I read Shelley Fralic’s review of Stuff White People Like the other day. Apparently, the concept was born when author Christian Lander and his friends were watching The Wire and speculating why more white people didn’t like the series and what sorts of things they do like.
They started with a blog, and inevitably it spun off into a book deal. The blog entry about The Wire is a good example: apparently, white people like television if it is “critically acclaimed, low-rated, shown on premium cable, and available as a DVD box set.” And white people like The Wire because it is “authentic.”
Maybe it seemed particularly funny to me, because my respectable partner and I (both white) have just finished watching Season 4 of The Wire, from the comfortable television room of our decently-kept home in white-bread North Vancouver. The series is a powerfully compelling picture of life in the bleak, run-down inner-city streets of Baltimore. It details the ongoing war between the law and the mainly black, drug-dealing community (and the wars within the communities: police who have their own agendas and/or are dealing with political interference; territorial wars and personal grudges within the various factions of the drug-dealing sector) and the occasional bridges of temporary understanding between far-apart worlds.
And yes, it seems authentic. It’s hard to say how you know that a portrayal is realistic when you haven’t experienced that particular undesirable part of the world, but I suppose you extrapolate from what you do know.
Respectable partner and I were unable to understand a word the street guys said, and the police have their own argot that took some getting used to, so we resorted early on to subtitles. This enabled us to pick up a fair amount of Baltimore drug-ese and occasionally throw a few phrases at each other. The street language is something linguists presumably delight in: a frequently changing dialect with its own grammatical rules and subleties. It has a pretty high FPM ratio and all the other bad words are frequently employed. In fact, there is a lengthy conversation with two detectives, McNulty and Bunk, in which the F-word is just about the only word used (as various parts of speech and with a wide range of inflections, so that you can follow along and understand their communication quite well).
Once I accustomed myself to the language, I started to love it. The Wire’s website has a lengthy bulletin board with fans’ favourites. Some of mine (I’ve carefully reviewed and left out the coarser ones but caveat emptor, anyway):
Omar’s classic one-liner wisdom:
- You mistake me for a man that repeats himself.
- Money ain’t got no owners, only spenders.
Proposition Joe demonstrating why he has stayed in business so long:
- I’m Proposition Joe. If you steal from me, I’ll kill your whole family.
De’Londa, reminding Namond of her maternal love and guidance while encouraging him to go back out on the corner:
- You don’t what, motherfucker? This how you pay me back for all the love I showed? Shit… I been kept you in Nikes since you were in diapers.
Cheese, complaining that they’ve been tricked by a woman:
- The shit was unseemly.
Cheese, to Brother Mouzone, the killer who looks like a preacher:
- Either you Muslim or your momma needs to stop laying your clothes out on the bed for you.
The wisdom of Bunk, in one of many classics:
- There you go givin a fuck when it’s not your turn to give a fuck.
Slim Charles, encapsulating a nice understanding of ethics and social strata:
- You done shot the church crown off a bona fide COLORED lady. You niggas know what a COLORED lady is?
Slim Charles on war:
- I mean, shit, it’s what war is, you know? Once you in it, you in it. If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie. But we gotta fight.
Stringer, bringing the techniques from his business class to a meeting with his street crew:
- Poot, raising his hand: “Chair”
- Stringer: “Speak”
- Poot: “Do the chair recognize we gone look like some punk ass bitches?”
Bodie, reflecting on morality and the unfairness of the world:
- Damn, I feel old. You know, I been out here since I was 13. I never fuck up a count. I never stole off a package. I never did some shit I wasn’t supposed to do, and what comes back?
D’Angelo to Bodie, giving him a dual lesson when teaching him how to play chess:
- The king stay the king
The series needs moments of crude levity and moments of hope, as otherwise it would be just too hard to watch. It’s painful to watch the hardening effect of street life on the kids, and it’s painful to watch the casual brutality they take for granted. I have developed a tolerance for watching movies with a level of violence I would not have considered ten years ago. I don’t think this is a good thing, but it is what it is, as one of the characters might remark in a moment of profundity. You feel me, yo?
David Simon, the creator of The Wire, wrote both Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which inspired the series Homicide: Life on the Street, and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, which inspired the miniseries The Corner. He says that the Baltimore of the series (with the obligatory disclaimer that all specifics are fictional) has indeed experienced all of the problems depicted and suggests that those problems in general “go unaddressed by our political culture, by most of our mass media, and by our society in general.” He expresses some amazement that it is left to the entertainment media to draw attention to these massive social problems.