My first television script is an episode of the HBO limited series “We Own This City”.
Writing that sentence seems surreal, and not just because I’ve wanted to write for television ever since I started my professional career eight years ago. On this project, I got to work alongside, study and trade jabs with David Simon, creator of my favorite TV show and probably yours too, “The Wire”. I earned this amazing opportunity by doing nothing but working my craft every day and being myself. I didn’t pretend. Not even a little.
We currently live in a culture where “fake it until you make it” has become good advice for getting where you want to be. Open any of your social media accounts, and I guarantee you’ll see people posing as revolutionary activists, saving the world from their Twitter thrones (toilet seats); or flaunting his wealth as if he doesn’t owe you $30; and – my favorite – projecting the perfect relationship, with rules you should follow in pursuit of your best union, when you know they just told you how insufferable their spouse is, how badly they want out, hours before this charming post of Baecation . People take “fake it” to a level a little beyond nausea.
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But don’t blame social media. It’s just the latest outlet for a much older concept. In 1872, Charles Darwin connected facial expressions with emotional experiences in “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”, basically saying that smiling even when you are upset can help calm your anger. The philosopher William James, who published “Principles of Psychology” in 1890, wrote, “If you want a quality, act as if you already have it.” Sounds like the 19th century version of “fake it until you make it” to me.
It’s not about to turn into a dense view of the social sciences. And I’m not going to demonize people who project positive thoughts to manifest the realities they want to create for themselves or those who have the strength to smile when there’s every reason to frown. I just want to share my real story of winning rather than pretend.
I got the “Hey D, would you like to be in our writers room?” call from David Simon while he was giving a lesson. My response was a quick “Hell yes!” I’ve known Simon for years — we’re both Baltimore writers and mutual fans — but I never had the opportunity to work on any of his projects until The Gun Story. Trace Task Force (GTTF) in Baltimore breaks out. The GTTF, led by Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, was made up of a few elite cops who were granted special privileges in an effort to get guns off the streets. These cops used those privileges to commit a ridiculous amount of fraudulent overtime while spending their days partying and drinking at taxpayer expense – and robbing the city’s biggest drug dealers.
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Justin Fenton covered the story for The Sun, Baltimore’s state newspaper, and turned his reporting into a book, “We Own This City,” which Simon, George Pelecanos and Nina K. Noble acquired to adapt to the limited series. As the team began to build the writers room, my name popped up for a number of reasons: I wrote about the trial here on Salon; I’m from Baltimore City and grew up in neighborhoods terrorized by cops, which gave me more sources than the average reporter. and most importantly, I reported on GTTF star Daniel Hersl from the perspective of his victims years before anyone thought to do so. There were a few articles about his misconduct settlements and the money he cost the city, but at the time no one was talking to the people he was terrorizing except me – and they were people of my own community. My goal was to shed light on the impact Hersl had on black families.
The reporting work I started in 2014 has helped me get into a writers room in 2020 – without pretending or acting like I know anything other than my own story and the horror tales I collected from the survivors of Hersl. Publishing #FTP is easy; highlighting the stories of real victims, many of whom are still traumatized, not so much.
And once in, writing for this show with this team only reinforced for me the power to do the job rather than fake it. The other writers – Simon, Pelecanos, Ed Burns, William Zorzi – researched the lives and police records of the show’s subjects with the precision of NASA scientists. Their hard work in turn made me work harder.
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In the long run, my closeness to the subject and the care I was able to give to its victims paid off more than pretending to be something I wasn’t, like an overrated online crusader for justice hoping that someone important would notice and take my career to the next level.
I never pretended to be the expert on Baltimore police corruption, with a sense of legitimate ownership of the GTTF story. Before working together on “We Own This City”, one day, out of the blue, I received a message from Jon Bernthal, star of “The Walking Dead”, “The Punisher” and “King Richard”.
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“Hey man. This is J Bernthal. I’m a DC actor. I’m a big fan of your work. Your article really touched me, it reached a level of nuance and richness that only comes from empathy born out of experience. Thank you,” he wrote. He wanted to talk to me about options an article I wrote about Daniel Hersl adapt to film.
I was beyond grateful to hear from her. It’s nice to be recognized and praised by people who know good stories. But I never run into my friends, so I took the call and told him he should work with David Simon on the GTTF story that was already in development. Bernthal, who had previously worked with Simon on his “Show Me a Hero” limited series, was cast as Sgt. Wayne Jenkins.
We got to know each other while we were working. Bernthal didn’t take the opportunity to be Hollywood in Baltimore, never leaving the set, wearing sunglasses at night, feasting on soft-boiled ostrich eggs with a lightly chilled Prosecco. Just as I did with my GTTF report, he took to the streets, scouring every square inch of Baltimore, mastering the language, studying with police officers, forming relationships with Jenkins’ closest family and friends, turning into a character – all real, not pretend. He could have easily brought police officers into his trailer to give him notes and give him stories, but Bernthal made his performance by doing all the extra work, hours and hours of ugly research that no one will ever see.
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I understand why so many people cling to an image of success: it looks good, and it feels good to be respected. It’s even better to know that he could happen if you project that image long enough. The work, on the other hand, does not have an attractive appearance. It takes long hours, it’s tiring, and it’s not glamorous. If you posted pictures of what the actual work looks like, no one would like them. It doesn’t look like the red carpet on premiere night.
Pretending is easier. It can even get you into some of those achievement-filled rooms. But pretending can only last for a while. It’s the ability to do the work that keeps you there. If you’ve done the work from the start, you’ll be ready when the right opportunity presents itself.
Read more articles by D. Watkins for Salon on the Baltimore Gun Trail Task Force: