'Who Do I Look Like To You?' The Legacy Of Black Women In 'The Wire'
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Opinion , Television

'Who Do I Look Like To You?' The Legacy Of Black Women In 'The Wire'

Called one of the best television series of all time, The Wire is a compelling tapestry of inner-city Baltimore in the mid-2000s. For five seasons, creators Ed Burns and David Simon turned their lens on various systems in the city, the drug trade, the police, the school system, politics, and the media. They provided a bird’s eye view of this American city, which mirrors so many others across the country, including Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, and countless others. Like many crime dramas, the world of The Wire is very much male-dominated. However, if you look closely, Black women are ever-present and impactful. 

The first Black woman we meet in The Wire is Nakeesha Lyles (Ingrid Cornwall). She is a security guard in one of the Franklin Terrace housing towers, a Barksdale organization stronghold in Season 1. Nakeesha has witnessed a murder, but at the last moment, she changes her testimony, effectively setting D’Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) free. It’s a choice that ultimately costs her her life. 

In 60 episodes of 'The Wire,' the audience is introduced to various characters from all aspects of life.

Each one of them is affected and neglected by the city’s policies and procedures. As we soon discover, Nakeesha — whether she lied on the stand or not, was always going to become a causality of the system. The fact that she chose not to snitch was never going to save her. The only thing it did was buy her a bit of time.

As far as Black women go in The Wire, much attention is often given to Detective Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), a whip-smart police officer who moves from Narcotics to Special Crimes and then Homicide. As she finds her footing in the force, her personal life begins to crumble. Later we meet Snoop (Felicia “Snoop” Pearson), an enforcer in the Marlo Stanfield organization who is perhaps one of the most fearsome people in The Wire lore. With so much attention given to these two characters, it’s pertinent to look at some of the other women in the series, who are often forgotten about, dismissed, or thrown away — literally. These Black women are grandmothers, mothers, girlfriends, and educators who try to either exist within the system given to them or desperately claw their way out.

Season 1 of 'The Wire' peels back the layers of the Barksdale organization.

With Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) at the helm, most of the women surrounding these towering men are pawns — whether they know it or not. Donette (Shamyl Brown), D’Angelo’s son’s mother, knows exactly what she’s gotten herself into. She’s convinced herself that snagging a lieutenant in an extensive drug organization with deep family ties will keep her content for life. At the very least, she will remain comfortably set up in a plush apartment and wrapped in the best clothing and jewels. She ignorantly puts her future in D’Angelo’s hands. Later, she boldly aligns herself with Stringer, assuming it’s a step up in terms of her status. For the most part, she knows how to play her position, but she doesn’t anticipate being washed away when the organization falls. Beautiful women are of no use to dead men.

Though Donette escapes with her life when it’s all said and done, other women moving in and around the Barksdales aren’t so lucky. Early in the series, D’Angelo tells a haunting story of a woman named Deidre, one of Avon’s former girls who began talking too much and is shot for her insolence. Happily ever afters don’t exist in this world. Woman or not; the game is the game. When an exotic dancer named Keesha overdoses at a Barksdale party, Barksdale enforcer Wee-Bay Brice (Hassan Johnson) tosses her in the trash as if she never existed.

The lack of compassion and humanity showed toward the women around her is what compels Shardene Innes (Wendy Grantham), D’Angleo’s lover, to get as far away from him and the Barksdales as she possibly can. Working at the Barksdale-owned strip club, Orlando’s, Shardene is there to stack her money. However, when she catches D’Angelo’s eye, she begins weaving in and out of his world until Keesha’s death gives her a sharp dose of reality.

Disgusted, Shardene pleads hysterically with D'Angelo, "Who do I look like to you?,” she asks. “I don't look like someone you can roll up in a rug and throw in the trash?" For Black women who exist in and around the game, you either adapt, get bulldozed, or die. 

Adapting also comes at a high cost. In Seasons 1 and 2 of The Wire, there is one woman in the game who is regarded above all others. Avon’s older sister and D’Angelo’s mother, Brianna Barksdale (Michael Hyatt). However, she’s respected because of her name alone, and she’s only called in once Avon is incarcerated. She must act as his proxy to keep her son in line. Her authority is conditional and temporary. When she takes the reins of the Barksdale organization with Stringer, Brianna is forced to take a hard look at herself and the life she was born into, perhaps for the first time ever.

Having benefited from the Barksdale enterprise for her entire life, Brianna comes to a point when she must pay her debt. She quickly discovers that her son’s life was a cost that she was ill-prepared to pay. Losing her son guts Brianna, prompting her to turn her back on her family. While the Barksdale men have run the ship, the women have had to piece together the damage when everything sinks.

Still, perspective and accountability mean nothing when the sole focus on your life is money, access, and greed.

While Brianna bitterly regrets losing her son to the game, De’Londa (Sandi McCree), Wee-Bey’s ex and the mother to their son Namond (Julito McCullum), is more than happy to give her teen son up as a sacrificial lamb to the streets. Her selfishness means she cares only about being draped in name-brand clothes while maintaining a carefree lifestyle. Her appearance and financial security are everything, even if it cost her the one person who should mean the most to her in the world.

Black women who have proximity to criminally-minded men aren’t the only ones who are called upon to sacrifice everything. Though her world exists across the city and away from the streets, Marla Daniels (Maria Broom), the wife of the lieutenant-turned commissioner, Cedric Daniels knows a thing or two about living in the shadows. The Daniels’ marriage had been about the elevation of her husband, with hopes that he would rise through the ranks of the police department and finally have the life that they had dreamed for themselves. Instead of abiding by the plans, he’d dreamed up with Marla, Cedric meanders down his own path, effectively sidelining their marriage. Though the pair eventually get what they want, it comes about in a way that neither of them expected. It also comes with much sacrifice. Cedric does rise in the ranks, but when he arrives, Assistant State’s Attorney, Rhonda Pearlman (Deirdre Lovejoy), a white woman, is on his arm. Marla does become a Baltimore City councilman, but her ambition cost her her marriage. She learns rather quickly that in this world, Black women can’t have it all.

Like Kima, who becomes the soul of the police force, and Snoop, who becomes the most feared woman on the streets, many of the women of The Wire learn to assimilate into their environments, but at a cost. Kimmy (Kelli R. Brown) and Tosha (Edwina Findley) believe they’ve hit the jackpot by aligning themselves with Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), the Robin Hood of West Baltimore. However, Tosha quickly becomes a casualty of Omar’s obsession with seeking vengeance against the Barksdales. Her death guts her lover Kimmy who’d only signed up for the thrill of it all.

Devonne (Tiara Harris) is also used as a pawn in the game.

She becomes a literal object in the war between the Barksdales and the Marlo Stanfield. Used by the Barksdales to entice Marlo and lure him into a trap, the menacing young kingpin doesn’t merely allow Devonne’s betrayal to go unchecked. She is murdered on her front lawn for her role, a bullet in each breast and one in the mouth. Marlo’s primary enforcer Chris Partlow (Gbenga Akinnagbe) nonchalantly calls her death “necessary.”

Like Tosha and Kimmy, Squeak (Mia Arnice Chambers) attempts to carve out a path for herself in the crime world. She plots to outsmart her gullible boyfriend, Bernard (Melvin Jackson Jr.) after she becomes frustrated with his highway travels to buy burner phones for the Barksdale empire. However, because Bernard is a low-level member of the organization, Squeak is also in the dark. Her ignorance ends up bringing the entire organization to its knees, locking up Avon and most of his crew for decades to come.

While the women in the drug trade don’t often have roles that are as visible as their male counterparts, they still pay a high cost. Some do get out and do their best to try and uplift the generations behind them —often a thankless job. When Dennis “Cutty” Wise (Chad Coleman) returns home after 14 years in prison, one of the first people he seeks out is his ex-girlfriend, Grace Sampson (Dravon James). While her twin sister Queenie seems to be frozen in time, Grace has a whole new life. As an English teacher at Tillman Middle School, she is respected by teachers and students alike; she’s quick thinking, determined and authoritative, and determined to steer her students in the best direction that she can, while also being realistic about their prospects. After all, she is well aware of the world that they have to navigate.

For the most part, Black women in The Wire exist on the fringes. Though they all have their own unique stories and perspectives, the series, like the films that came out of the ’90s hood homeboy genre, shines a spotlight on the Black male experience. Yet, though they might not remain central here, the women do not just step back into the spotlight. They are lovers, mothers, educators, public servants, and witnesses to the things happening around them. They are often the missing link to unsolved puzzles, able to bring an entire organization to its knees, or at the very least, capable of carving out a new path for themselves despite insurmountable obstacles that have been laid at their feet.

The Wire is available to own on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital and to stream on HBO Max.

Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in Netflix’s Tudum, EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide.

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