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The Last Rites of D'Angelo Barksdale: The Life and Afterlife of Photography in The Wire

From: Criticism
Volume 52, Number 3-4, Summer/Fall 2010
pp. 413-439 | 10.1353/crt.2010.0047

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

I can never see or see again in a film certain actors whom I know to be dead without a kind of melancholy:the melancholy of Photography itself.

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

Somebody snapping pictures, they got the whole damn thing.

D'Angelo Barksdale, The Wire


In a 2005 public forum celebrating The Wire hosted by the Museum of Television & Radio, major figures from the production team and cast gathered to discuss the series and its impact. Cocreators David Simon and Ed Burns, among others, fielded questions from critic Ken Tucker before taking inquiries from the audience. One woman, who introduced herself as a criminal attorney, credited the show's many on-screen and offscreen contributors for their "realistic" elaboration of the investigation process. In the world of The Wire, a criminal investigation offers the narrative frame for each season. But, as a caveat to her praise, she offered one targeted counterpoint, a moment in the series in which histrionics seemed to trump authenticity. She highlighted a scene occurring toward the end of the first season, a breakthrough in the series' first sustained case involving the Barksdale drug ring. In this episode, police investigators and a state attorney attempt to turn D'Angelo Barksdale, wayward nephew of kingpin Avon Barksdale, toward testifying against his uncle's syndicate. Throughout the season, as the Barksdales became wary of the case against them, they guarded the family business with a violent stance toward potential defectors—including former employees and paid-off witnesses—and, as such, the body count in The Wire's Baltimore spiked. D'Angelo was the investigators' desired mark because he showed hints of compunction regarding the uptick in murders.

In the scene in question, Detectives Jimmy McNulty and Bunk Moreland from the Major Crimes Unit help interrogate D'Angelo in a New Jersey State Police station. They confront him with a litany of crime scene photographs (figures 1-3). On the table are five full letter-sized color prints, each portraying one murder victim at the presumed spot where their body was found. One of these photographs depicts the slumped body of D'Angelo's teenage protégé, Wallace, whose murder in the previous episode was not fully confirmed for D'Angelo until he viewed this image. Here, the investigators look to corroborate their evidence, while D'Angelo's lawyer recoils at the spread of gruesome photographs, and it is the reactions in this scene that the defender in the audience criticizes: all of the characters in the scene are being pushed to a breaking point, so why would the attorney shudder while the others, especially D'Angelo, draw their attention closer to the crime scene photographs? This line of inquiry marks more than an informed fan's critique. It suggests further consideration of one of The Wire's central staging devices: the encounter with printed photographs.

In Simon's response to the audience member's question, he explained the importance of imbuing the scene with some sense of shock:

There was a lot of movement of those photographs in the scene, it was all very choreographed, that the detectives keep pushing [Wallace's photograph] and pushing the other victims into [D'Angelo's] face. And he's being forced to look at that, at the cost. And we needed and wanted, as part of the psychic journey of that scene, for everybody, for his lawyer to display without saying a word, his sense of being outside the human condition as the murders mounted, as the rate of violence became apparent. (emphasis added)

Here Simon implies choreography—typically employed to reference the directed movement of dancers and actors—as a heuristic to engage the dynamic presence of still photographic prints in this scene. Whether performers move in unison or as a staggered ensemble, the emphasis on choreography points toward the organization of movement, and thus its choreographers. In opposition to words, the show's producers use these

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Figures 1-3. 

(Clockwise) Crime scene photographs in the New Jersey interrogation of D'Angelo Barksdale (1.13).

photographs to dramatize the actors' portrayal of the limits of the "human condition." Photo historians and visual culture scholars have...