Few television shows have received as much academic praise as HBO’s The Wire. From City Hall to the classroom to the street corner, The Wire brilliantly captured the heart and soul of urban America—the same heart and soul meticulously detailed in countless academic studies of urban inequality.
Yet the scholars that research urban America rarely come into contact with the actors that portray urban America in television or film. That is, until two weeks ago when three actors from The Wire—Andre Royo (Bubbles the junkie), Sonja Sohn (Kima the detective), and Michael Williams (Omar the stickup artist)—sat down with three scholars—Harvard sociologists William Julius Wilson and Larry Bobo, and Yale graduate student/Baltimore native Brandon Terry—to discuss the social policy implications and lessons from the show.
After the panel, Royo, Song, and Willams were escorted to a private after-party at The Harvard Lampoon, a building that houses the Harvard undergraduate humor magazine of the same name. Since the panel’s moderator is also my colleague in the Sociology department, I received a highly coveted (and much appreciated) invite to the party.
As a huge fan of the show, I could barely contain myself. I tried my best to keep it cool, keeping my camera in my pocket and resisting the urge to ask for an autograph. But when I sparked a conversation with Andre Royo, my composure started to fade. See, Bubs was my favorite character on the show, and Royo’s brilliant and careful portrayal of the homeless drug addict made my admiration for the character that much stronger. After a geek-out session about the show’s integration of professional actors with actual Baltimore natives (we went back and forth for a good five minutes listing each and every B-more local that appeared on the show), we started to talk about the inherent difficulty of portraying junkie.
Of course, playing a junkie isn’t that difficult, if the whole twitching-and-randomly-scratching-yourself caricature is your thing. But fans of The Wire know that Bubbles wasn’t your average junkie. There was an art to the way Royo played Bubs, a unique take on a classic character that fundamentally changed the way we approach “the junkie:” We never pitied him when he fell, but rather rooted for him to rise back up. In a strange way, the down-and-out junkie was the show’s most consistent hero.
According to Royo, a few unpaid consultants helped him develop the character. These consultants showed up at his trailer each morning, followed him and the production crew throughout Baltimore, and advised him through each and every scene. When he threw away a cigarette before smoking it to the filter, for example, they were quick to correct his mistake. How were they privy to the intimate details of life as a junkie? Because these consultants weren’t really consultants at all: They were the men and women that lived their lives on the streets of Baltimore. The very men and women Royo’s character was based on.
After each day, he’d retire to his trailer and remove his makeup. “And when I’d walk out,” he told me, “I looked at these people that had helped me all day, and I could see the betrayal in their eyes. At the end of the day, I could get cleaned up and go home, while they spent the night on the street. They looked at me like a sellout. It [messed] with my head for a long time.” Royo would feel depressed, and after particularly long days he often needed to spend time alone, away from everyone, to gather his thoughts. Here were men and women that could barely get by, struggling with addiction, and Royo was exploiting their lived experiences to get a paycheck. I asked Royo how he dealt with the guilt. “I just tried to portray the character—their world—with humanity. That’s all I could really do,” he replied. “But it was hard for me, emotionally.”
Detailing the lives of marginalized and disadvantaged communities requires a profound responsibility—a responsibility to be humble, compassionate, and above all else, honest. When Royo waxed philosophical, introspectively analyzing his role as both actor and representative, I couldn’t help but connect. As a qualitative researcher of urban inequality, I’m constantly dealing with the label of “privileged white guy that studies poor black people.” One the one hand, I feel a moral obligation to fight for those that are systematically disadvantaged. But on the other hand, such analyses can quickly become deeply paternalistic. Those that are familiar with my work and ideas know that I reject fetishizing “the other,” taking a comprehensive approach that avoids a singular focus on poor people of color. Still, the risk of exploitation never leaves the back of my mind. I never forget that I am making a career out of someone else’s life. I never forget who I am, constantly problematizing my ability to ever fully understand someone else’s world. And I never forget why I do it in the first place or why these issues matter. Like Royo, I constantly question myself, my work, and my role as a researcher.
Representing reality—be it on television or in academic research—requires a commitment to the craft of storytelling. But more importantly, it requires integrity. It was that integrity that made The Wire so powerful, and it is that critical honesty that makes good research. Urban polemics notwithstanding, this was the show’s most valuable lesson.