It wasn’t exactly a representative sample to draw conclusions from, but the middle-school-age girls we talked to certainly gave us some insights into how they view the world of The Wire through the prism of their own neighborhoods. I think these kids enjoyed seeing the show, especially in the context of the after-school program. It was something different to do than the normal activities. At one point, they volunteered the names of some of their favorite shows: SpongeBob SquarePants, Fresh Prince, Moesha, and That’s So Raven. Of course, none of these shows have anything approaching the gritty reality and seriousness of The Wire. It’s interesting to speculate about whether our small sampling of students would have been as taken with the series if they were channel surfing or had a choice that day in the after-school program. Would they have chosen such serious real-life fare?
It reminds me of when our distributor did a test screening of Hoop Dreams in Harlem before the initial release. They wanted to see if African-American moviegoers would turn out for the film in theaters (as we filmmakers passionately hoped). The distributor recruited an audience at a showing of the film Above the Rim, a gritty fictional drama set in the world of urban basketball. There was a great turnout for the Hoop screening, as many young blacks came, hoping to see another basketball “capital D” Drama. When they realized that Hoop Dreams was a documentary, many of the younger viewers felt ripped off and lied to. (The trailers for the film tried to hoodwink audiences into thinking the film was fiction.) Fully half of the test-screening audience walked out. In their exit interviews many said something like, “Why would I want to see this? I live it.” Or they said, “This is too much like my life” or “It’s too real.” The distributor was flabbergasted at the results and after that, never really tried to get the film into the black community. We filmmakers were heartbroken.
But then the film opened. And word spread in the black community that this was a film worth seeing. It took a while, but African-Americans began showing up in heretofore largely white theaters. And we had an outreach program that helped inner-city sports teams and classes to go see the film at reduced prices or for free. We also had an in-school curriculum that was developed by a wonderful Boston-based organization, the Center for the Study of Sport in Society. The very same kinds of kids who had walked out of the screening in Harlem were now seeing this film in a different context. And the response was overwhelmingly positive. Why did they like it? According to the Center surveys, for precisely the same reasons they didn’t in Harlem: Because it was real, and about their lives. Context is indeed, everything.
So much of film and television experience for us all is about escape. Many of us want to escape the drudgery of our daily lives or less-than-exciting jobs. Or just veg out after a long day at work or school. We want to laugh or forget, or try and guess who the murderer is, all safely ensconced within the universal order of the procedural or sitcom. And the order is never subverted. The girl gets her man, and the cops or detectives or CSI always get theirs. And no one we really care about ever dies.
The Wire provides no such predictable comfort. It mimics real life in that way—especially if you are the girls in our little sample group. They live on the rough-and-tumble West Side of Chicago. They know Bubbles as “Hustle Man.” They’ve encountered “Marlo” the gangbanger, not the drug-dealer. They’ve had the “clueless Caucasian” teacher and seen fellow students brandish guns and shanks and use them, too. And they sit there on the couch at Breakthrough Urban Ministries and tell us these tales as if they were no big deal. Just a day in the life. And when they go home, they can flip on the TV and dream of being Brandy or Raven.