and dialogue yield significant clues as to
what constitutes better black ideology than the capitalist value system embraced
by Nino. Appleton often appears in solid black leather a wardrobe decision that
evokes styles popularized by the Black Panthers and he wears a necklace that is
61


an emblem of the African continent. These visual cues alert viewers to
Appletons counter-culture ways, which is in direct contrast to Ninos expensive
and flashy tastes. In addition, they signify his commitment to the community, and
to black history more generally.
Additionally, Appletons apartment is an empty industrial flat, simple and
utilitarian. His bookshelf is made of cinder blocks it is significant that there are
many books in his apartment and in the middle of the shelf is a picture of
Malcolm X (image 2.1). This picture is a popular image in black cinema in
general,13 but here the arrangement of the mise-en-scene implies that Malcolm X
is at the center of Appletons learning and awareness. Finally, during Ninos
climactic arrest that turns into a street fight, Appleton rips off Ninos African
continent necklace and says, How can you wear this necklace when you sell
poison to our people? critiquing Ninos contradictory lifestyle.
For all of these reasons, the rebel detective Appleton uses street
knowledge to redirect and re-educate misled citizens such as Nino, administering
a counter form of knowledge that is organic, community-based, and in opposition
to economic ideologies promulgated by the state. Appleton reduces Ninos
stereotypical tale of crime and lawlessness to a hackneyed tale of irresponsibility,
regardless of its appeal to American sensibilities.14 His rejection of mainstream
economic philosophies becomes an education of sorts, education against
62


Capitalisms circular world of crime and violence. The final shot of Ninos dead
body in the courthouse lobby echoes this warning, providing the downward spiral
of drug dealing with a visual correspondent (image 2.2). While Appleton
embodies principles of the rebel lawmen, he also differs from Shaft and Harry in
that he not only breaks the states law, but also challenges the norms and values
tied to its economy.
image 2.1 Appletons apartment image 2.2 Courthouse lobby image 2.3 Final title card
The law, as represented by Appleton in NJC, undercuts legal hierarchies
and implies people need to enforce their own laws since the legal system is
powerless against free-market minded gangsters. The films ultimate embrace of
a community governed by law is what sets it apart from other films in the black
gangster tradition; while the elder Van Peebles envisioned the law as necessarily
an enemy of Black people, the younger positions it as a savior to the Black people
in communities fraught with self-imposed lawlessness (Jones 34). Law may be
the savior in NJC, but it is not state or federal law as Jones suggests it is a self-
imposed law that combats lawlessness with morally-infused, reciprocating
63


lawlessness. As we will see, The Wire, by contrast, refuses to condone vigilante
behavior by lawbreakers intent on restoring law and order.
Maybe They Need the Make-Believe: Lying as a Form of Enforcing Peace
Season three of The Wire begins with a conventional crime chase where
detectives pursue local criminals. During this chase, Western District, brute-cop,
Here (Dominick Lombardozzi) plays the theme song from Shaft, a collision of
genres and time periods that equates the crime fighting in Baltimores Western
District with its referential allusion. Like most other sound in The Wire, this
music comes diegetically from within the scene and compels viewers to associate
detective work in The Wire with detection in the past. Although Here comically
quotes the song, whos the man who would risk his neck for his brotha man, his
partner, Carvers (Seth Gilliam) dialogue represents the very values this scene
calls into question. Carver yells to a hiding drug dealer from the roof of this
patrol car,
Listen to me you little piece of fucking shit. I am gonna tell you
one thing and one thing only about the Western boys you are
playing with. We do not lose. And we do not forget. We do not
give up. Ever. So I am only going to say this one time. If you
march your ass out here right now and put the bracelets on, we will
not kick the living shit out of you. But if you make us go into the
64


weeds for you, or if you make us come back here tomorrow night,
catch you on the corner, I swear to fucking Christ, we will beat
longer and harder than you beat your own dick. Cause you do not
get to win shitbird, We Do! (3.1).
Paired with a crime-busting soundtrack, this scene suggests that police win and
criminals lose. This type of monolithic representation of policing and crime is
abundant in the history of American cinema and contemporary television;15
however, while this moment implies that the police win, that implication could
not be further from reality in the rest of the series. Actually, each season in The
Wire is marked by the escape or death of the target, or by a significantly smaller
charge than anticipated for the targeted criminal. Furthermore, the series
allegiance is not always with the police. In the very same episode, Lester says to
McNulty, Its always you versus the world McNulty, revealing that the series
encourages a critique of its formulaic detective. In comparison to vigilante
detectives in film history, and Simons previous depictions of police in True
Crime, McNulty is not plainly romanticized, glamorized, or glorified; he becomes
abject and homeless through vigilantism. What the scene ends up being, then, is a
parody of the rip and run detective who gets both the girl and the criminal in
one fell swoop since criminals often evade Here and Carver.
65


Over the course of the series, McNultys vigilantism corresponds to his
sexually incontinent behavior, which becomes trademark, as he botches
relationships with Elana (Callie Thorne), Rhonda (Deirdre Lovejoy), and Beadie
(Amy Ryan) through self-destructive drinking and infidelity. His completely
unregulated sexuality parallels his unregulated police work, and both produce
serious injuries to other characters in the series. In a related vein, the Baltimore
Police Department often sexualizes the pursuit of criminals, thus eroticizing
police work. The following discussion between Landsmen and Rawls is a salient
moment that encapsulates this sexualizing of police work:
Last night, Im at home, Im sitting up buck naked. And I got one
hand wrapped around a cold domestic beer and the other wrapped
around my magnificent and flaccid four-inch wonder and I am
trying with all of my might to remember what Layla Kaufmans
nipples look like when her bathing suit slipped off at the Hillendale
swim pool party... I got this saucy wench in my gun sights, so to
speak, and I am dangerously close to engorged, when all of a
fucking sudden, out of fucking no where, fucking detective,
fucking Jimmy McNulty pops into my head... Honestly I have to
open my eyes and admit to myself that my whole night is ruined
(1.4).
66


The saucy wench in Landsmans gun sights is a direct reference to Dirty
Harry, in one scene, Harry scopes for the films serial killer on a rooftop and ends
up finding a naked women in her apartment instead.16 Landsmans fantasy, like
Harrys visual experience on the rooftop, criminalizes female sexuality, exhibiting
the linear and interchangeable positioning of women and criminals for detectives.
The operative metaphor in this fantasy, of course, is the gun as the source of male
phallic power, and shooting a criminal is on par with getting the girl for male
detectives. McNulty interrupts Landsmans pursuit of both the criminal and the
female sex object and thus disorders the procedures of the police department.
The fact that McNulty pops into Landsmans head, taking the place of
the criminalized coworker the saucy wench suggests that Landsman is
incapable of seeing McNultys rule-breaking behavior as anything other than
sexy. That is to say, McNultys rebel conduct carries a sexual power in spite of
Landsmans heterosexuality and overall obedience to superiors. McNultys police
work intrudes upon Landsmans chain-of-command structured unconscious. His
violation of chain of command not only disrupts the departments stability and
order but is also so infectious that it penetrates the personal time of other
employees such as Landsman.
While Landsman criminalizes McNulty for disrupting his fantasy,
McNulty is ironically guilty of the same womanizing and incontinence
67


represented by the fantasy. Moreover, McNultys unrestrained sexuality is
symptomatic of his overall unbridled excess. His treatment of women and his
superfluous engagement in casual sex is analogous to his excessive opposition to
chain of command. For these reasons, McNultys sexiness becomes iconic for
superior police work work that gets Landsman clearances and characters
within the series idolize him for his reckless yet effective methods. In the first
episode Landsman says, look at them Cole, doesn't it make your dick bust
concrete to be in the same room as two noble, selfless public servants. I know I'm
proud (1.1). In spite of Landsmans blatantly facetious tone, his arousal in
response to out-of-the-ordinary police work is apparent nonetheless.
Beyond the police department, McNultys police work is sexy to other
characters in the series as well. At the end of season one, the detectives and the
female District Attorney Pearlman think that both Avon and Stringer are going to
be locked away for good due to the comprehensive testimony of DAngelo a
testimony that would have indicted all of the players for the murders, money
laundering, and drugs. In the parking lot, after hearing DAngelos confession,
Pearlman says, Jimmy, this is a great case. Not just because of Greggs... but
because how deep it goes. I mean, the murders, the money. Jesus, I feel drunk
ever since that kid started talking to us (1.13). Immediately after this
conversation, Pearlman and McNulty have sex in a patrol car in the parking lot a
moment that punctuates Pearlmans consuming intoxication from McNultys
68


policing methods. Stirred by how deep Jimmys investigation has gone,
Pearlman admires Jimmys ability to unearth truth and justice. It is, after all,
McNultys chain of command breaking behavior that initiates the detail for Avon
Barksdale. And as I discussed in the first chapter, the detail works out of the
basement of the courthouse, which befits its subversive police work. Ultimately,
this scene that occurs in the precinct parking lot turns the vigilante cop into an
object of attraction for the female legal figure. The fact that sex follows their
legal discussion confirms that McNultys police work is contingent on sexiness,
seductiveness, and desirability.
In contrast to Landsman and Pearlmans sexual interpretation of
McNultys police work, Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) is weary of McNultys
excessiveness. For example, in Hamsterdam (3.4) Lester calls out the
destructive nature of individualistic vigilante police work; he says, you put fire
to everything you touch McNulty and then you walk away when it burns. This
comment is in response to McNultys refusal to work the units new target, Kentel
Williamson, and to his obsessive pursuit of Stringer Bell. When McNulty asks
Lester what they are up to, Lester says, nothing too sexy, just a target by the
name of Kentel Williamson. Lesters comment demystifies McNultys and the
police departments sexualizing of criminal targets, and it deflates the romantic
pursuit by which brave detectives put themselves in the line of fire. It is during
these moments that The Wire turns its back on its main protagonist, and, in the
69


process, critiques fictional representations of vigilante justice, with its roots in an
individualist (capitalist) ethic.
The series starts to align itself with Lesters perspective on McNulty
through self-reflexive cameras present in the mise-en-scene. In Slapstick
(3.10), after McNulty pontificates about how he and Lester are among a few
natral police in the city, Lester asks McNulty how it all ends. Among Lesters
offerings for the case so sweet are a parade, a gold watch, and a Jimmy
McNulty day hyperboles that demonstrate Freamons recognition that this
imaginary triumph is what really drives McNulty (Alasmadir 56-57).
Furthermore, the security camera that Lester and Pres (Jim True-Frost) are testing
provides more evidence of McNultys criminality. During McNultys self-
congratulatory speech, Pres aims the security camera towards McNulty, as he and
Lester calmly listen to and watch McNultys histrionics. Through the security
monitor and surveillance camera that they intend to use on dealers, McNultys
true representation becomes most clear: he is not simply a buffoon, but a criminal.
Hence, the lens of surveillance technology reinforces Lesters dissecting of
McNultys inflated self-perceptions.
By criminalizing its main detective, The Wire refuses to consider vigilante
justice as a viable option. Also, in the same way the series makes the ghetto
corporate, it makes many criminals into detectives in order to provide foils for its
70


illicit legal figure. For example, in One Arrest (1.7), Omar the street vigilante
and archetypal Robin Hood figure tells Kima (Sonja Sohn) and McNulty where
to find a suspect, but quickly qualifies he might not be an expert on the subject; he
says, That is if I happened to be constabulating like yall. Omars utterance is
telling, since his information exhibits how he is policing the neighborhood. In the
end, Omars vigilante efforts, like McNultys, also fail, leaving social justice as
impotent as the legal system;17 yet, even Omar has a code and level of deference
for the game that McNulty lacks. In Middle Ground (3.11), the bow-tie
wearing, gang-banger mercenary from New York, Brother Mouzone (Michael
Potts) says, Omar doesnt strike me as the type of man who would tell stories,
even at the point of dying. McNulty, on the other hand, is willing to win at
whatever cost even by telling stories.
Although McNulty has various rises and falls during the course of the
series, his ultimate fall is in the fifth season when he fabricates a serial killer to
generate funding to pursue a real serial killer. As city funding for police work
wanes, McNulty starts to tamper with evidence, staging murders in order to get
funding to procure a wiretap tampering that involves leaving post-mortem
strangle marks such as petechia and bracciheroid on dead homeless people. After
McNultys ruse and investigation turns into a city wide frenzy, he struggles to
keep his lie a secret. While the lie may appear to fall in an ethical grey area to
viewers privy to the concept of vigilante justice since it is for the greater good
71


so to speak, McNultys lie is actually the height of his contemptibility; in
misrepresenting reality as an investigator, he misrepresents as a public servant -
the city of Baltimore, its history, and most of all, his profession. That is, to the
extent that he falsifies reality, he becomes an impoverished representative of the
city. At the peak of McNultys contemptibility, he makes a speech to a statue,
and indirectly invokes Baltimores history, while also addressing the city that
glows behind him and the statue as passive jury members.
The city and the statue serve as crucial symbols in this scene, representing
values of justice, law, and order. In her structural analysis of courtroom dramas,
titled Patterns of Courtroom Justice, Jessica Silbey maintains that statues
salute the purpose of the building they introduce; they seem to say that the
nations rule of law that provides our freedom is worth the fights of the past (99).
In The Dream of the Moving Statue, Kenneth Gross agrees with Silbeys analysis
of statues, equating human desire to create statues with the need to give an
illusory stability to ideas (16). Gross further contends that one of three primary
functions of a statue is to confirm a states substance, stability, [and] status (16).
In other words, statues are intended to encapsulate admirable qualities of state
stability or virtue. This moment in The Wire subverts state stability by suturing a
lawbreaking lawman to a statue that is intended to signify maintenance and order.
72


Tellingly, the statue in the above scene is dressed in colonial garb and
clearly represents early founders of the country who promoted freedom and
justice for all. Measured against these revolutionary ideals, as well as the laws
they gave rise to, McNulty is the epitome of corruption. The fall of a
Revolutionary city is linked to the fall of its man of law. By making this speech
to the statue McNulty tries to appeal his case to higher powers of justice, such as
those that free countries from oppressive, tyrannical governance, but McNultys
rationalization reveals a common misunderstanding amongst lawmen, namely that
they are free to break the law when they feel suited to. McNulty concludes by
justifying his actions through the same tired grievances voiced by True Crime: he
says to the statue, They want to play their simple-ass games, fine, I gotta do what
I gotta do. The simple-ass games are of course statistics and clearances, but
retaliating against the departments games is not enough to restore McNulty to
knightly status, given his drunken desperation and his juxtaposition to an
American freedom fighter of the past.
While Americans have a long lineage of loveable vigilantes, the series
positions viewers not to buy McNultys lie. And even in comparison to other
characters who construct their careers around falsehoods, McNulty is treated
differently by the series, according to Marsha Kinder. Kinder concludes the
series ultimately chooses truth over emotion, a priority that distinguishes The
Wire from other TV crime series, yet it acknowledges that many of its careerist
73


characters still stick with the lie (56). McNulty commits to his lie, and it
generates disapproval from Bunk, Daniels (Lance Reddick), and Kima (Sonja
Sohn) other detectives who still try to play by the rules. Ultimately, it is Kima
who snitches on McNulty, out of respect for a police code. Kimas turn on
McNulty cancels out his influence. In Dead Soldiers (3.3), Kima notes, I am
turning into McNulty, thus pointing to her own tendencies towards lawlessness
and infidelity.18 Ultimately, her refusal to adopt those qualities suggests that many
within the Baltimore Police Department prefer statistics and clearances to
vigilante justice.
Since viewers judge McNulty through the larger lens of justice embodied
by the colonial statue, they gain distance from him. McNulty profanes American
history and the policing profession in general. And although the colonial statue is
not a vigilante himself but a revolutionary who fought to forge new laws rather
than to restore the same old corrupt system, McNulty embarrasses the memory by
placing rule breaking in the service of corruption. In this scenes juxtaposition,
McNultys pedigree could be potentially linked to founding revolutionaries, but
instead he becomes the source of societal corruption and malaise, the very
opposite of a founding father. The Wire is as critical of the egocentric,
individualistic lawbreaking lawman as it is of capitalist and business-like
subcultures; both are symptomatic of a societal system that is severely
malfunctioning.
74


image 2.4 Statue overlooking the city image 2.5 Statue image 2.6 McNulty
McNultys fabrication is not the only instance of damaging dishonesty in
the show. Actually, many characters propel their careers through falsehoods
without being caught. Mayor Carcettis aide Norman (Reg E. Cathey) admits to
the parallels between McNultys lie and the lie they have built the mayors
gubernatorial campaign around. He says, But it does have a certain charm to it.
They manufactured an issue to get paid; we manufactured an issue to get you
elected governor. Everybody is getting what they want behind some make-
believe (5.10). Make-believe is the innermost theme in the fifth season, as
untruths infect the police department, the governors office, and the Baltimore
Sun alike. The origin of this proclivity for deceit, however, stems from major
events in 21st century American history. From the first episode to the final, The
Wire weaves Americas War on Terror within its narrative and Jimmy
McNultys lie is no exception. For example, in the final episode, Bunk says about
McNultys serial killer fafade, Shit is like a war aint it; easy to get in, hell to get
out (5.10). Bunks comment aligns McNultys lie with the post-9/11 lie that
started Americas war with Iraq. People soon forgot that Iraq did not have
75


anything to do with the World Trade Center attacks, nor was it harboring weapons
of mass destruction, yet the event and the weapons are what President George W.
Bush used to mobilize troops. In this way, Bunks comment makes McNultys
lawbreaking an allegory for the political lawbreaking that occurred in the early
part of the 21st century.
Part of McNultys failure is that he interprets police work as part of an
effort to prosecute a war. In the fourth season he tells another cop, the patrolling
officer on his beat is the only true dictatorship in America. We can lock a guy up
on a humble, lock him up for real, or say fuck it. Pull under the expressway and
drink ourselves to death (4.10). Like the War on Terror, Reagans War on Drugs
created a state of emergency, allowing police to use an extraordinary amount of
discretion. While part of McNultys motivation behind the serial killer stunt is to
get funding, mostly he is driven by an unrelenting quest to catch the criminal.
Since the criminal drug dealer is the enemy, then pursuing the criminal at
whatever cost including lying and breaking the law is justified. The
dictatorship that is modem policing trickles down from Washington and is the
direct result of war mentality. And as long as Americas leaders condone
lawbreaking and lying to uphold the law, so too will their police.
While The Wire raises romantic approaches to McNultys character as a
possibility, its ultimate commitment to veracity sets it apart from the knightly
76


representation of police in True Crime. In addition to the series characters
disgust with McNulty, the final episode reports on McNultys failure through a
closing montage.19 Simon filters this montage through McNultys profile, and
thus exhibits the series final comment on vigilante detectives, while asking us to
see the larger narrative through the subjective view, or mindscreen, of McNulty.
In Bruce Kawins book Mindscreen, he posits there are two ways to use
subjective camera: to show what the character sees, or to show what he thinks.
The first mode is that of the physical eye, the second is that of the minds eye
(7). The final montage in The Wire manages to do both. As McNulty stops on
the freeway to look at the city, the camera slowly dollies into his profile, showing
what he sees with his physical eye a series of sequences that reveal the
operation of the city in the closing montage. But after seeing how many of the
previous professions and jobs fulfilled by characters dead or gone are now
occupied by new people, McNultys final close-up is a revelation. Through
McNultys perception, the city appears not simply corrupt and damaged, but also
repetitive and cyclical in its corruption and damage.
This revelatory moment recalls another moment in Simons fiction where
the harsh realities of urban existence come to life, or end; The last visage of a
murdered man resembles that of a flustered schoolchild to whom the logic of a
simple equation has just been revealed (Homicide, Simon 3). The simple
equation of the modern city has been revealed to McNulty in this moment, and
77


his dumbfounded visage resembles a flustered schoolchild. "Larry," he says to
the homeless man in his car, "let's go home," yet McNulty himself is homeless.
During the course of the series, he never really establishes a personal living space.
As a result, the precinct becomes his home, the job his life. This final moment
portrays the best detective as a victim to the citys system, as McNulty is
completely abject, pitiful, and powerless. In this final montage, McNulty is
coming to grips with his failure to turn Baltimore into a safe and secure home for
its citizens, including himself.
78


CONCLUSION
The Greater Good?: Lies, Lawbreaking, and Legal Figures in American
History and Culture
In a radio interview on San Franciscos public radio station, KQED, David Simon
remarks that the concept that all citizens were in the American experiment
together was lost the moment Ronald Reagan said we fought a war on poverty,
and poverty won. According to The Wires version of recent history, Reagans
War on Drugs, the successor to the War on Poverty, forever altered the nature of
police work, and is, in effect, the major source of the deterioration of real police
work and the urban communal environment, along with the statistics game. By
transforming community policing into military operations and the cops beat into
a warzone, Reagan enabled police to exercise extraordinary discretion and
excessive force in their efforts to fight crime. Major Colvin echoes Simons
sentiment when he tells one of his lieutenants, I mean you call something a war
and pretty soon everybody gonna be running around acting like warriors.. .and
soon the neighborhood you sposed to be policing, thats just occupied territory
(3.10). Representing urban space as occupied territory, The Wire belongs to the
black gangster traditions ghettocentric imagination in that it holds Reagan
responsible for the general decline of urban space and the erosion of police and
citizen communication.
79


Although some critics declare that The Wire is nihilistic,1 that it is a
negative portrayal of black communities,2 and that it is bad for the image of
Baltimore,3 there are moments in the series that outline better ways both for the
community and the police. During a community meeting in the third season, a
woman stands up and explains how during the Hamsterdam experiment4 she
and her local policeman became acquainted. She says, I have not seen that face-
to-face policing in a long while...and that is how it should be (3.11). In this
respect, The Wire is retrograde as it longs for the time when citizens and police
were friendly with one another, when the cop on his beat communicated with
the neighborhood he was policing, and when the area was not a hostile war zone.
The series is steadfast with its stance that Reagans War on Drugs was the cause
of this transformation.
McNulty, on the other hand, has another interpretation of the cops beat,
as a result of war mentality. His understanding of police work as a dictatorship
exhibits the misplaced power at his discretion. Although war has codes, the more
recent violations of war codes that America is guilty of in the last decade is
analogous to McNultys corrupt view of law and ethics. Breaking the law to
preserve the law is contradictory. And despite popular precedents of vigilante
police in film, The Wire is skeptical of the vigilante detectives ability to right the
system. It is at this moment that the convergence of the two wars in the series is
most clear. The War on Drugs and the War on Terror collide in the character of
80


McNulty as he extends Reagans war to the 21st century. As I discussed in the
second chapter, McNultys lawbreaking is an allegory for Americas war with
Iraq. And furthermore, his excess lawbreaking and sexuality do not recuperate
repressed voices of society that the government subdued like Appletons and
Shafts may have.
Writers and directors have typically employed the vigilante detective as a
means of reasserting values and laws that have seemed to disappear from modern
society5 or as a way of saying lawbreaking for the greater good is acceptable.
Additionally, depictions of the vigilante cop usually embed critiques of
malfunctioning legal systems within restrictive and obstructive police
departments, reinforcing the mythic power by which detectives win over
administration and evil. Detectives and private eyes in the American tradition
have been a touchstone for fiction writers and filmmakers alike. It is no surprise,
therefore, that recent vigilante legal figures indirectly promote Americas War on
Terror efforts, endorsing lawbreaking to combat terrorism.
Take for example Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) of 24, a counterterrorism
agent who has to battle both obstructing superiors and international threats.6 Or
Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) of Showtimes hit show by the same name.
Dexter, in particular, is a serial killer cop-show that ultimately condones capital
punishment for guilty killers, as Dexter employs The Code of Harry to evade
81


the legal system in his attempts to find and kill serial killers.7 The Code of
Harry is really an extension of Harry Callahans conservative, rebel lawbreaking
methods, in my opinion, and can therefore easily be seen as a foil for The Wire.
After all, if they catch the bad guy in the end, what is the big deal about a little
bloodshed or broken law here or there?
This foil becomes clear in an intertexutal reference in the fifth season:
helpless cornerboy Duquan (Jermaine Crawford) watches Dexter in the final
episode and tries to alert Omars befitting successor Michaels (Tristan Wilds)
attention to it. It is significant that Duquan directs the series new street vigilante
character to Dexter, since Michael is Omars replacement, yet, like McNulty,
Omars vigilante ways are unsuccessful.8 In contrast to Dexter, The Wire critiques
its vigilante characters, rather than embracing them, saying that we want no part
in these contradictions. If we take vigilante stories like Dexter as allegories for
the American political situation, they indirectly promote lawbreaking in wartime,
saying that the end justifies the means. The Wire firmly maintains, a lie isnt a
side of a story, its just a lie (5.8), and lawbreaking is not an acceptable path to
peace and justice, especially coming from the government and legal officials.
Once again, it is a final point of contact with the fictional realm that
makes The Wires critique of American society most sharp. The Wire is not like
Dexter, its vigilante characters fall from the narrative and are not capable of
82


saving a simultaneously falling city. In this skeptical manner, The Wire's mirror
is two-way in that it allows viewers to see through filmic representations of life
and through life as well. It is not real, but its retelling of history and modern
American existence and its emphasis on truth-telling makes it an essential piece of
American culture. Whatever the answers are for fixing the urban city and the
drug problem, they are not war and deceit, as Major Colvin (Robert Wisdom) says
during a committee meeting, it [the solution] cant be a lie (3.4). Lying about
the state of the modern city that drug dealing infests ignores the fact that the War
on Drugs is not working.
As far as solutions go for the War on Drugs and the situation of the
American city, entertaining alternatives for drug enforcement might be useful.
The Wire presents this alternative in the character of Major Colvin who Simon
says was inspired by Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke,9 a politician who was open
to discussing leniency to drugs as opposed to violence and war, since Schmoke
saw the war was not working. But even beyond the history behind Colvins
character and the fictional adaptation of his ideologies, a voice of the street
explains what continues to drive the drug trade. The Deacon, played by Little
Melvin Williams, tells Major Colvin that making the game street legal took
the hard out of it (3.9). The hard that circumscribes the street drug dealing sub
culture is simple resistance to opposing enemies. Since the government made war
with the underclass, retaliation to the government and their law enforcers -
83


took on an edginess, coolness, and hardness. Without occupying forces, hard
resistance no longer carries the same clout.
Yet even The Wire is skeptical about its own critique and ability to bring
about change. In the Fifth Season, during a discussion with several other
journalists, Baltimore Sun Executive Editor Whiting (Sam Freed) says, I dont
want some amorphous series detailing societys ills (5.2), when, in a way, this is
exactly what The Wire is. On the whole, the series details societys ills, the nature
of the War on Drugs and the modem police department in particular. Perhaps this
comment is a gesture that, while the show provides the mirror and shows society
what is wrong, the changes that need to be made to society will largely go
unnoticed. If this is the case, The Wire may be nihilistic in that it has no faith in
civilization to change the system when things are obviously not working. In the
end, all The Wire can say is, we put the mirror there, whether you change the
reflection or not is out of our hands.
84


Notes to the Introduction
1 During Snoops employment on the series, she was allegedly retired from the
drug game. A recent article in the Hollywood Reporter reports that Snoop was
caught up in a drug raid in March, 2011.
http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/snoop-wire-arrested-drug-raid-166522.
2 David Simon credits Baltimore native Little Melvin Williams as the original
pioneer and long-term drug-trade entrepreneur who initially buttressed the citys
underground heroin market. Simon first started writing about Melvin Williams in
a five part set of newspaper articles titled, Easy Money: Anatomy of a Drug
Empire in 1987. These articles are in the Baltimore Sun.
3 Colonialism, Racism, and Representation: An Introduction explores cinematic
questions such as those that surround issues of realism, racism, positive
representation, and politics.
4 Michael Krasny of San Franciscos public radio station KQED interviews David
Simon about The Wire. During this interview, Simon offers the masque as an
analogy for The Wire series.
http://huffduffer.com/procload/18133.
5 John Kraniauskas opens his article, Elasticity of Demand: Reflections on The
Wire by discussing the shows debts to David Simon and Ed Bums previous
projects, which include Homicide and The Corner.
http://www.radicalphilosophy.com/default.asp?v=l&issue=154.
6 In Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema, S. Craig
Watkins argues that both films and rap music culture tend to depict ghetto
neighborhoods as areas of entrapment or repression.
7 Ibid... See page 198.
8 In a social and historical survey of gangs in New York in the 20th century, Eric
Schneider arrives at the conclusion that gangs are the unseen derivatives of
capitalism and drug dealing the uncalculated ramification of globalization. His
work is titled, Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar
New York.
9 KQED interview. See note 4.
10 In Cop Knowledge: Police Power and Cultural Narrative in the Twentieth-
Century, Christopher Wilson identifies this trend in True Crime. See page 137.
85


Notes to Chapter 1
1 Watkins thesis in Representing is that black gangster filmmakers often code the urban
ghetto as a site of repression and entrapment.
2 Robin Andersons article, Reality TV and Criminal Justice Programs that Film
Police Conduct details the misrepresentation of police work, criminality, and street life
in shows like Cops. These misrepresentations stem from its stylized aesthetics jump
cuts and handheld camerawork and limited perspectives of crime.
3 Much of Jones argument in The New Ghetto Aesthetic rests upon the premises that
black communities and citizens received a simple ghettoization by filmmakers in the 90s,
that the films were nonredemptive (33), and that they did not threaten existing
conventions (33).
4 See note 2. Additionally, Films like South Central (Anderson, 1992) tended to treat
state surveillance and rehabilitation as a necessary part of the war on crime, since its main
character, O.G. Bobby Johnson (Glenn Plummer), is only able to remove himself from
the gang life after being incarcerated and subsequently educated by Muslim inmates
about the perils of crime and drugs.
5 Watkins analyzes these techniques and the space in Boyz, and his argument relies on
David Bordwells concept of Scenographic Space, which Bordwell explains in Narration
and the Fiction Film. Bordwells theory maintains that shot space, editing space, sonic
space, and offscreen space all contribute to the construction of setting. See page 113.
6 While Menace II Society and Straight of Brooklyn are more or less simple sociological
studies and Boyz and NJC are politically and economically critical, Juice points blame at
cultural representations of gangster life. One of Juice's more rough ghetto residents,
Bishop (Tupac Shakur) admiringly watches Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) in White Heat
(Walsh, 1949) and is inspired to embrace a life of crime.
7 The film opens with the kids revisiting the spot of a murder, a preface to a later and
more direct homage to Stand By Me (Reiner, 1986) where Boyz' kids actually find a dead
human carcass. Stand By Me a classic bildungsroman defined by the search and
discovery of a dead body.
8 The War on Drugs' "An International Encyclopedia by Ron Chepesiuk contains a
thorough history of drug enforcement, both worldwide and in the United States. In terms
of America, and specifically Reagans presidency, this source details the history behind
the countrys fight with drugs. This fight includes: Reagans dissolution of the Posse
Comitatus Act (1981), Reagans Commission on Organized Crime (1983), Reagans Zero
Tolerance Policy (1988), and Reagans passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act (1988).
Each of these pieces of legislature transformed the urban environment into a warzone.
The amending of the Posse Comitatus Act, in particular, allowed Reagan to authorize
the Department of Defense to provide military training, intelligence, and equipment to
86


civil law enforcement agencies and to allow members of the army, navy, and marines to
operate civil law enforcement agencies responsible for enforcing the nations laws
(Chepesiuk 250).
9 In addition to displaying the effect of surveillance on children, Boyz underscores the
contradictions of police presence with a scene where the police pull over Ricky (Morris
Chestnut) and Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) for no reason. Now grown, the two find
themselves in a situation where they are under attack both from rival hoods and the
police. The irony is that Tre and Ricky are two of the more likely characters to make it
out of the hood (one receives education and direction from his father and the other is a
college-bound athlete), and yet they are still harassed by the police. To Watkins, the
treatment by police in Boyz demonstrates the pervasiveness of the master-status-
determining characterization of young black males as dangerous criminals (217). But
the film also demonstrates the paradoxical absence of police protection along with the
danger in automatically associating criminality with race. Instead of helping these two
kids, one of whom is shot later returning from the grocery store, the cops also attack
them, one putting his gun in Tres face. The counterproductive, destructive presence of
police is Boyz most tragic fulcrum; surveillance compounds the already destitute nature
of ghetto existence. Thus, Boyz message is that surveillance is futile, police presence is
terrorism, and the state is criminal for treating its citizens in such ways.
10 Winokurs article, Marginal Marginalia: The African-American Voice in the Nouvelle
Gangster Film, is a theory driven survey of cinematic, black screen personas personas
he titles, homo marginalis and is a methodological compromise between the
poststructural approaches of Frederic Jameson and Mikhail Bakhtin. While Winokur
draws upon the criticism of H.L. Gates and Manthia Diawara to forward his evaluation of
screen representations in the Nouvelle Gangster Film, his focus remains political and
historical at its core.
11 In Apes and Essences: Some Sources of Significance in the American Gangster Film,
the Alger myth is one of three patterns Edward Mitchell identifies in American gangster
films, and presumably, viewers make the connection between the black gangsters of the
90s and trends within American storytelling. The other trends that Mitchell discusses are
secular Puritanism and Social Darwinism.
12 Mark Winokur describes Nino as a pastiche of Tony Camonte from Scarface (Hawks
and Rosson, 1932). See page 25. Mark Reid also discusses the similarities between
black gangsters and classic film gangsters in The Black Gangster Film.
13 In Shots in the Mirror, Nicole Raftner explains, No matter how violent and unlawful
the movie gangsters, many Americans identified with them, sharing their economic
disadvantages and dreams of wealth during hard times (27).
14 Doughboy (Ice Cube) dies a couple weeks after avenging his brother Rickys murder.
Thus vigilante justice fails in Boyz because it is circular and unending.
87


15 The Uncanny by Sigmund Freud. The German word unheimlich is obviously the
opposite of heimlich, heimisch, meaning familiar, native, belonging to the home
(418).
16 Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey. Mulvey contends that the
exchange of gazes between characters establishes a power hierarchy that positions
viewers with certain typically male protagonists.
17 On NPRs radio segment, Fresh Air, Terry Gross talks to Richard Price. Price
explains how David Simon asked him to use the same dialogue, verbatim, from his
previous book/film, Clockers. The scene with Kima at the windowsill when she says,
goodnight to the entire neighborhood is a word for word rip-off from dockers
(Price).
I 8
In Straight out of Brooklyn, a similar crane shot moves from bare trees to D after
Dennis ambitious plans to get out of the ghetto sour. This shot also communicates that
ghetto citizens are stuck. The final shot of the first episode is a direct homage to Straight
Out of Brooklyn's character Dennis (also played by Larry Guillard Jr.), who happens to
also be called D in the film.
19 The film, Fresh overtly uses chess pieces to describe the power relationships between
players within a fictional criminal community.
20 In the first episodes DVD commentary, David Simon said that they deliberately
attempted to recreate Foucaults ideas about institutions in the series. These domineering
architecture shots represent the presence of institutions in the modern city.
21 In The Naked City, one of the films undertones is the protection of vulnerable women.
Not only is the first murder a vulnerable woman, but also Detective Jimmy Halloran
(Don Taylor) is depicted as feminine. In the films climax, Muldoon saves Halloran from
the sexually threatening and dangerous Garza, played by Ted de Corsia (the camera
exaggerates Garza physical stature and prowess).
22 This trend holds true for both classic and contemporary courtroom dramas, from To
Kill A Mockingbird (Mulligan, 1962) to The Hurricane (Jewison, 1999).
23 In Patterns of Courtroom Justice, Jessica Silbey explores structural elements in
courtroom dramas, much of which is the construction of space.
24 Clovers concept of demeanor evidence is cited in Linda Williams Playing the Race
Card.
25 Lt. Frederick Manion, played by Ben Gazzara, gets away with murder, while Tom
Robinson, played by Brock Peters, is found guilty of a crime he did not commit.
26 There is great dissent among scholarly readings of the Oresteia. In The Theodicy of
Aeschylus: Justice and Tyranny in the Oresteia, David Cohen contends the Oresteia
harbors doubt about the new political system. He says, There is a new order, that is not
to be denied, but its character is the question. Aescylus, like Sophocles and Thucydides,
recognized that no political order is, or can be, based upon the morality of absolute
88


justice (139). Froma Zeitlin, on the other hand, argues that the Oresteia depicts a
movement from earth gods to sky gods and from male power to female power. She says,
The solution, therefore, places Olympian over chthonic on the divine level, Greek over
barbarian on the cultural level, and male over female on the social level (87), in Playing
the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature. In Brilliant Dynasts:
Power and Politics in the Oresteia, Mark Griffith argues that what appears to be a
democratic movement to the court of Areopagus actually reveals an underlying system of
tribalism, a network of elite families (63).
89


Notes to Chapter 2
1 Steven D. Stark identifies many structures in law narratives in Perry Mason Meets
Sonny Crockett: The History of Lawyers and the Police as Television Heroes.
Additionally, Christopher Wilsons work in Cop Knowledge identifies patterns in
detective fiction, beginning with Stephen Crane, ending with late 20th century journalism.
2 Ibid... Cop Knowledge. See Page 15.
3 Ibid... Cop Knowledge. See Page 131.
4 Ibid... Cop Knowledge. Wilson states, As Walker, Jack Greene, Skolnick and others
have pointed out, reform experimentation was still sporadically underway (144).
Furthermore, As Greene has argued, academic scrutiny had both put more emphasis on
measurements of productivity (like those clearance rates) and at the same time turned
many a department toward new tactics in managing public perception, largely through
controlling disorderly behavior (147).
5 Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. David Simon
6 In Mission Accomplished (3.12), Kima says that McNulty responded to Stringers
death, as if he was kin. The fact that McNulty responds to Stringers death in a familial
fashion demonstrates how the two were related by crime and the chase.
n
Public Enemies: the Golden Age of the Gangster Film. Due to the Wall Street Crash
and Great Depression, Americans looked to bootlegging gangsters for hope; Gangsters
offered them not just the quick fix [booze], but an example of how to fight a social
system that no longer worked.
0
Ibid... Musketeers of Pig Alley was an early example of feeble police.
9 Nicole Raftner makes this point in Shots in the Mirror. See page 114.
10 Henry contends that the metaphorics or phallic power...is readily seen in the writings
of influential figures such as Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Amiri
Baraka (122).
11 New Jack City preceded the song Cop Killer, but only by a year or less. Cop Killer
was released in 1992 and was a song performed by Ice Ts heavy metal side project,
Body Count. See Brian Colemans Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop
Junkies for a complete bio on Ice T.
1 ?
Ibid... See page 233. Ice T came to embody the flashy West Coast lifestyle to the
fullest first in his real life, and later in his rhymes (233). Ice Ts connection with DJ
Afrika Islam (Charles Gleen) helped spark his career, and Ices hit in 1986, Dog N the
Wax gained him notoriety among New York hop-hopppers. Rhyme Pays (1987)
followed a series of singles and sold around eight hundred thousand copies (Coleman
239). Other commercially successful albums such as, Power (1988), The
Iceberg/Freedom of Speech... Just Watch What You Say (1989), and O.G. Original
90


Gangster (1991) all preceded New Jack City. By 1991, Ice T was a firmly established
gangster rapper.
13 Malcolm Xs portrait plays a significant role in Spike Lees Do The Right Thing.
14 In Myth and Meaning: Francis Ford Coppola and Popular Response to the Godfather
Trilogy, David Ray Papke explains how American sensibilities towards rag-to-riches
characters often trump feelings of morality and ethics.
15 Reality TV and Criminal Justice Programs that Film Police Conduct by Robin
Anderson.
16 In another instance that happens earlier in the film, while Harry is looking for the serial
killer in different apartments, he ends up finding a topless girl and her boyfriend instead.
17 In the final season, a sociopathic kid kills Omar in a convenient store just to see it pop
off. In Its All Connected: Televisual Narrative Complexity, Ted Nannicelli says,
Character arcs in The Wire are also abruptly halted by so-called random violence. But
when Kendard murders Omar (5.08), the fastidious viewer recognizes that the violence is
not random but cyclical. In Season Three, we have seen Kenard and his friends playing
Omar after witnessing a shoot-out between Omars crew and Barksdale soldiers (3.03)
(200).
18
McNulty coaches Kima on how to cheat on her girlfriend. In Moral Midgetry (3.8),
he explains how to use extradition cases as alibis when out chasing women. This scene
is a salient moment where McNultys lawless behavior starts to rub off on Kima.
19 Each season contains a montage that provides closure to some of the various storylines,
while omitting others. During these montages, the seasons theme song corresponds to
major events in the season, originating outside the scene, extra-diegetically, and breaks
with the series otherwise commitment to realism. In the series final montage, McNultys
profile precedes and follows the series of images. Encasing the montage in between
close-ups of McNultys visage implies that he is the ultimate filter for the series, and as
such, provides the final statement for the show.
91


Notes to Conclusion
1 In Baltimore on The Wire: The Tragic Moralism of David Simon, Blake
Ethridge says that the series lacks a clear articulation of an affirmative social and
political project (152) and that Simon and The Wire are a threat to the city
(161).
2 In The Wire Bush-Era Fable about Americas Urban Poor, Peter Dreier
states, Without them [non-poor, functional black citizens] and the organizations
they belong to, we were left with a view of Baltimores poor as people sentenced
to life to an unchanging prison of social pathology. This, in fact, was how The
Wire viewed the poor (338). Dreiers argument is strikingly similar to Jacquie
Jones critique of New Jack City.
j
See note 1.
4 In the third season, a disillusioned cop decides to come up with an alternative to
the War on Drugs and creates a de facto drug zone where police condone drug
sales and usage. The area comes to be known as Hamsterdam to characters in
the series, as one of the dealers mispronounces Amsterdam after police try to
explain how this space will be similar to the Netherlands and its free-drug
attitudes. Hamsterdam is the result of Major Colvins thirty plus years of
policing, a time where he realizes that the profession has changed, becoming
futile and powerless in the perpetual war.
5 See page 114 in Raftners Shots in the Mirror. My discussion of Shaft, Dirty
Harry, and NJC fit here too.
6 Bauer fights against the CTU unit and terrorists alike.
y
Dexter is a forensics blood specialist who was taught how to evade the law by
his father, Harry (James Remar), to catch and kill criminals that fell through
legal system cracks. Harrys ways become known as The Code of Harry,
continuing Harry Callahans work, in my opinion.
o
Omar is The Wire's archetypal Robin Hood vigilante, and he is incapable of
protecting the street, as he becomes victim to the citys viscous cycle of death.
KQED interview.
92