Show Me a Hero (TV Show)

Show Me a Hero (Directed by Paul Haggis)/2015

Show Me a Hero follows the development of a housing complex in the city of Yonkers, New York in the late 80s. It follows the cross section of political dynamics that is involved in an operation of a city.  The federal government requires the city to build a housing complex for low income families in the projects majority of whom are black.  The city withstands this as long as it can.  Its constituents do not want this. The reality is that it has no power to push back; nevertheless, various city counsellors make false promises to their constituents in order to get elected and once elected, repackage the message and proceed with the housing development.

The citizens are outraged. The white middle-class folks do not want people from the projects to come and turn their neighbourhoods into a ghetto. The black folks don’t want to move to a place where they’d face discrimination and hostility. Some decide to get off the couch and get out to better inform themselves.

Norma and Doreen, two women from different sides of the issue, go to a gathering, initially to listen and observe but eventually to voice their concerns in protest.  We see Norma and Doreen towards the end of the series actively participating in the formal governing structures in their locality.

People like Norma just want to achieve one thing – to improve her neighbourhood. For others, once they get a taste of politics they crave more.  There is an interesting section in the series, where one of the city counsellors Vinni (played by Wynona Ryder) laments to another, Nick Wasicsko (played fantastically by Oscar Isaac) that she doesn’t want to be a normal citizen after being a counsellor. She craves being someone special.  By exercising political power, an individual feels empowered; for some this creates the possibility of a change for the better, for others it's fame and recognition.

The show is neither idealistic nor pessimistic about the political power that is at play. I would say it is a thorough examination of the various stages of political power; participation, exercise and manipulation: themes which, one of the writers, David Simon explored in the Wire series.  The show paints politicians as essentially self-interested careerists that the system does not allow to engage in meaningful action.  It appears to be saying that improvements to society can be made by grassroots movement and advocates for activism at the individual level and often in the most immediate local environment: getting out and talking to people; getting involved. It is essentially a participatory view of democracy: citizens involved in the decisions that impact them.

Democracy is a unique form of governance in that it gives people choice whether or not to participate. People can participate directly or as a representative, the show seems to be favouring the former model. Some like John Stuart Mill have argued that direct involvement with democracy enhance the moral qualities of citizens as a whole because by getting themselves involved and serving the interest of others they come to think of the common good which in turn changes their own perspective and behaviour. This is clearly reflected in Norma and Doreen’s story and it is a more positive aspect of democracy.

"Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy", said F. Scott Fitzgerald. Wasicsko certainly wanted to be a hero; he wanted to be recognised and admired. We would never truly know whether he did what he did for the good of the city or for his egotistical desires. Perhaps even he didn’t know and that may not be so different from any other politician. When it comes to politicians, the show appears to be saying that a political career is a grueling journey with its ups and downs and while you may think going up in the polls makes you a hero, tragedy can await you at the come down.

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