August 28, 2015

'Show Me a Hero' ... we dare you

This HBO series is so timely. Our nation is once again taking up the matter of racial injustice. To see now how one community tackled it in the late 1980s and early 90s shows how far we have not come.

This 6-part TV mini-series is extremely important. It is based on the book by Lisa Belkin, a former New York Times reporter. The angst in ‘Hero’ centers on the struggle of predominantly white Yonkers, NY, wrestling with court-ordered new low income housing to be built in a white, middle class neighborhood.

The original intent of the Federal Housing Act of 1937 was to boost the economy with jobs and to provide safe housing for low income families. Originally, prospective tenants were screened to determine that their income was not higher than five times the rental cost of the unit. Revised in 1949, the Housing Act included subsidized housing programs other than public housing and had a priority for very low income people. The “perks” for builders and private developers escalated.

Gradually, higher income tenants moved from public housing and preferences on waiting lists were granted to the most disadvantaged applicants (homeless and displaced). Due to income disparity, minorities had few opportunities to take advantage of government subsidies promoting home ownership and by the mid-1980s the public housing population was composed of a more disadvantaged segment of society. The housing projects were racially segregated.

‘Hero’ is a glimpse into the political, personal and social issues raised when a community is faced with significant change. Similar to two other series, ‘Treme’ and ‘The Wire’, also created by David Simon, ‘Hero’ gradually exposes institutional and personal racism, bringing it to the forefront as the 85% white community of Yonkers, New York, vehemently opposes court-ordered integration of public housing.

Paul Haggis, the director who gave us a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience in ‘Crash’, has found wonderful actors here. Alfred Molina, Catherine Keener, Winona Ryder, Bob Balaban and David Isaac are the standouts in the cast. But the real stars may be the character actors and extras who might remind you of friends or relatives.

Scene after scene we witness people standing up for what they believe or caving to pressures of politics and a legal system. Ethics and morals are both stand out characters and social subtleties.

In one episode, a compromise housing site is selected on land owned by the Roman Catholic archdiocese with the cardinal’s consent. The white parishioners send their message of disgust and defiance by withholding contributions. Watching the long-handled offering baskets passed in pews receiving no money from God’s people is enough to make Jesus weep. Again.

Young, newly elected mayor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) faces into the challenge of the court order and the widespread public resistance. Program creator, David Simon is a master at the juxtaposition between people of power and those without it by giving the viewer a look into the struggles of regular people living on the edge of poverty and the struggle of a person in power attempting to hold true to a view of the larger good. The series is full of moral truth, simple humanity and unexpected hope. Unfortunately, the miniseries provides a small glimpse into a housing crisis that still exists today and is perpetuated by institutional racism.

Whether it’s watching this TV mini-series or the GOP presidential primary race, we’re all going to be using the word xenophobia. Fear of people of difference was an issue in Yonkers 25 years ago. It still is in many parts of our country. And people of faith who say they are committed to loving their neighbors as themselves have a lot of work to do build bridges, create opportunities for conversation and economic justice for everyone. Only then will we be able to find some heroes.

Look for this repeating on HBO or On Demand.

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