More than 250 students, professors and community members crammed into an Angell Hall auditorium last night to hear the stars of “The Wire,” a hit HBO drama, discuss the show’s commentary on the racial and social realities of life in inner city Baltimore.
Two of the shows stars, Clark Johnson and Sonja Sohn, kicked off “Heart of the City Symposium: Black Urban Life on ‘The Wire’ ” with a casual discussion of the show and its take on the current state of racial issues in America as the nation’s first black president takes office.
The event was part of a two-day symposium on how the show addressed the systemic dysfunctions that plague the modern American inner city.
The evening’s event was comprised mostly of a back-and-forth conversation between the actors and members of the audience. Robin R. Means Coleman, an associate professor of communications studies, moderated the discussion.
“The Wire,” which aired its fifth and final season last spring, is a series about how people live on the margins of society, a subject rarely shown on television. Through the complex interactions between law enforcement, government officials, drug dealers, the public school system and the media’s portrayal of it all, “The Wire” has been critically acclaimed for its insight into the modern day black urban experience.
While the event was meant to focus on how “The Wire” speaks to race issues after Obama’s election, the conversation quickly moved to the shows intricate plot and much anticipated series finale, which aired in March.
One of the main topics discussed was how accurate the show’s portrayal of Baltimore was in the eyes of its audience members.
When asked about her relationship to the city, Sohn said that when she first moved there to begin filming the series, she saw “a really segregated city.”
However, she said that as she began to get a better sense of the city, she saw a community divided along socioeconomic lines, rather than strictly racial barriers — a nuance she said the show was able to portray accurately.
“The essence of the show was to keep it real and to make it real,” Sohn said.
She added: “The show itself is an ode to Baltimore.”
When an audience member asked how a show about drug culture avoided muddling in stereotypes, Johnson said, “The honesty of the writing…is indisputable.”
Sohn added that the show made it “easy to put images out there and wake people up and make a change.”
After the event, LSA junior Danielle Hayden said that after watching the show, “many people’s minds may have changed about certain issues.”
Rackham student Paul Farber, a co-organizer of the event, said the series gave people the know-how to take action in their day-to-day lives.
“It’s our duty to take (the show’s) lessons and try to implement them and think further on them,” said Farber.
Despite the lack of focus on what Obama’s election means to today’s society, Johnson said in an interview after the event the historic campaign does not solve all racial problems in this country.
“It’s not enough just to say we got a black man as president in the White House,” he said. “We have to continue on what he was hoping for.”
Johnson also said that there is much left work to be done.
“There are going to be some big questions to be answered, and that’s a good thing — we need a new America in order,” he said.
In the show, Johnson plays the character of Gus Haynes, the editor of the city’s fictional paper The Wire. He also directed some of the episodes, including the series’ finale. Sohn plays Detective Shakima Greggs, a member of the Baltimore Police Department.
The two-day event is sponsored by the Black Humanities Collective and the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies.
In today’s portion of the symposium, there will be a day full of presentations in Palmer Commons on the show and its value in discussions of urban politics and contemporary culture. For more information on the time and location for these events, see http://sitemaker.umich.edu/heart_of_the_city/schedule_.