The 1980s struggle over public housing and desegregation in Yonkers, New York, as shown in the new HBO mini-series, "Show Me a Hero," isn't an unfamiliar story for Americans today.
"You go a couple towns north on the Hudson, up to Tarrytown, still in Westchester, and the fight is going on right now - same rhetoric, same demagoguing, same fears being invoked," the series' executive producer and writer David Simon said. "We're not very good at sharing in this country -- physical space, geography, economic opportunity. Everywhere that this moment happens, it's just repetitive. The piece still stands."
Chronicling the time when the city of Yonkers was faced with a federal court order to build low-income housing in white neighborhoods, the six-part series follow then-Mayor Nick Wasicsko who faced fierce opposition from residents during city council votes.
Simon, a former journalist and creator of Emmy-winning television shows including "The Wire" and "The Corner," tells stories with the desire to contribute to the American discourse.
"I think there are arguments we need to have in this country and they need to be brought forward, and they need to progress as arguments. So it's nice to be entertaining, but if at some point, that's all you're doing, then I feel like, you know, shame on me," Simon said.
Due to the content of the mini-series, Simon said he sought a director who could be more cinematic and elegant with the material and show emotion through the camera lens. That person was Oscar-winning Paul Haggis.
For Haggis, it was the thought of working with Simon that sealed the deal. He told his agent, "Say yes, and then send me the script."
"While I was doing 'In the Valley of Elah,' he was doing another - he was thinking about Iraq War [for 'Generation Kill']. And so we've been in sync, just not together for a long time," Haggis said.
Simon said Lisa Belkin's book, "Show Me a Hero," was optioned 14 years ago, but the reason HBO kept renewing the option even when other projects got in the way was because of the racial dynamics in the country.
"Because we have a hard time talking about it, because we've failed to address it; it remains constant," Simon said. "The piece is as relevant today as it was when we optioned the book, sadly. You'd hope that it wouldn't be, but it is."
For Simon and Haggis, the appeal of Mayor Nick Wasicsko was that he was a flawed character -- an ordinary, imperfect guy with the urge to serve.
"The thing I don't buy anymore is - if we elect the right guy, the great men of history, that will save us. I think our problems are systemic and we're going to have to solve them as people," Simon said.
Their hope is to address issues of race and hyper-segregation through their mini-series.
"I think it's one of the fundamental problems for the next century," Simon said.