We can say this now with certainty if we ask ourselves one basic question about human nature: What good does it do a political operative to screw over the opposition if you can’t then tell your boss about it? Where is the joy for any lickspittle hack in the office hierarchy if he or she can’t pull off a dirty trick against a political adversary, then walk down the hall and tell the boss just how well you did on his behalf? What would be the point?
I’ve actually found New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s bluster and anger to be endearing at times, if only for the plain-speaking insistence on results. I don’t find anger to be a particularly negative trait when that anger is offered on behalf of others, nor do I regard argument as anything other than a worthy endeavor if the argument is actually about something. I didn’t agree with Mr. Christie on any number of issues, but I found him credible as a public servant. He reminded me in some respects of the late Maryland Governor and Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer — Mayor Annoyed as we knew him, the angriest, melon-headedest white man in our tarnished state’s political firmament. “Do It Now,” was Mr. Schaefer’s daily mantra, and while he could be stubborn and bullying at points — and petty and juvenile at his worst moments — he got quite a bit done during his tenure. My city and state could have done a lot worse with more restrained and thoughtful leadership.
But even Mr. Schaefer’s petulance and childishness had its limits. He might read a letter to the editor from a complaining citizen and call that individual in a cranky rage. He might tell reporters off-the-record to go fuck themselves and their editors. He might play every all-in-the-game political angle to reward friends and harm adversaries and take pride in the result. He would not, however, snarl some Maryland traffic purposely, endangering residents of his state, to achieve the most petty kind of payback. He wouldn’t purposely set his state’s performance back for a petty and vicious comeuppance. Mayor Annoyed had spent too many years filling potholes to dig any of his own, for any reason.
For that kind of behavior you need someone really, really small. For the anger and argument to become that self-absorbed and infantile, you need someone with even more selfish insecurity and fractured ego than Mr. Schaefer could offer. You need someone who saw himself as being not only larger than the sum of his constituents, but larger than the commonweal itself. Add in the potential for actually harming innocent people — ambulances unable to reach calls, school buses unable to transport children — and you have something that leaves the Schaefers of the political world entirely incapable. For this kind of petty venality, you have to look to a Huey Long or a Richard Nixon, someone for whom any fealty to democratic processes and public service no longer matters when personal ambition and aggrandizement are at stake.
Think on this: A 91-year-old woman in Fort Lee, New Jersey, unreachable by an ambulance with life-support equipment caught in a traffic jam engineered as Governor Christie’s retribution for the denial of a political endorsement, died later that day at an area hospital. I’d like to know her name. I’d like to see her photograph. I’d like to hear from her family. I’d like the governor to know her name, to see her photograph, to visit with and apologize to her family. He owes them that much.
Because he knew.
If Mr. Christie didn’t order this mayhem himself, then he knew because the aides who achieved this carnage on his behalf were so successful in doing so that they could not have possibly held their silence. Not over the course of four long days of maintaining the traffic snarl in Fort Lee. All of us who have worked in an office, who have experienced institutional hierarchy, who have seen the wages of unthinking loyalty to the boss — we know this much. The same kind of people who would embark on such an action would not be able to do anything but run right down the hall to tell the governor how they had delivered pain to his political enemy. They would then wait on their attaboy. People of that ilk live for the attaboy. Like cats with a fresh-caught mouse, they were bringing home a prize. And there’s no joy for any housecat if the prize can’t be displayed to the master of the house.
I’m sorry for Mr. Christie, who seems in his better moments to be something of a leader. But anger and argument lose all charm when they are employed for stakes so small, stupid and selfish. He knew. And he’s lying about it now.
Offered up in response to an invitation from the editors, who wanted something to “bookend” the series, given that I had written a short primer when the drama premiered. It’s never fair to declaim on what a story is or isn’t when folks are still absorbing it on their own terms and forming their own opinions, so I kept it to a couple elemental disclaimers and a thank-you to the cultural communities in New Orleans. I should also mention that the offer of a first round on me is for New Orleanians only, as they have been gracious about the necessary trespass. If you come up to me with concerns and critiques of the drama in Boston or Barcelona or Baltimore, the first one is definitely on you.
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Four and a half years and 36 hours of television later, I still don’t know what “tu es pocky way” actually means. Or more accurately, I don’t know which to credit among the seven or eight definitions offered us by five or six different Mardi Gras Indians. Our prime consultant on these matters, Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr., assures me that he knows the correct answer and can only provide it to me if I’ve been sewing for a year or so, or conversely, if I’m willing to accept a hatchet in my head for trafficking in sacred Indian secrets without proper authority.
Seems I let a cat slip from the bag in the Q-and-A session after a recent gig in Australia by mentioning some work undertaken in conjunction with a possible stage musical involving the songs of The Pogues. I was offering an answer to a question about whether I had thought about undertaking work in media other than prose or television. What has ensued with the Irish press, and then with the likes of Rolling Stone, has been a little surprising, if not entirely premature.
To more carefully ground this in fact:
I’ve been a fan of The Pogues and their music since the late 1980s. After we had used some of their songs in The Wire, I had a chance to meet the bandmembers through George Pelecanos, who had been invited to one of their concerts in Washington, D.C. Shortly thereafter, during some time in London, I was approached by Phil Chevron about the possibility of writing a musical that would utilize the band’s discography. Interested, I was then introduced to the estimable director Garry Hynes of Ireland’s Druid Theater, who had also been engaged by Mr. Chevron.
In turn, I approached Mr. Pelecanos and my wife, novelist Laura Lippman, to help create a storyline for such a musical. George, my colleague on The Wire and Treme, is also a longstanding Pogues admirer and Laura, who has the lyrics of every Sondheim show memorized, has forgotten more about American musicals than I have so far learned. We sat, worked the problem, ran it by both Ms. Hynes and Mr. Chevron, who offered notes, suggestion, encouragement and help overall.
Earlier this year, after a couple abortive drafts of leaden misery, I turned in a completed draft that was at least free of shame-inducing hackery. The draft went to Ms. Hynes, with a copy to Phil Chevron, who was struggling with late-stage cancer. I was glad to have produced something at least worthy of their consideration before Mr. Chevron passed away in October, if only because it was Phil’s love and understanding of the stage musical and his advocacy for this project that it exists.
Meetings and readings of the material are scheduled for later this spring, involving the writers, Ms. Hynes and her Druid team, and members of The Pogues. After that, a second draft — this one involving Pelecanos and Lippman — is likely. And once Ms. Hynes and her team fully instruct and guide us, I have little doubt that third and fourth drafts will also be forthcoming. Much more work by all is going to be required before such a project can be properly developed.
It is not a musical about The Pogues, as was reported, but a tale written to utilize their musical canon. It is not David Simon’s next project after Treme. It is not the Druid Theater’s next project. Casting calls remain unscheduled. Rehearsal space has not been rented. Tickets and playbills are not being printed anywhere for any purpose. Shane Macgowan has not been assigned his house seats for the duration of the run. No, a fellow in Sydney, Australia asked a question and without thinking too much, I answered him correctly without realizing that the internet’s reach includes the southern hemisphere. Cat rebagged, I hope. Or at the least, it’s a housecat at this point, not a stalking tiger.
What follows is from this month’s GQ Magazine, which named actor Michael B. Jordan — who we first victimized in “The Wire” — for the breakout performance of 2013. His fine work in “Fruitvale Station” is wholly deserving and the film is an important one. I was honored when the magazine asked me to write something for the year-end issue, and it’s reposted here with the magazine’s kind permission. Congratulations, Michael. We knew you when.
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Perversely, we are at the edge of creating a hard-and-fast rule of film narrative in which the one assured means by which we can get America to care about young men of color is to shoot Michael B. Jordan.
Not Michael, to be fair. But any character portrayed by Michael.
The drug war? Stop and frisk? Racial profiling? Black-on-black violence? Our separate Americas? All that is commentary. If you need white folks to actually feel something, it pays to aim a handgun at Michael B. Jordan’s delicate and nuanced humanity and pull the trigger. Suddenly the risks of being young and black on an American street are apparent.
A decade ago on The Wire, we put Michael in the path of a bullet, knowing we were breaking hearts. Not merely because the kid was a fine, careful actor playing a grandly sacrificial role. But that smile—the open, adolescent warmth that filled Michael’s face in ordinary moments—God, the smile alone was going to wreck anyone watching as Wallace’s story played out.
We started him sweet and foolish and playing with action figures, and we finished him in a vacant public-housing unit, with a high-caliber bullet in his chest. On that last day of work, even the Baltimore crew—veterans of all manner of cop-show savagery and betrayal—were sullenly setting up the shot.
“I can’t believe you’re killing Michael,” said the makeup lady.
No, we’re killing Wallace.
“It’s just wrong. It’s evil.”
When J.D. fired the prop gun and the squibs spurted and Michael dropped onto the stunt mat, the script coordinator started crying.
So now, a decade later, comes Fruitvale Station, a quotidian, last-day-in-the-life account of Oscar Grant, another young black man—this one shot to death by a transit officer in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 at the Fruitvale stop of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.
Now, again, a few earnest souls in our film industry are taking steps from the beaten path to present the human-scale cost of our racial pathology. And the right actor is again required to take a bullet in such a way that we will feel the loss in all of its intricate detail.
No surprise who gets the call. Now Michael B. Jordan, an actor honed by a decade of meaningful work, turns in a performance that surrounds the doomed Oscar Grant, making him seem idiosyncratic yet average, ordinary yet precious. That’s the power of Fruitvale.
It’s easy to say as much, but to feel it? And it’s harder when we are obliged to consider those who wear hoodies, who smoke a little weed, who text the wrong thing to a girl, who ever make a single mistake in their short lives. Harder still if the dead man can’t win us with his smile.
And there’s the lesson.
If we shoot Michael dead a few more times, there’s a small chance we might actually learn it.
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At GQ, online: