“Got to, This is America, Man…” – Anatomy of a Scene

“‘The Wire’ is the greatest television show of all-time. Even as the show nears the 20th anniversary since when it first aired on American cable television network, HBO, it still rings as culturally relevant and as emotionally stirring as it was when it first debuted in the Summer of 2002. While technology may be different now, the characters would not be the same, the setting could be different from the show, the overall themes, and messages from ‘The Wire’ as well as the institutions that the show focused on for five great seasons have not changed that much.”

‘The Wire’ is the greatest television show of all-time. Even as the show nears the 20th anniversary since when it first aired on American cable television network, HBO, it still rings as culturally relevant and as emotionally stirring as it was when it first debuted in the Summer of 2002. While technology may be different now, the characters would not be the same, the setting could be different from the show, the overall themes, and messages from ‘The Wire’ as well as the institutions that the show focused on for five great seasons have not changed that much.

I could write a thesis on ‘The Wire’ and devote at least 10,000 words on the show in terms of an in-depth breakdown on how it’s the modern equivalent to a Shakespeare tragedy or drama. However, in this ‘Anatomy of a Scene’, I am going to focus on one of my favorite scenes in this classic television show. This scene is the opening one for the entire five-season series and discusses a core tenet of the show not just about what kind of ‘game’ that the characters play, but also the ‘game’ inherent to the setting of Baltimore, Maryland as well as America as a country.

The opening scene, more than any other scene, even if it is the 1st, one pinpoints exactly what ‘The Wire’ is about. In the first shots, you can see a young man lay face down dead on the ground on some dark city street with the police collecting evidence and a main character, who is a detective, questioning a potential witness. The associate of the victim talks about how they were involved with street gambling and how it was not fair that it was not right to kill the victim, non-ironically known as ‘snot boogie’ to the game’s players. The victim of the crime has a real name but is endeared to the rest of the game’s players by that nickname alone.

As the witness explains to Detective Jimmy McNulty of Baltimore Police, ‘Snot Boogie’ was the victim of the crime, but his associate did not expect him to be killed for stealing from the other players of the street game for playing craps. The associate tells McNulty that the victim is known for stealing and grabbing the money to run away but they never want beyond just ‘beating his ass’ up a bit.

While it is a grim description of the dangers of gambling illegally on the streets, the witness to McNulty’s murder case explains that there is an unwritten rule to the ‘game’ of street gambling and that ‘Snot Boogie’ should not have been murdered for stealing from the other players. Nobody ever tried to kill the victim even after he was found guilty of stealing money from the street game players even if they did often catch him and beat him for having done it multiple times.

The witness refuses to tell McNulty who killed his associate in this game and does not want to go to court even though he believes it was disgraceful how ‘Snot Boogie’ was killed because they always let him play even though he would always steal from them.
“I got to ask ya, if every time Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away…why’d you even let him in the game?”
“…What?”
“If Snot Boogie always stole the money, why did you always let him play?”
“Got to, This America, man.”

McNulty looks incredulously as the witness tells him this reasoning because at its face, it does not make much sense for a guy who steals from folks repeatedly to continue playing a dangerous and illegal craps street game. It’s clear to both characters that life itself, and life in America is far from being fair at the end of the day especially a man got killed, which was against to how the game was being played, according to the witness, even if he was stealing from them.

Even if the game is fair or is rigged to some degree, it occurs to the witness and then McNulty after he sees the guy’s reasoning that even if the game was not meant to be won and the result would always be the same, you still let the game play out. The game may not be fair like life itself in general or in America, but it must be played by everyone. It may not be a fair shot and there is no equal outcome, but there is equal opportunity out there for each player to be involved even if someone cheats, steals, and comes back to play again. The game exists for everyone to be given a shot at it and if they don’t, that’s against the principle of life itself and life in America.

There are tragic consequences to this craps game for Snot Boogie who loses his life senselessly as well as for the men who will go to jail for it or lose all their money, but the game goes on and it’s open to everyone. Like the witness explains, the game deserves to be played by everyone equally although the outcome may not be something everyone will like or even will cost some people dearly. This excellent opening scene opens with the most prominent themes of The Wire perfectly and almost seems like a graphic novel come to life. Its visuals are striking, the characters are who you can relate to on a human level, and there is a lot of foreshadowing about the rest of the show and its messages to the viewers from this tone-setting scene.

‘The Wire’ is a show about the early stages of 21st century America in its first decade of the 2000s but it is as still as relevant about 20 years later. The metaphor of this opening scene for not just a couple of guys in a craps game gone wrong in the street can pair directly too what can happen when capitalism can go off the rails when someone tries to beat the rules or try to gain an advantage when they are put at a disadvantage to begin with. If the game is rigged from the get-go even if you’re given a shot at it, what’s the point in playing by the rules? If you can beat the system even if there are dire consequences, is it not worth trying?

‘Snot Boogie’s associates knew he was a thief and a cheater because they believed that he still deserved a shot at winning like everyone else even though it was likely rigged so he would never make it after multiple tries. As the opening scene of the greatest television show of all-time shows the viewer, everybody can play the game even if they are a cheater in the sense of having equal opportunity, but what happens when no one is held accountable when the odds are stacked against them from the start of the game and there is no other way to win than by cheating the system and facing serious consequences?

The show may not be defined by its iconic opening scene but as you find as you watch the entire series, the metaphor for what that scene represents about the show and about the ethic that binds American society together long after you finish watching each of its five seasons.

Movie Recommendations – Volume IV

Movie Recommendations – December 2019

The Report (2019)

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With an excellent cast, brilliant cinematography and direction, ‘The Report’ (2019) is one of the most underrated films of this year. Casting a wide net from the early days after 9/11 to the 2nd term of the Obama Administration, the film covers the work of Senate Intelligence Committee staffer Daniel Jones and his team’s tireless efforts to bring the scope of the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ program into the public light. Focusing on not just the legality of the program but its effectiveness as well as its handlers, the film does a great job in bringing that story to a wider audience who may not have read the report or even heard about it. Part of the appeal of the film is that it creates a real sense of drama and real-world significance that often lacks in other Hollywood films about Washington. You really do sympathize with the characters and understand the weight that is on their shoulders handling a report of both national and international significance.

The fact that the report or at least a summary of it was made public is a great victory for transparency, the truth, and for holding those in power accountable for their actions. In terms of actual justice for those who may have perpetuated crimes and/or human rights violations, the film makes it clear that justice was not served but hopefully because those crimes were laid out to bare through this report, we will be finally able to learn that torture does not in fact work and that by refraining from these ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ in the future, we do not become a monster in order to defeat a monster.

Ford v. Ferrari (2019)

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Ford v. Ferrari is an excellent film that is sure not to bore you when you see it on the big screen. It’s got that classic kind of Hollywood racing film and it does a good job of keeping you excited throughout the movie especially if you have never heard of the story before. It can be hard to make a racing film carry emotional weight, but the stakes are kept high throughout and there’s never a dull moment. Each major character has something on the line whether it’s their pride, their future success, their family, or their car brand’s ability to be the best in the world. A stellar cast of Matt Damon, Christian Bale, and Jon Bernthal deserve a stellar script and a stellar story and luckily, Ford v. Ferrari is ready to provide that and then some.

Even if you are not a fan of racing, you’ll enjoy the story behind this film especially when it comes to the time-old theme of proving yourself against the odds. An unlikely American auto company focused on station wagons and comfort is able to stand up to the challenge thrown down by the legendary Ferrari auto company who had dominated stock-car racing for decades. An unlikely hotheaded driver is able to overcome his doubts and his hotheaded instincts to become the key to a potential victory of Ford v. Ferrari. An American racing legend, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is able to put his racing days behind him due to his heart condition to focus on the new mission of building an amazing Ford racing car that could put them over the top against Ferrari and establish his company’s success as a budding entrepreneur. This film shows you that you don’t just need talent and the will to win but you also need heart and a belief in your team to get the job done. An excellent film that I really recommend while it’s in theaters.

The Irishman (2019)

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I know you may be asking yourself: Another mafia movie? Hasn’t this particular genre been exhausted already? The answer is both yes and no. It is a ‘yes’ because it’s the same old story of a rise and an eventual fall of mobsters who thought that they could get away with their crimes and most eventually ended up dead or in prison. It is a good film overall about hubris, vanity, pride, and how a man can justify his sins when both family and society is against you by saying that he was just ‘following orders.’ I say ‘No’ as well because any Scorsese mafia movie is going to be a classic in some way and this one in particular does an excellent job of highlighting the connections of the legendary and controversial Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa to the Pennsylvania mafia. The unique story of Jimmy Hoffa has never really been explored that well in American cinema and I have to admire Al Pacino a lot for his performance of the emphatic and conniving union leader.

Not to be outdone, Joe Pesci who is a legend in film makes his first film in what seems like a decade and does an excellent job playing the mafia crime boss Russell Bufalino. Robert DeNiro plays the role of Frank Sheeran, a World War II, mafia accomplice, and Jimmy Hoffa bodyguard who is a tragic character in a way. Like any good Scorsese movie, the film asks the audience about how far a person can go to betray their ‘friends’ as they ‘follow orders’ and at what cost is it to do morally heinous acts and still act for forgiveness from family and from God.

The film’s almost 3 and a ½ hour runtime is my biggest gripe as it does drag at times and some scenes could have been cut out without detracting from the overall story. Still though, it’s a great Scorsese film that will add to the legendary acting careers of De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci. I would not be surprised if this film walks away with the ‘Best Picture’ Academy Award even if another film may end up deserving it more.

Knives Out (2019)

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A murder mystery film that you actually care about? Daniel Craig talking in a Southern drawl while figuring out the case in a tweed suit? An all-star cast that actually acts in this film like an all-star cast? What movie could this be? This movie is ‘Knives Out’, a film about a mystery that Agatha Christie would endorse regarding the suspect suicide of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) who is a wealthy crime novelist found dead after a family party and foul play might have been involved. Each of the family members is a suspect and the top-notch private detective recently published in The New Yorker, Benoit Blanc believes one of the family members may be responsible for having murdered him. Besides the family itself, one non-family member is also a suspect, Harlan’s nurse, Ana Cabrera (played by the excellent Ana de Armas, an actress on the rise) who was with Harlan the last time he was seen alive.

If this is not an intriguing premise for a murder mystery, you may want to skip this one, but you shouldn’t because it is that good. This film is more than a modern murder mystery brought to the big screen, but it also intelligently discusses the issue of immigration in the United States and also lampoons extremist views on both sides during the film’s more lighthearted moments. The film also covers family relations through the generations, what someone is or isn’t entitled to, how social class can divide people rather than unite them, and how somebody can stand up for themselves when the crowd (or family in this case) is out to get them for their own benefit. Don’t sleep on ‘Knives Out’, which is a definite crowd pleaser and a satisfying ending that could result in future films. I, for one, hope Daniel Craig will be in more films where he can use a Southern drawl from Kentucky as it was surprisingly convincing and must have took a lot for him to emulate. Highly recommend this one which is in theaters now.

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