‘Show Me a Hero’ dramatizes NY affordable housing fight

Paul Haggis
Paul Haggis attends a special screening of HBO's "Show Me A Hero" miniseries at The New York Times Center on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) — The power of writer David Simon’s work has drawn remarkable actors to TV dramas including “The Wire” and “Treme.”

The latest evidence is “Show Me a Hero,” HBO’s six-episode miniseries based on a bitter 1980s battle over public housing in Yonkers, New York. It begins this weekend and airs 8-10 p.m. EDT on three consecutive Sundays through Aug. 30.

Even Simon marveled at the cast that includes Oscar Isaac, Alfred Molina, Winona Ryder and Catherine Keener. All that talent for what sounds like — but is far from — a dramatized bureaucratic slog?

“It makes no sense. I’m coming with, like, eight hours on botany and seeing who I pull next time,” he jokingly told a meeting of the Television Critics Association.

Stellar director Paul Haggis also was attracted to the miniseries, based on Lisa Belkin’s non-fiction book of the same name that recounted how a federal court order to build low-income housing in white neighborhoods split the city and wrecked its young mayor’s career.

Haggis, himself an Academy Award-winning writer (2004’s “Crash,” also honored as best picture) said yes to “Show Me a Hero” before he saw any script, and for one reason.

“David Simon,” he said in an interview. “I heard he had a project available and I pitched myself for it.”

When producers asked which episode he wanted to direct, Haggis replied: “I want to do them all.”

This from a man who had only directed films based on his own scripts. And this despite the fact that the modest budget and pace of TV production required taping six to 10 pages of script a day compared to the relatively leisurely big-screen tally of two to three pages, he said.

“It was very challenging to capture this because, as David likes to joke, his company is the PBS of HBO. You don’t get the same kind of budget as if you put a zombie in it, which is natural,” said Haggis, hastening to add that HBO was “very good to us.”

The result is one of the most intelligent, gripping and provocative projects to grace any screen this year, a study of the clash of what America is and what it hopes to be, as seen through the eyes of lawmakers, activists and the Yonkers residents caught in the maw of politics and social disruption. Simon and William F. Zorzi co-wrote the miniseries.

“It’s a tale of very flawed individuals who are trying to do the right thing from their perspective,” Haggis said, including white homeowners who saw themselves as protectors of their neighborhoods and property values under assault by housing to be placed throughout the city, not solely in poorer areas.

The miniseries has a cinema verite feel, which Haggis said he felt was important given the subject matter: “I was being handed the truth in the script… but I had to make it feel real,” he said.

In crowd scenes, for example, the goal was for every frame to appear as “imperfect” as possible.

“I wanted to make you (the viewer) feel like you were part of it. There’s always someone or something between you and what you see,” such as a microphone or even a pole partly obscuring an actor’s face, he said.

It creates a sense of urgency as well as realism, and that’s appropriate for an issue that remains pertinent. Although decades have passed since the Yonkers clash, the fight for affordable public housing continues elsewhere in U.S. cities, Simon said.

“It happened in Baltimore County (Maryland) when they tried to put scattered site housing in my city,” he said, adding, “We are not good at sharing in this country. We are not very good at it anymore. There was a moment in time where the idea of a societal of a shared America was plausible.”

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Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber@ap.org and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber.

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