Twenty years after ‘The Wire’ hit our screens, the team behind one of the most impactful TV shows in history are back in Baltimore to tell another story of drugs, violence, and corruption.
From a storytelling perspective, it’s a triumphant return, with showrunner David Simon reuniting many of the same crew for ‘We Own This City’, and achieving similarly powerful results. The new HBO miniseries is about to leave a huge impact on culture and society, just as its predecessor did, this time telling the shocking true story of the disgraced Gun Trace Task Force, the plain-clothed Baltimore Police unit who ran a brutal organized crime racket on the streets they were hired to protect.
But this reunion is tinged with sadness too, as we return to Baltimore to find more of the inequality and injustice highlighted in ‘The Wire’ two decades ago. In fact, with the police now directly responsible for the majority of the violence, theft, and drug dealing at the center of our new narrative, the situation may even have regressed.
Returning from ‘The Wire’s’ cast is Jamie Hector, who starred as drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield in the iconic crime drama, with the original show changing the course of his life and career just as it did Idris Elba, Michael B Jordan, Dominic West, and many more. This time, Jamie crosses the thin blue line to play Detective Sean Suiter, an honorable homicide cop who finds himself caught up in the criminal actions of some of his colleagues, before dying in somewhat mysterious circumstances the day before he is due to give evidence to a federal grand jury.
After arriving in the Maryland seaport city to shoot the new series, which debuts on HBO on April 25, Jamie enjoyed connecting with old friends and colleagues who he last worked with 15 years ago. He also explored his old stomping ground, visiting the locations of his most famous scenes as Stanfield, and checking out how the city had progressed since it became his temporary second home in the mid-2000s.
“The harbor had changed,” he recalls, referring to the city’s regenerated Inner Harbor waterfront area. “But going deeper into the city, it was sad to see so many of the buildings and properties were still the same. The older communities are being ignored in so many ways.
“I love the people of Baltimore, I always have, they really looked after me when I was there shooting ‘The Wire’. But when it comes to things that are out of their control, there is way more that can be done.
“This new show brings together a group of people who were so inspirational in my life. And we were able to sit down together and talk about not only the past, but also what we were about to embark on, and how serious that is.”
‘We Own This City’ is based on the book of the same name by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, and covers the appalling story of the Gun Trace Task Force over the course of a decade, culminating in their explosive demise in 2017. As the name suggests, the Baltimore police team were entrusted with getting firearms, as well as drugs and drug dealers, off the streets. For many years, their leader Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, portrayed by the electric John Bernthal in the show, was the star of the department, earning praise for his aggressive approach and results.
But Jenkins was also secretly orchestrating a group of officers who were stealing money, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, from the city’s residents, and selling the drugs and firearms they were seizing back onto the streets. In 2018, Jenkins was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison for robbery, drug dealing and other charges, while six other officers from that unit were also jailed for their roles in the crime ring that Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said operated like “1930s-style gangsters.” To make matters worse, if that’s possible, their crimes were committed within a community shaken by the death of the 25-year-old Black man Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015, with trust in the authorities already at rock bottom. Six officers were arrested over Gray’s death, but none were convicted.
“I read the book, and I couldn’t believe the scale of it,” says Jamie. “So I jumped into YouTube to try to match the faces with these individuals. And in doing so, it just blew my mind that these guys really exist, and they committed these kinds of crimes.
“All of Baltimore was affected by this. For the citizens of the community, this is what they’re living out right now. And while we were shooting the show, it was still taking place in other cities.”
The huge success and impact of ‘The Wire’ came from the fact that it was also grounded in reality, holding a mirror up to the issues in society including the mishandling of the drug epidemic, informed by David Simon’s experience as a Baltimore Sun crime reporter, and his co-creator Ed Burns’ 20 years in the Baltimore Police Department. Simon and Burns are reuniting on ‘We Own This City’, along with writer George Pelecanos and executive producer Nina K Noble, both also integral in ‘The Wire’s’ original behind-the-scenes team.
The sprawling HBO drama, released when we still called them boxsets, changed our view of what a TV series can be. Creatively, its scale and scope pioneered the epic long-form narratives that have since overtaken movies as the gold standard in quality Hollywood storytelling. It left its mark on society too, bringing attention to how the city’s working class residents were being failed by the American system. More than 30 universities, including Harvard, Berkeley and Duke, have offered courses about what the show can teach us about social issues, criminal justice, and more.
“Season four of ‘The Wire’ was a moment that affected a great deal of people that I’ve met throughout my journey,” Jamie says. “That season really dove into the education, and people in other forms of employment in corporate America then wanted to go and work in institutions that can make a difference.
“Different universities that created courses on ‘The Wire’ invited me in there, in the hope it would spark something in the law students, to have them go into inner-city communities to get involved pro bono, as well reminding them that when they do go and work at a law firm, they should affect some kind of positive change.”
However, as Jamie stated earlier, part of the mission of this new show is highlighting that any change that has occurred over the last two decades is simply not enough. There were, of course, locals upset by ‘The Wire’ and the reputation it gave their city. Martin O’Malley, the former Mayor of Baltimore, hated the series “with a taut fury” and some folks on the street shared his view. And with ‘We Own This City’ adhering to real events even more closely, following the evidence in Fenton’s detailed and astonishing book, Jamie explains how the crew have been careful to lay the groundwork to prepare the city for the series, in the hope it could trigger some progress, or even perhaps some healing.
Jamie says, “We made a point before we even stepped into this show to proactively engage with the community, by going into schools and nonprofit organizations and letting them see clips of the material, and having conversations and dialogue about it, so it’s not a surprise to them.
“So we’re not walking into Baltimore, creating a show about its citizens, and then just disappearing. We understood we were walking into this project in a community that was so affected by the death of Freddie Gray, and the neighbors who were there when it happened were still there. I think the whole community will be affected [by the series]. And some people will say, ‘Okay, closure. At least now everyone knows what was going on.’
“Props to Justin for writing the book and the team for bringing it to the light for the people to see. You create the content and present it to the people, hoping that somebody will see it and be inspired to do the work that it takes to create positive change.”
Jamie knows the power of the arts to positively impact lives. Born and raised by his Haitian mother in Brooklyn, New York, and one of seven siblings, his first taste for storytelling came from his mother.
“When I was four, five, six years old, my mother would just sit down and tell us these stories about Haiti; about mangoes falling from the tree, living on the ocean, diving in the water and catching fish, and all of these colorful parts of her life. These stories were so amazing it also sparked something in me to start telling stories also.”
Jamie’s life trajectory was then completely changed the day he joined a local arts group, Tomorrow’s Future Theater Company, as a teenager.
“I walked into Tomorrow’s Future Theater Company, and I spoke so fast you couldn’t understand a word I was saying,” he recalls. “There, I was given space to get on stage and create, even though nobody understood me. Even though I was born in the United States, my first language was Creole until I went to elementary school.
“But then you get on stage, and you’re not judged, and you watch yourself grow from no part, to a small part, to a medium part. Then you get more curious and learn how to develop a character. And once you ask questions about a character you tend to ask them about yourself. Even though it’s imaginary circumstances, you place yourself there. It’s like you’re your own therapist.
“I was around like-minded individuals that were creative in all areas; acting, dance, vocals, cinematography, and everybody was engaged in their strong points. I thought, ‘Wow, this is where I belong.’”
Inspired by the opportunity and mentorship he received, in 2007 Jamie started his own non-profit arts organization, Moving Mountains, to help the next generation of Brooklyn youngsters. Moving Mountains has since helped and inspired inner-city kids with an interest in the arts, and been the first step into the profession for 28 Screen Actors Guild performers. Among their success stories is Siddiq Saunderson, who recently starred as Ghostface Killah in Hulu series ‘Wu-Tang: An American Saga’ alongside his mentor Jamie, who had a smaller role in the show. Siddiq told Mr Feelgood about the life-changing part Jamie and Moving Mountains played in his life in our profile with the actor, and how he now wants to carry that baton and influence the generation that follows him one day.
“At Moving Mountains, we develop skills and talents in youth while also building character,” Jamies says. “Building character is so important. The goal is to work with the young artists knowing that they could potentially become very successful, and the decisions and the choices that they make moving forward can determine their longevity. They all understand the importance of giving back. You see the fruits of it, and it’s beautiful.”
Talking about the importance of good character, and the damage one glitch can do to the rest of your life, brings us back to ‘We Own This City’, and in particular Jamie’s role of Detective Suiter. Suiter is in some ways the hero and the victim of this story. He’s one of the few cops we meet with a strong moral compass, yet he still gets caught up in the corruption, and loses his life.
The father-of-five died the day before he was due to testify before a federal grand jury that was investigating the Gun Trace Task Force, and weeks after he was questioned by the FBI over his time on the streets alongside Jenkins, before he moved to the homicide team. The medical examiner’s office labeled his death a homicide, a conclusion supported by his family, but an investigation later completed by the Independent Review Board called it a suicide.
The show’s creators make it pretty clear how they believe Suiter died in the show’s finale. For Jamie, his focus was on bringing a decent man back to life on screen.
“This is the interesting part of the work that we do,” he says. “We get smarter and learn about people, the things that build them. With Sean, I was able to gather a lot of information, for instance a lot of tape of him on the witness stand, and about his relationship with his friends, his co-workers, his children, and grandchildren.
“I learned about Sean from a child, moving in with his uncle who became his father, and his cousins who became his brothers. Then him watching his cousin go into the armed forces, and following in his footsteps.
“He joined the armed forces and became a leader of men, rising through the ranks, and then joined the reserves, rising through the ranks, and then joined law enforcement, and rose through the ranks again.
“His co-workers told me what kind of person that he was, how he gave back to the community. It wasn’t just his co-workers, it was also the citizens I spoke to as well. The streamlined version of what they told me was, ‘He respected us.’ He was also there for his elders, he knew everybody by name. He’s a hero in that way. But his life ended and was cut short, far too early, and that was tragic.”
Jamie talked earlier about learning about himself as he explores his roles. And as we watch quality drama as viewers, that applies to us too. We learn from the stories and characters, like we did in ‘The Wire’, and like we will in ‘We Own This City’, and also from the experiences of those bringing the story to the screen.
He says, “As a young Black man growing up in Brooklyn, I’m learning about the constitution, I’m learning about my rights. I’m coming home from school, not doing anything wrong, then I’m against the wall, showing my ID. And that creates the lens through which I saw the police.
“Then you move forward in life, and you’re an artist, and you get a chance to meet law enforcement, you see it’s the system that needs to be overhauled. But you have to be the strong one, willing to break out of that system.
“And that’s the reason why I’m hopeful about ‘We Own This City’. Even though it’s deeply entrenched in the system, I feel like we can’t stop pushing.”
Styling by Bailey Moon
Grooming by Dion Ross and Charle Butler