Gray Areas


Baltimore City Paper, 2002



Gray Areas
HBO Returns to Baltimore's Corners With The Wire

No one seems to notice the elderly woman tending to the small flowers in a tiny patch of neat grass behind her building in West Baltimore's McCulloh Homes. Instead, all eyes are focused across the street, where a gaunt young man with a scarred face, rotting teeth, and a junkie's telltale bloated hands feverishly clutches a handful of $10 bills. While the woman, a lifelong community resident, fights against the grimness of the surrounding concrete and dilapidated apartments to make her home beautiful, the man plots his next fix.

What separates the elderly resident from the young man isn't just a difference in priorities. When the 12-foot-long trailers, bright lights and movie cameras vanish, she'll still be there. The fictional addict will shed his makeup and his character and begin memorizing lines for his next scene.

This is the set of the HBO series The Wire, which is being filmed in part at the public-housing project that extends for blocks along Dolphin Street and Pennsylvania and Druid Hill avenues. Some real residents of the low-rise projects--called Franklin Terrace on the show--sit in lawn chairs and watch the make-believe action unfold as Bubbles, a heroin addict-turned-snitch played by Andre Royo, waits to make his buy for the cameras. About three years after NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street was canceled and two years after HBO's The Corner wrapped, a major TV production has returned to Baltimore, bringing jobs back to town for the city's moribund film-and-television industry. But the violence and drug culture that has become as synonymous with the city nationally as the Orioles and the Inner Harbor is once again the focus.

Over the course of 13 episodes set to run Sunday nights at 10 beginning June 2, the new drama will follow a hastily constructed police task force assigned to topple a violent drug gang that controls a West Baltimore housing project, illustrating the gray areas between the cops and the criminals along the way. Writers David Simon and Edward Burns promise that it will not be just another "cop show."

Simon and Burns gave birth to the award-winning 1997 nonfiction novel The Corner, on which the HBO series was based. Simon, a former Sun reporter, was also the author of Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, the basis for the TV series of almost the same name. They say The Wire stands apart from their past projects because it delves into the complexities facing those on both sides of the drug war. Equal attention is given to the personal lives and motivations of the drug dealers as to the police.

Simon, who is also serving as executive producer, calls The Wire an attempt to depict "a world where both the police and the drug dealers are screwed up. The police department is dysfunctional, and the drug culture has an equally disastrous bureaucracy. We are trying to focus on the individuals within the institutions and what institutions do to individuals."

While some cops on The Wire are content to tread water, others struggle with short-sighted bosses who won't let them pursue their own investigative strategies. Meanwhile, the show's drug dealers risk their lives and freedom following the edicts of ruthless superiors.

"It marries two parallel universes," says Burns, a former Baltimore police officer and schoolteacher. "The main drug dealers' problems are not that different from the ones the main detectives face. There are no good guys, there is this vast grayness."

Simon and Burns named the show The Wire because it focuses on wiretap surveillance. The title is also a metaphor for people trying to walk a tight wire, Simon says--"a high-wire act of trying to preserve yourself in an institution."

"The show follows the detectives for half the point of view, and the other half is the drug dealers. You're supposed to feel for both of them. It is all about middle management. For these people, their bosses are asses, and at the same time, good help is hard to find," Simon adds.

"This economic machine, it will use everybody. If you're strong, it has a place for you; if you're weak, it has a place for you. All of its employees are brutally interchangeable--that is the theme we are going for."

Burns, a 20-year police veteran, worked as a lead investigator on a number of major prosecutions of the most violent drug crews in Baltimore. Still, he says, he reached a stalemate in his career because of unyielding management. Likewise, Simon said his experience as a crime reporter for The Sun left him with his own frustrations with management (he left the daily in 1995).

They both reside in Baltimore and chose to set the series and film here again because, as Simon says matter of factly, "This is the city we know."

"You have to go a long way," Burns adds, "to find a place as screwed up as Baltimore."


IN ADDITION TO PUTTING local production personnel back to work, The Wire features several performers with local roots. Lance Reddick, who plays police Lt. Cedric Daniels, is a native Baltimorean. So is 19-year-old Brandon Price, a recent graduate of the Baltimore School of the Arts, who plays a manager in the drug organization.

Royo, who portrays the drug addict and snitch Bubbles, isn't a local, but he has been getting into character by spending time at rehab centers in Baltimore, talking to recovering addicts as well as current ones whose day-to-day survival depends on remaining high. In his theatrical makeup--the swollen hands, the ashen face--he gets anxious looks from passers-by when driving to work in costume.

"When my lady first saw me, she started crying," Royo recalls. "I was in full makeup, teeth missing, scars all over my face."

Sonja Sohn, a Virginia native who plays one of the lead detectives, Shakima Greggs, was a little worried at first about the content of the show.

"I didn't want to do anything that was a typical gangster or drug show," Sohn says, as a black SUV speeds around the nearby corner of Druid Hill Avenue, disobeying all traffic laws. A few seconds behind it, a sky-blue police car gives chase. All for the cameras. Sohn says the criminals in this series are fully developed characters, able to inspire sympathy as well as repulsion.

Baltimore native Larry Gilliard Jr., who plays D'Angelo Barksdale, a soft-hearted drug dealer, notes that The Wire was scripted in part before the city's high-rise projects were imploded. The tall project blocks will be added to the show's west-side skyline digitally in postproduction, a fictional regression for a Baltimore that had made some progress in getting rid of substandard and blighted subsidized housing. Still, says Gilliard, who grew up right across the street from some of the high rises, such progress is minimal compared to the devastation experienced in some areas.

"It hurts me to see some of the neighborhoods in Baltimore now," he says. "They are completely wiped out. You don't just have abandoned houses, you have abandoned neighborhoods. It is like a bomb went through the neighborhoods. I remember it was a thriving community. I wonder how something like this happens."

Although Gilliard has mixed emotions about coming back to the neighborhood where he grew up to play a drug dealer, he reconciles it because his character isn't just a heartless criminal. He says the show humanizes the people who are out on the corner.

"A lot of the guys I grew up with that were out on the corner were smart guys," he says. "They just didn't know how to make the system work for them."


FOOTBALLS WOBBLE THROUGH the air, and the sound of bouncing basketballs drifts through alleys as children play on the grounds of the McCulloh Homes. Sitting around and watching the film crews work, residents of the low-rise projects generally agree that they are tired of low-income neighborhoods being chosen to depict drug-infested, crime-ridden areas on cop shows.

"I don't like the fact that they do this here, but they won't go out to the upper-class neighborhoods and film late at night, even though the drugs are out there too," 29-year-old Sharron Dawkins says. "Overall, I'm upset because it will show this area as nothing but drugs and violence, and there's more to it than that."

Dawkins complains that film crews intrude on the neighborhood, making noise late at night and asking residents to accommodate them.

"They would come down and tell you that you were in the way and you had to move even if you were standing in front of your own house. They were knocking on people's doors late at night and telling them they couldn't make noise or walk certain places. They even told people they couldn't dry their clothes on the clothesline, to take their clothes down because they were filming."

While some residents don't appreciate the production and its portrayal of their neighborhood, others are more accepting.

"Some aspects of what they were filming might be credible in that drugs and violence are going to happen," 29-year-old McCulloh Homes resident Joel Johnson says, holding his 1-year-old son in his arms as he walks down Druid Hill Avenue. Still, he notes, "It ain't where you at, it's how you're living. It's not as bad as it used to be, but the drug population is not just here. It's everywhere."