I like Tanner Colby’s piece in Slate suggesting a HBO show about the failures of integration in the 1970s, focusing on housing policy. I think he’s probably overestimating the extent to which such a show would find an audience—for all the influence it exerts over popular culture, the ratings for The Wire were not good, and the show was always in danger of cancellation, and that was with a cops-and-robbers framework. But I think he’s right that we could use more shows about the seventies and early eighties, and about black communities. Here are five ideas for people and battles that could make for fantastic shows about these decades, and that would be amazing showcases for talented black actors:
1. Harold Washington: The first black mayor of Chicago, Washington was also an early gay rights advocate during his time in the Illinois Senate. He championed the Human Rights Act of 1980, which would have extended protections including those based on sexual orientation—and would have had the effect of blowing up Chicago’s patronage jobs system. Washington’s fights with the Democratic machine in Chicago during his first term in office were so bitter that the city was dubbed “Beirut on the Lake.” Boss has made all sorts of stuff up to tell story about the Daleys. A show about Washington could plunder history for everything it needs.
2. The Boston Busing Crisis: Forget the Dillon Panthers and the East Dillon Lions. A show set at South Boston High School and Roxbury High, the first schools integrated under Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr.’s school desegregation would be an amazing—and terrifying way to tell the story of the Boston busing crisis. In between students who walked out, parents who protested, teachers who tried to keep schools going, the cancellation of the football season, the stabbing of black lawyer Theodore Landsmark by white Joseph Rakes with the American flag and other acts of racial violence, there’s more than enough to sustain seasons of drama, and to bring school shows, currently out of vogue, back to television.
3. Marion Barry: Marion Barry may be a national joke thanks to his arrest in a 1990 sting, and his continual reelection to the DC City Council a mystery to some observers. But the story of his tenure in the eighties, and of Washington’s struggle for home rule, is a rich and tragic one, and it’s still ongoing. Much like The Wire, each season could be set in a different department, from the police, which were devastated by layoffs, to his efforts to rebuild public housing, to the recalculations that revealed the real extent of Washington’s debt. Barry may seem like a ridiculous figure to a lot of people, but he was once an important one, and it’s worth explaining what, other than the cocaine, contributed to it going wrong. And it would be incredible to see Kasi Lemmons, who made one of the best Washington movies in Talk to Me, about talk show host Petey Greene, direct a pilot for this.
4. Operation Move-In: I know, we have enough television shows set in New York City. But one about Operation Move-In, which saw poor families taking over vacant buildings owned by Columbia University, the People’s Court Housing Crimes trials, and the fight to keep some form of rent stabilization would be a fascinating look at a New York not remotely portrayed in either the glittering Manhattan lofts or the gentrifying Brooklyn housing stock that’s so popular on television.
5. Overtown: For all my transit nerds, the story of how interstate highway construction devastated one of the country’s richest historically black neighborhoods in Miami, and an early site of civil rights protests, is amazing, and over a period of decades goes from failure to revitalization thanks to the return of mass transportation. Overtown is a minor character in Magic City, but it could stand on its own as a setting.