We are finishing up our discussion of The Wire this week in the Urban Planning and Social Policy class. I’ve been urging students to watch the female characters in the Wire, most of whom get pretty short shrift. I can’t think of any female character treated worse in the commentariat than De’Londa Brice, played brilliantly by Sandi McCree, who I think deserved much more attention than she got for her performances here. (It was hard to stand out in this cast of thousands, particularly with some of the other brilliant acting.)
It’s also hard to drop into discussions about the Wire, as the story lines are complex and interweaving. But let’s start with some build-up to Season 4. De’Londa has a child, Namond (one of Season 4’s main protagonists) by Roland (Wee-Bey) Brice. We-Bey was a “soldier” for the Barksdale organization who, once caught, agreed to cop to several serious crimes he didn’t commit (in addition to one they had him for) under the assumption that Barksdales will care for his family.
De’Londa is kept in pretty good style in this arrangement: she owns her house and keeps herself dressed up and looking sharp. For De’Londa, Wee-Bay is a role model for Namond; the use of the word “soldier” suggests a position of honor, bravery, and loyalty that people “in the game” associate with men who enforce kingpins’/generals’ orders. Wee-Bey and De’Londa both remember the time when the powerful men that surround them–Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale, in particular–were just kids, building up their trade.
Undoubtedly, De’Londa has real problems as a mother: she conflates material things with status, comfort, and protection, and she has the tendency to talk to her son as if he is just an extension of Wee-Bay and herself. However, we should note, conflating things with status, security and even love is hardly unique in American life, nor is parental narcissism. She clearly loves him; you can see it on her face even in that clip. And even when she pushes him into the game, she has no intention of letting him drop out of school.
With De’Londa, the Wire is stepping into dangerous territory with black motherhood, where America Has Opinions, most of them stupid and racist, and if the comments are any indicator, there’s puh-lenty of judging of this woman’s shortcomings as mother, particularly when Brianna Barksdale, who could care less if Wee-Bey starts to sing and keeps her brother inside forever, cuts De’Londa and Namond off.
When she is cut off from the Barksdale money, De’Londa decides to “put Namond out” on the corner. “Putting out” is a specific term: it means Namond works a corner selling, and De’Londa wants to make her son hard–and she’s willing to be horrible to him to make him that way. Here she is, trying to force him to fear her more than he fears street violence, dissing his manhood, and comparing him unfavorably to his father. It’s a horrible scene to witness, and it’s acted beautifully by both actors. (Equally hard to watch is when Namond takes Michael to recover the stash from Kenard, who is a little kid, and Michael, already a soldier due to his own miserable circumstances, beats Kenard’s face in for mouthing off to Namond. When Michael discovers his power, it’s utterly terrifying.)
What I think McKee does here as an actress is amazing because you can see both the fury and the fear, the fear channeled into fury. She’s scared for her son, and she’s scared for herself because she knows how piss mean her world is when you are soft.
Namond has a chance to get out, and it becomes clearer and clearer to him that he can’t be what people expect him to be. He starts to break down more and more.
A former police officer, Bunny Colvin, encounters Namond in a special school program and sees that Namond might be able to do something else with his life. (It’s telling; of all the boys, only Namond has any real choices, and it’s due to his comparative affluence. I say comparative because it’s important not to conflate what De’Londa has with real money. Namond isn’t really special: he’s not smarter than Dukie or Randy; he’s not more loyal or more decent than Michael. He just has more to lose, lucks into opportunities, and sometimes shows a bit of his heart–something that as often as not gets treated badly.)
This is De’Londa after Namond gets picked up after being warned off the corner, when Colvin and she first meet. She can’t conceive of any man showing generosity he doesn’t expect to see paid back, and she’s as nasty as she can be to Colvin, instead of grateful, and she chews out Namond for being afraid to go to “baby booking.”
Much internet ink has been spilled calling De’Londa every name in book and exulting over the way Wee-Bey, eventually, “puts her in her place.” It’s annoying because it deliberately misunderstands what happens. Wee-Bey doesn’t have any special insights, either, not a first. His world is his world, and he’s expecting Namond to live in it as well.
Here, for example, is Wee-Bay with Namond early Season 4. Wee-Bey and De’Londa *both* ride on Namond about his pony tail and about “being real” and working the corner for Bodie. “Everybody has to start somewhere.” Wee-Bey chides him. This is the family business, and this could be any family with mom and dad ragging on a sulky teen who would rather hang out with his friends instead of work.
It’s only after the Barksdales forget about him that he is confronted with the possibilities for choice that Wee-Bey begins to question the world he lives in. Those questions come into hard relief when Colvin comes to visit Wee-Bey to discuss the possibility that Namond might come live with Colvin and his wife.
Colvin’s persuasion is brilliant. It’s a combination of place-based and time-based appeals to a common culture. The world has changed; the drug trade has changed; policing has changed. Baltimore has changed. The Barksdales, bad as they were in many respects, had norms and values that guided what they did until that organization changed in Season 3.
The new organizations stepping in are all young, bare-knuckles businessmen-killers who don’t observe any real niceties. “[Namond] ain’t made for those corners, not the way we was…” Colvin says.
Eventually Wee-Bey comes to see it.He tells De’Londa that he wants to let Namond go with Colvin. She resists; Namond is, after all, her son. And this is where , again, you see the raw fear in De’Londa’s character. She retains the language: “soldier” and “he needs to get hard.” He notes that being a soldier didn’t get him as much as they always thought. And Wee-Bey does stand by her, at least.
But peel back this scene: it’s the threat of physical violence that enforces Wee-Bey’s decision. De’Londa loses her son, not because she believes there is more for him out there, but because she is, for all practical purposes, powerless to stop it. And she knows it.
De’Londa takes work to understand. She takes work to see. But to start with, she’s not more than 30, which means she and Wee-Bey had Namond when she was in her teens. She was a baby herself.
The scraps of security she has were provided by her attachment to a violent man, a man who makes it obvious he can turn his violence on her any time she doesn’t do what he wants.
When the Barkdales cut her off, she’s supposed to do what? Go out and get a job? With what skills? Go out and work a corner herself? There, she’s incapable; she has a marginal knowledge of the actual trade even if she does understand the street. If she really knew the business, she wouldn’t have made the awful mistake of intervening on Namond’s behalf with another man in the hypermasculinized world of the street (and the cops, and, to no small degree, the politicians.)
De’Londa is a tragic character, not a villain. She doesn’t even see chances or choices because she doesn’t actually have many. When chances come up for her son, she can’t recognize them for what they are. Her shopping represents one of the few places she actually does have agency and choice. She lives in one world, and it’s her whole world, and she doesn’t see any other, and by end of Season 4, she’s lost everything in it but the things she’s bought. She’s an aging girlfriend of a man who no longer matters in the new world order of the streets.