Show Me a Story
Ashley Clark on The Wire (episode: “Misgivings”) and Juice

For all the rapturous praise that HBO’s Baltimore-set epic The Wire has received since it debuted in 2002, descriptions of it in visual terms have been rare. Critical appraisals instead tend to focus—neither unfairly nor surprisingly—on its impressively labyrinthine plotting, rich characterizations (in particular an unprecedentedly diverse range of roles for black actors), and darkly diagnostic sociopolitical/pedagogical thrust. Unlike The Sopranos, with its lush, searching tableaux, or Breaking Bad, with its sun-seared Albuquerque vistas, The Wire operates under a tight visual schema that might best be described as a blend of Frederick Wiseman’s unobtrusive documentary surveillance and Sidney Lumet’s gritty, mobile street work—that is to say, it is with distinctly cinematic precedent. Nevertheless, it has been derided by prominent critics for a perceived lack of visual originality. Noted formalist David Bordwell, who made it through four of the show’s five seasons, described it as “uninspiringly shot,” while The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, speaking at a debate in January 2012 entitled “The Big Story: Is Television the New Cinema?” was more vituperative. “The Wire sucks,” he railed, rubbishing the idea that it could ever be construed as cinematic: “[T]here is no image. It’s a way for us not to think about image and sound. I have contempt for story. When I watch an episode of The Wire, I feel like I’m watching an episode of a story conference. I see story editors sitting in a room with conference cards.” The Wire’s bullish cocreator and show-runner, David Simon, hasn’t necessarily helped to abate such perceptions by consistently downplaying the series as entertainment in favor of promoting its socially conscious credentials. In a profile, writer Nick Griffin described Simon—rather wonderfully—as a “Trojan horse who found himself perturbed by the artistry of his own horse.”

The Wire constituted my first experience binging on serial drama (eight episodes in one day remains my record), and during my first couple of run-throughs of the full five seasons, its subtle visual dimension was not in the front in my mind. Yet in responding to the challenge posed by this symposium (writers have been asked to explore the relationship between television and film in the current climate), I began to consider the manner in which it visually imparts information. Despite The Wire’s density, it is rarely difficult to follow, yet—crucially—the dialogue remains free of clunky exposition. The logical conclusion to draw from this is that The Wire is a fine example of pure visual storytelling, which is surely a key facet of both successful television and cinema.

It is useful here to focus on Ernest Dickerson, who directed six of The Wire’s sixty episodes, and has developed an impressive portfolio of work in film and television. A noted visual stylist, Dickerson shot Spike Lee’s debut 1983 short Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads before getting his big break as DP on John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet (1984). He then shot Lee’s first six features, from She’s Gotta Have It (1986) through Malcolm X (1992), and I’d argue that he remains Lee’s most important collaborator: when we think of Lee’s early, name-making works, it’s their visual splendor, clarity, and innovation that spring to mind. Consider the popping colors and searing evocation of summer heat in Do the Right Thing (1989); the seductively buttery, soft-focus sheen of jazz melo Mo’ Better Blues (1990); or Lee’s signature move, the floating dolly shot, which was co-originated with Dickerson and first appeared in 1988’s School Daze. Dickerson made his feature directing (and cowriting) debut with urban thriller Juice (1992), and he has completed seven further features to date. Exploring Dickerson’s work on The Wire helps us to assess the extent to which a director can express himself within an existing authorial structure, and how much a director might have to adapt when traversing mediums. In interview, Dickerson has expounded upon the process of working on The Wire: “One of the great things about directing The Wire, especially the later episodes, is when you get there . . . they give you all the episodes they have cut up until then. So basically I sit and OD on everything that has been going on all the way so that I can see how my episode connects.” This information, which positions Dickerson as an enthusiastic creative collaborator striving to transform story into visuals, rather than a mere technician for hire, puts a significantly different spin on Brody’s pejorative contention about The Wire’s production.

Directed by Dickerson, “Misgivings” is a complex, multi-stranded episode—its synopsis on HBO’s official website runs to a whopping 3,357 words. Like each installment in the fourth, angriest, tonally darkest, and best season, it was shot by Russell Lee Fine, whose contribution to the show’s consistently gritty visual dimension is invaluable. To the drug cartels, police department, and malfunctioning municipal bureaucracy, another institution to critique is added: the public school system, mired in red tape. Four new characters—middle-school pals Michael, Randy, Namond, and Dukie—are introduced, and by the time “Misgivings” rolls around, their lives are on the cusp of being irrevocably altered by coming into contact with “the game,” an intractable drug-dealing/life-taking machine embodied by statuesque, shark-eyed overlord Marlo Stanfield (the terrifying Jamie Hector), and his two lieutenants: taciturn hardman Chris Partlow (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and androgynous hair-trigger hoodrat Snoop (Felicia Pearson). Freelance stick-up-artist Omar (Michael K. Williams) is on the fringes, collecting surveillance for his next strike, while the cops are frustrated by over-their-head political machinations and flummoxed by an increasing number of missing cadavers (which, unbeknownst to them, have been hidden in vacant lots by Snoop and Chris).

The episode opens in an unusually comical fashion. In a visual motif repeated throughout, the camera, as if a tool of surveillance itself, hides behind a wall. It dollies slowly left to pick up with a 4x4 cruising down the street. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about this, until a subtle pan left reveals Donut (Nathan Corbett)—a particularly dinky sixth-grader who has made a handful of minor appearances in the series—at the wheel. The car passes by the stationary vehicle of hotheaded cop Officer Walker (Jonnie Louis Brown), and a well-choreographed, action-packed chase ensues. All humor is swiftly extinguished when Walker eventually collars Donut, and proceeds to break his fingers, an act captured in merciless close-up. There follows a wide-shot tableau of Walker towering over the crumpled child, while his cop car is obscured in the background behind a metal chain-link fence. Dickerson’s composition—a truly horrible image squeezed into the frame’s claustrophobic 4:3 academy ratio—speaks to almost every major theme that will be articulated within the coming hour: detached surveillance, abuse of power, municipal/institutional corruption, the loss of childhood innocence, threatened masculinity and the inordinate reaction against it, and the desolation of the urban environment.

“Misgivings” is packed with examples of Dickerson’s gift for visual storytelling: canny directorial choices that unflashily reveal narrative and character information while simultaneously underscoring key themes. Around 40 minutes in, veteran “corner boy” Bodie (J.D. Williams) is informed by colleague Slim Charles (Anwan Glover) that he’s been unwittingly yet directly responsible for the unnecessary execution of his friend Little Kevin (Tyrell Baker). Charles’s car rolls away, leaving Bodie bereft, staring at the ground. The scene closes with a desolate shot of Bodie from behind. His shoulders slump, while the camera slowly dollies back until the frame is vertically cleaved in two by a red brick wall. Pasted to a window embedded in the wall is a semi-defaced poster advertising the mayoral campaign of sleazy, self-interested candidate Clarence Royce (Glynn Turman), whose journey, like Bodie’s, will end in defeat. It’s the sort of visual detail that’s easily missed if one isn’t paying attention, but betrays a sense of the interconnectedness of this blasted, tragic milieu without the need for exposition or overstatement. Later, in an unusually impressionistic touch for The Wire, a scene during which Bodie discusses the situation with his friend Poot (Tray Chaney) is bathed in a sickly, dull yellow-green light. Its look recalls the Taj Mahal crack-house scene in Lee’s Jungle Fever, about which Dickerson said: “The crack house was all blue and green, which normally are the colors that are least flattering to black skin tone. But that was the point—to make it look like hell.” In subtly prodding at the edges of The Wire’s visual blueprint from within—rather than attempting to operate outside of it—Dickerson expresses that same “hell” across mediums.

The director’s most impressive feat in the episode is the way he presents a psychologically tricky series of events that culminate in an act of shocking violence. Midway through, Snoop, Chris, and schoolboy Michael, who has slowly been lured into their criminal network, are captured in a three shot, advancing toward the camera, staring at something offscreen. A subplot has been simmering for a few episodes focusing on Michael’s antipathy toward the father of his younger brother, Bug—and a reverse medium shot reveals the man, the target of their glares, standing on a corner. Dickerson reverts to the three shot, and Michael whispers, “I just want him gone. I just want him away from me and Bug.” There follows a shot of Michael from Snoop’s POV, after she spits “The fuck he do to you?” There’s a sudden switch to Chris, now closer in, from a low angle, and we can see the full detail of his face; meanwhile Michael is visible, but blurred, in the right foreground. There are a few moments of silence before Chris says, “All right. We’ll take care of it, boss.” This shot choice fully excises Snoop from the frame, simultaneously diminishing her involvement and intensifying the psychic connection between the man and the boy—few words have been spoken, and no dramatic gestures have been made, but thanks to Dickerson’s judicious framing, we can intuit that Chris is on Michael’s wavelength. The camera reverts back to a front-on shot of Michael who, now satisfied with the outcome, walks away. There is a rare, pronounced pan left to Chris, who stares intently at the target, and a final reverse shot of the man strolling out of frame, oblivious to the fact that his fate has just been sealed.

This thread is returned to in the episode’s grueling final sequence, which picks up with Chris and Snoop as they confront the man. In a long shot, they catch up with him in a dank, trash-strewn alleyway, which is lit with the same pallor as the scene featuring Bodie (as per the opening scene, the camera first creeps out from behind a wall). Following a heated conversation during which Chris cuts to the heart of the matter (“Boys, you like fuckin’ ‘em?”), Dickerson moves the camera into the fray, and Chris’s temper explodes. Chris, first introduced in the fifth episode of the third season, has up to now been distinguished by the calculatedly calm way he dispatches his victims, so his actions are completely unexpected. He thumps the man senseless, and there is a mid shot of the man lifeless at the feet of his assailant—it’s an ingenious visual rhyme with the opening scene’s juxtaposition of Officer Walker and Donut, and further underscores the violent circularity of this hermetic urban universe. There follows a significant reaction shot of the traditionally deadpan Snoop, suggesting that even she is shocked at the viciousness of Partlow’s assault. But Dickerson is only getting started. An array of deeply uncomfortable perpendicular ground-level shots portray the clearly dead man’s face and body in the foreground while it is being pummeled by Chris. A final shot displays the man’s face resembling, to borrow Jim Thompson’s phrase from his novel The Killer Inside Me, stewed meat. When Chris is finished, he spits on the man’s prone body. (In true, detailed Wire fashion, it is the spit—the least remarkable aspect of Chris’s volcanic loss of control—which seals the character’s fate: he is apprehended midway through the fifth season when cops match his DNA.) Dickerson’s masterstroke is to push the violence to extreme, confrontational levels. The image of the man’s destroyed face is as revolting as the graphic head-stavings in, say, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible or Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, but unlike these gloatingly fetishistic instances of bad-boy showboating, it is freighted with thematic and character significance. The man’s pulverized face is a twisted mirror image of Chris’s curdled soul, and all but confirms a fact that is never once articulated or confirmed in the script: Chris, too, has been sexually abused. It is onscreen violence as a visceral expression of an unspoken past.

To see how Dickerson’s work translates across mediums, his 1992 debut Juice makes for a revealing point of comparison. Like the fourth season of The Wire, the film features four young African-American males striving for survival in a claustrophobic urban environment, this time Harlem rather than Baltimore. Although the film was released in close proximity to a host of tangentially related “hood” movies (Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society, Straight Out of Brooklyn), it has more in common narratively with tightly plotted gangster films like White Heat, and features explicit nods to classic neonoirs like Chinatown (at one point, a character is threatened with having his nose slashed). It stars Baltimore-born rapper Tupac Shakur as Bishop, the least levelheaded of a group also including laidback would-be DJ Q (Omar Epps); rotund, immature Steel (Jermaine Hopkins); and slick ladies’ man Raheem (Khalil Kain).

Juice is immediately notable for the smart, overtly stylized rapidity of its world building. A credit sequence blends sped-up overhead shots of bustling Harlem, a few New York landmarks (the Verrazano Bridge), and images of Q practicing his scratching techniques, all set to a thumping hip-hop soundtrack. Within moments Dickerson and his team have established the film’s milieu, its thematic and cultural links to hip-hop, and the identity and vocation of its central character. The necessary speed of this scene-setting throws into relief the luxurious amount of time that a show such as The Wire can dedicate to the same endeavor: Juice has 95 minutes of self-contained narrative, while The Wire has around 60 discrete hours and little pressure to wrap things up in any of them.

Yet Juice—in its early stages, at least—now seems remarkable for its visual similarities to The Wire. The initial scenes unfold with the same documentary-style clarity as “Misgivings,” with frequent long-lens shots, and a constantly prowling camera situating the characters within their environments as though they’re constantly being observed from a distance by a third party. Dickerson also frequently deploys the motif of a camera creeping out from behind a wall or an obscuring surface, suggesting that for young urban black males, constant surveillance is a way of life.

The film’s major event (Bishop’s murder of Raheem) heralds a dramatic shift in style, and allows Dickerson-as-auteur to indulge in the kinds of explicitly impressionistic touches that would be denied him in David Simon’s universe. Immediately after the murder, the panicked Q is captured in a chest-mounted dolly shot, which simulates him floating along in a daze. Soon after, there is a frantic 360-degree pan designed to mimic the room swirling around him. It’s precisely the kind of psychologizing-via-form that’s verboten in The Wire, but it is effective in this more mainstream pop context. This sequence segues into a highly stylized interrogation montage, in which cops’ visages loom out of darkness into grotesque, extreme close-ups, staring down the camera lens. As hinted at by this theatrically negative representation of law enforcement, Juice takes a less nuanced approach to addressing institutional failings, and focuses more on individual pathologies. This is particularly true in the case of Shakur’s Bishop. There are inferences early in the film that his impending madness stems from a dysfunctional relationship with his vegetative, TV-addict father, but genuine psychological depth is ultimately eschewed in favor of a floridly entertaining battle of wills between he and Q. As chock-full as The Wire was with psychotic people, it was always careful to contextualize them within an uncaring system—a tribute to David Simon’s authorial approach as much as to the freedom afforded by HBO to allow show-runners to develop such complexity on a richer scale.

Juice ends on a note of thrilling melodrama: a rooftop chase between Q and Bishop, which culminates with an emotional Q unable to hold onto Bishop, who falls to a splattery death after he slips. Dickerson’s original ending had Bishop committing suicide. This was nixed by Paramount because the studio was uncomfortable with the moral thorniness of a villain choosing his own fate. This highlights a peculiar but common irony: despite Dickerson’s ostensible control as cowriter/director—the auteur—of his own material, he was still beholden to the whims of the studio system and its tangle of irreproachable test audiences. Ultimately, in any medium there may be no such thing as complete freedom for a director, but, as Dickerson’s sterling work on Juice and “Misgivings” illustrates beyond a doubt, there is one constant: conscientious, intuitive, and intelligent visual storytelling will never go out of fashion—on film or television.