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After ‘The Wire,’ Black Actors Trapped In Baltimore

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"After ‘The Wire,’ Black Actors Trapped In Baltimore"

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One of the most depressing trends for me at Sundance was something that’s been building for a while: the fact that the talented actors who made The Wire so great can’t seem to get out of Baltimore.

First, there’s Isaiah Whitlock, Jr., who will be forever defined by state Sen. Clay Davis’ favorite obscenity:

He’s already had to imitate Omar in Cedar Rapids (one of the better, and more overlooked, small comedies of the last year):

And in Red Hook Summer, Whitlock gets forced to pretend to be Davis again in the movie’s most forced, artificial moment, one that interrupts a tremendously powerful plot line. It’s unfortunate that people want so much to be associated with The Wire or to make in-jokes about the show that they’re willing to sacrifice their own world-building and dramatic continuity to do it.

It’s less irritating, but still depressing, to see the actors who so thoroughly inhabited roles on The Wire getting stuck in those kinds of roles again. That kind of repetition is the hallmark of LUV, the depressing-on-many-levels movie about Vincent (Common), a man trying to start a small business after his release from prison, who gets pulled back into his old life as a killer for drug dealers, and pulls his nephew in along with him. The movie’s riddled with implausibilities and disturbing ideas, including the idea that an elementary-school kid would easily and automatically be comfortable wielding a gun, negotiating with high-level drug dealers, and running away to North Carolina. But it’s perhaps most disturbing for a movie that wants to transcend our stereotypes about black men using black actors in the same old roles over and over again.

First, there’s Michael K. Williams, who, after Omar’s death, has apparently been reincarnated in the person of a Baltimore homicide detective. Unfortunately, karma hasn’t seen fit to give him Jimmy McNulty’s panache or faculty with language. He spends a lot of time saying things like, “You’re young. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. You can still do something with your life.” Then, there’s Anwan Glover, who’s been downgraded from the glories of Slim Charles to playing a drug kingpin named Enoch who appears mostly to hang out menacingly in an abandoned warehouse, to be duped into believing that Vincent didn’t actually kill one of his relatives when of course he did, and to buy a large cache of drugs off of Vincent’s nephew, who is acting as the front for the deal. It’s a totally stereotypical, flimsy role, though Glover does a nice job with it.

It’s one thing to be defined in public memory by the best role you’ve ever played. It’s quite another to be forced by your industry to inhabit it over and over again. Killing a tough, transcendent role ought to be proof that you should be allowed to do a wide range of other things, not that the public will only buy black men as aggrieved or menacing.

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