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‘The Wire’ speaks to Harvard students

Astrid Lium

The HBO hit series “The Wire” and Harvard Law School may not seem like a natural fit.

But last week the two joined forces at the Ames Courtroom on the Ivy League campus. Organized by Harvard Law School Professor Charles J. Ogletree, a panel spoke to a crowded room of law students and fans about the show’s main themes: race, drugs, poverty, inequality, the legal system, the education system and the media.

Three years after it ended its five-season stint, the Baltimore-based television show still fascinates academics, professors and students of all disciplines. Although it never gained a great deal of commercial success, “The Wire” has enjoyed a loyal following and critical acclaim, touted for its realistic and unapologetic portrayal of urban life.

Ogletree teaches a law class called “Race and Justice: The Wire,” which analyzes the program and the issues raised in it. In conjunction with that spring semester course, he arranged for this interactive dialogue with nine people involved with “The Wire.”

The panel speakers included actors Jim True-Frost (Roland ‘Prez’ Pryzbylewski), Jamie Hector (Marlo Stanfield), André Royo (Bubbles), Michael K. Williams (Omar Little) and Sonja Sohn (Kima Greggs). Fran Boyd and Donnie Andrews, real life inspirations for the characters, were there as well, describing their lives before “The Wire.”

Also present via Skype were the show’s co-creators, Ed Burns and David Simon, who joined the heated discussion about the show’s issues and their relevance in the classroom.

Ogletree opened the discussion with several YouTube clips of “The Wire,” entertaining veteran viewers of the show and introducing first timers to various aspects of its content.

Then he invited the audience to send questions to the front to initiate discussion among the panel.

“I know that you’re Harvard Law students, but no questions should have more than eight words,” Ogletree joked.

While the students brainstormed, Ogletree initiated the line of questioning. “Is ‘The Wire’ a good or bad thing for a community like Baltimore or any similar urban environment?” he asked.

All on the panel agreed, for varying reasons, that it was ultimately a positive force.

“It is such powerful storytelling,” said True-Frost. “It offers beautifully compelling stories and characters that people can relate to and that has to be a good thing.”

“It gives people a voice,” Williams added. “It shows people in America what’s really going on. Like Tupac [Shakur] said, ‘there’s a ghetto in every city.’ ”

When asked if the show is specifically about race, Burns replied, “It’s about race, it’s about class, it’s about institutions and how those institutions perceive people, how people are chewed up by those institutions.”

Simon was asked about the direction of the show if it had continued and what other issues he would tackle.

“Oh, it’s done,” he said. “If there had been season six, it would have been season five.”

Burns and Simon intentionally chose actors who were not well-known stars and who were natural in their respective roles. When asked why they got involved with “The Wire,” their reasons varied somewhat. But they all agreed on one thing: employment.

“I needed a job,” said Royo. “That’s a good starting point. But I also discovered that it entertained and offered social awareness. It’s smart … the show is supposed to make you think.”

Sohn agreed, “It’s a job for us. I wasn’t working at the time and this was a role I hadn’t played before. I was excited that my character [Det. Kima Greggs] was a lesbian, but not so excited that she was a cop.”

Boyd candidly described her life before meeting Burns and Simon. “When Ed and David first came to me to do ‘The Wire,’ I have to honestly say that I had no interest. I was just a junkie who wanted to be left alone. But, after getting to know them, I now have two of the best friends of my life.”

Sohn wrapped up the two-hour talk with a passionate monologue, which garnered a standing ovation.

“I used to not like the hopelessness in David [Simon]’s voice, but I really don’t have a lot of faith in the system now,” Sohn said. “We’re like a binge culture; we want quick fixes. This is about a revolution of the soul. You have so much power in you!”

Ogletree followed up with another clip from the show and the finale concluded with a musical performance by the New England Gospel Ensemble, dedicated to “The Wire.”

The cast then stayed behind and spoke one-on-one with audience members, posed for photos with fans and promoted a non-profit organization associated with “The Wire,” called “ReWired for Change,” which promotes education and social involvement with inner-city youth.