Monday, September 10, 2012

Rulebook Casefile: Un-Racist Writing and Metaphor Families in “The Wire”

Like a lot of writers, I saw “The Wire” and thought, “I’d love to write something like that!”  So I wrote a script about a loose cannon white cop causing havoc in a housing project. The script was “progressive” in that, in the end, the white cop was the victimizer and the black people were the victims, but I was shocked to discover that, when people read it, some of them thought that the script sounded vaguely racist.  Not so much the plot, but the fact that I had black drug dealers talking what I thought was street lingo.  Well, what did they want?  Should they speak the queen’s English? 

Only later did I go back and realize that yeah, despite my good intentions, the dialogue did sound unintentionally racist, but I still didn’t understand why.  It wasn’t until I re-watched the first season of the “The Wire” that I figured it out: my dialogue wasn’t specific enough.  It was generic “black projects drug dealer” jargon, which was a problem in several ways:
  1. Inspired by some news articles, I had set my script in Newark, a city I had never actually been to, so I couldn’t drop a lot of specifics about local places, local issues, local slang.  When you don’t have specifics, you fall back on generics, and generics always sound phony and condescending.
  2. My black characters weren’t witty like the guys on “The Wire”.  When the audience laughs at a character’s humor, they bond with that character, and they sense that the writer has bonded with that character. 
  3. Most importantly, my character’s metaphor families were all the same: “black projects” and “drugs”.  The result was that when you read the script, it seemed like I was just saying “black projects = drugs”.  Worse, I was saying that that was all that these characters were. On “The Wire”, all of the black drug-world characters do indeed have the metaphor families  of “black projects” and “drugs”, but each of them has their own individual metaphor family, too:
  • Stringer Bell’s is business school: “Y’all see, what we got here is an inelastic product.”
  • Avon’s is family: “What’s the rule?  Don’t say shit to anybody who ain’t us! [hug] You know it’s always love.”
  • DeAngelo talks the language of a reformer: “The game ain’t gotta be played like that, yo.”
  • Wallace keeps betraying that he’s a little too smart to keep doing this: DeAngelo holds up a fake bill next to a ten and says that real money has presidents on it, but Wallace mutters, “Hamilton wasn’t no president...”
  • The biggest shock was Omar: I had remembered him as being the crudest, but he actually refuses to use R-rated language and chastises others for it.  His metaphor family is “ethical pirate”, constantly talking about how he wants to “parley” because “a man’s gotta have a code.” 
The characters on “The Wire” were all in the same world for the time being, but you didn’t have to listen to them long to realize that they all started out in different places and they were all headed in different directions. 


Mark said...

I love this - it is such a better explanation than "only black people can write black dialogue" or other such axioms, and it explains so much of what goes wrong with generic sounding movies.

j.s. said...

I'm seeing new sides to the idea of Metaphor Families in this post. That speech patterns can be about content as much as form. It's not necessarily always about the way someone says something but what it is they're always finding a way to talk about.

Matt Bird said...

I suppose I'm somewhat blurring the line here between metaphor family and self-image, which I discussed here:


JD Paradise said...

That's a really nice analysis, and a good reminder that characters have to be "people" not "ideas of people". I never really thought about that aspect of The Wire but it's right on target.

The "rules" part you linked to in your other post was also interesting and informative.

Well done, sir!

Steve Bird said...

All I can think of now is Luke Cage exclaiming "Sweet Christmas!"

Matt Bird said...

I never understood the objection to "Sweet Christmas". It's a fun phrase, it's got a lot of character and there's not really any implied stereotyping. If it was "Sweet Pickled Pigfeet!", then I would see the problem. If I were hired to write a Luke Cage comic today, I'd fight to include the phrase.

Beth said...

Hey Mr. Bird,

The past few days, new headings have been posted, but this same article about The Wire keeps reposting under it. It's a good article, but I was hoping to read your new thoughts about the horrible Green Lantern Movie!

Matt Bird said...

Thanks for the heads up. What browser are you using? It's definitely happening with some versions of Safari on Mac, but the blog seems to uploading fine on Firefox and Chrome.

Perhaps blogger has stopped supporting Safari? (Safari has recently dropped sharply in popluarity, and it's notoriously fickle, so maybe they've given up?)

Beth said...

Thanks, I bet it's my browser!