TV Club

Why No Black Writers?

Greetings, gents. Thanks for having me back.

Alex, I wasn’t a full-time writer on the show, so I can’t speak to what the directors brought to the party. In fact, as a fan, I’m not particularly impressed with the visual style of the show. I’m not unimpressed with it either. The Wire just seems to be shot in a straightforward manner that gives us big eyefuls of Baltimore while otherwise staying out of the characters’ way. (Show us the actors acting; that’s all you need to do.)

I’d love to hear Steve, as a filmmaker, discuss the visual elements of The Wire, the directing and editing styles, separate from the writing and acting. I don’t mean to sell the directors short. But in all of series television, the director’s role is diminished, compared with feature films. A different director comes in for each episode, and he or she must maintain the signature look of the show. TV directors don’t have a license to cut loose stylistically.

Also, The Wire doesn’t tend to rely on purely visual moments. (As opposed to a stylized cop show like Miami Vice.) And even the visual moments are scripted, as in Episode 2: After Herc barges in on the mayor’s blow job, we see him walking down the hall under the cryptic gazes of past mayors hanging in portraits on the wall. A director had to execute it, but Simon wrote it just like that.

I’m glad the visual style of The Wire doesn’t often call attention to itself. That would cut against the naturalism of the drama. This show doesn’t hit a lot of bum notes, but one of them came late in Season 3, when Omar faced hit man Brother Mouzone on a dark street. The scene was staged and shot like a classical Wild West standoff. So much so that it knocked me right out of the reality of the moment. Why evoke so blatantly the cinematic tradition of the Western gunslinger when you’re supposed to be telling a story about present-day Baltimore?

Anyway, Steve, am I missing something or what?

If I may, I’d like to address a commentary by a poster on Slate’s discussion board. “Groovelady,” a black writer, asked: “[W]hy can’t Hollywood hire black writers? … [D]on’t tell me there are no brilliant black writers out there who don’t live up to the ‘black experience’ like Pelecanos and Price.”

Well, Groovelady, I’m gonna tell you something you don’t want to hear. But first …

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1994, only a handful of black writers had ever worked on prime-time network dramas. Zero had written for elite shows such as Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and L.A. Law. A veteran white producer told me he’d never even seen a script by a black writer. The times are changing. One of the hottest dramas on TV, Grey’s Anatomy, was created by a black woman, Shonda Rhimes. I’m very proud of her. A few other black folks have reached the senior ranks of TV drama writers: Pam Veasey (CSI: NY), Judy McCreary (Criminal Minds), Samantha Corbin (Crossing Jordan).

But, while it might sound good to proclaim, “There must be brilliant black writers out there who just can’t get hired in Hollywood,” I don’t see any reason to presume that’s true.

Why not? Because in other genres of writing—novels, plays, narrative journalism—brilliant black writers are mighty scarce. We, the black culture, simply don’t produce many elite-level storytellers the way we produce tons of elite-level athletes and musicians. Whose fault is that?

After a dozen years in the TV business, I can tell you that most white writers are mediocre. And I believe black people have a right to be as mediocre as anybody else and still get jobs. But when you talk about the highest level of dramatic storytelling, which The Wire represents, don’t assume the world is full of black writers who can bring it like David Simon. Or David Milch. Or David Chase.

Screenwriting in general, and series television in particular, demands peculiar gifts. Not every fine novelist or playwright or journalist can do it well. Simon and Richard Price happen to be great at it. I dig Walter Mosley and August Wilson, but neither distinguished himself as a screenwriter. It’s a tricky medium.

The flaw in Groovelady’s argument is her belief that being black somehow qualifies a person to write a good script about black life. If that were the case, America would have 38 million excellent black writers. Blackness isn’t a qualification for anything except being black. Talent is what qualifies a person to tell a good story, be it about black life or any other subject.

The Wire isn’t flawless. Nor should it be the last word written about America’s ghettos. But the black writer who takes it the next level deeper will need to be gifted like Coltrane, like Hendrix, like Willie Mays. And whoever that writer is, he or she had better be more interested in the condition of being human than the condition of being black.