"For Whom the BELL Tolls":
The Wire's Stringer Bell as Tragic Intellectual

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2011, Volume 10, Issue 1


Ernest L. Gibson III
University of Massachusetts, Amherst


- John Donne


In June of 2002, American society witnessed the brainchild of David Simon with The Wire, a drama series set in Baltimore, Maryland.  While posited as a crime series by critics and viewers alike, Simon argues that The Wire was designed to capture the complexity of the American city. Tracing the evolution of a complicated drug/murder investigation, the show highlights the perspectives of both the law and the “criminals” it surveillances. And yet, despite the prominence of the violence, corruption, and illegality, The Wire magnifies another phenomenon for the unsuspecting viewer.  Written with a brilliant cultural textuality, it at once disturbs America’s historical narrative of opportunity/tolerance/acceptance and highlights the effect social or political institutions have on individuals. One of these personalities, lending itself to deep textual analysis, is Russell “Stringer” Bell, played by the theatrically dexterous Idris Elba. Bell emerges as a tragic intellectual of the Baltimore underworld as he defies the Gramscian notion of traditional/organic intellectuals. His death is a necessary one, as his peculiar Cartesian subjectivity proves problematic for two worlds that neither respect his nomadism nor make space for his unique existence. 


Defying Gramsci

Stringer Bell’s tragedy is magnified with an understanding of how his intellectuality was a threat for two distinct worlds. However, to reach such an understanding, one must understand how he problematized a popular notion of the intellectual. This is to suggest Stringer Bell’s subjectivity directly contradicted two ideas asserted by the noted Italian philosopher and politician - Antonio Gramsci. By unpacking Gramsci’s theory, the reader will come closer to identifying the complication of Bell’s character and the necessity behind his death.

On 19 July 1928, Antonio Gramsci began a sentence that would last over five and a half years in the prison of Turi. The Public Prosecutor, declaring, “For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning” (Hoare & Smith xxxix), would be unsettled by the failure. For in February of the following year, Gramsci started scripting Quaderni del Carcere, his famous Prison Notebooks and offered the world a depth of cultural critique and analysis still useful to this day. One of the most influential essays, “The Intellectuals,” explores the complexity of what it means to be an “intellectual” while highlighting distinctions between two major classes.

Gramsci’s essay is initially fueled by the question, “Are intellectuals an autonomous and independent social group, or does every social group have its own particular specialised [sic] category of intellectuals?” (Gramsci 5).  He continues with a very intriguing delving into the formation of the intellectuals, emphasizing a distinction between traditional and organic classes.  According to Gramsci, “All men are intellectuals, one could therefore say: but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals” (9).  The distinction made here is the fundamental difference between traditional and organic intellectuals. The former, from a generic recapitulation, are professional in their intellectuality; they are formally trained as “intellectual” agents. More specifically, the traditional intellectual is “a ‘philosopher,' an artist, a man of taste, he participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought” (9).  His life work, in essence, is defined by his intellectual work. In contrast, organic intellectuals are products of particular groups in society. They, unlike the traditionals, are not formally educated and do not participate in work characterized by the life of the mind. Rather, they emerge out of social/political necessity and represent the organizing mind of their respective communities. Furthermore, organics are usually associated with the “peasantry” or an oppressed group of people within a given society, while the traditionals are linked to the aristocracy or middle-upper class. Because of this, Gramsci asserts that though traditional intellectuals may evolve from dominated groups in society, once they have ascended they enjoy a certain disconnect from those groups (6). In accepting these Gramscian distinctions, the question becomes, “What happens to the individual attempting to maintain ties to his/her organic origin”? 

The Wire’s
Stringer Bell symbolizes one of those aforementioned intellectuals defying Gramsci. His defiance is marked by a profound vacillation between the fictional divide between the traditional and organic intellectual classes, a division delineated by social/public function as well as societal recognition/appreciation. Nevertheless, the genuine effort to reconcile these two distinct worlds is apparent in his narrative, though not necessarily peculiar. Ironically, one of the preeminent scholars of the twenty-first century, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, too embodied that effort.  And one can easily surmise that the struggles he faced were incurred by said desire.  Regardless, Stringer Bell, albeit fictional, serves as an excellent metaphor for this anomalous intellectual class.  He, inevitably, becomes a tragic intellectual


The Formation of Bell as Intellectual

The viewer is first introduced to Stringer Bell in the premiere of the HBO series. In an episode entitled “The Target,” Bell appears at the trial of D’Angelo Barksdale, a fellow member within his crime organization and nephew to the man in charge of the operation, Avon Barksdale.  The mise-en-scène of the courtroom shot is particularly telling, not only of the power of the Barksdale establishment, but of the nature of Stringer Bell within it.  Bell is pictured in the rear of the courtroom, “properly” postured, impeccably and comfortably attired in professional wear and adorned with spectacles. His externality alone posits him, even if prematurely, as a thinker. This is further compounded by the notebook in his hands and the strong, earnest expression displayed on his face. In fact, the viewer suspects Bell to be “one of the good guys” as his disposition and guise suggest a certain traditional commitment to law, to intellectuality. It is not until the scene foregrounds Detective Jimmy McNulty, played by Dominic West, that one learns that Stringer Bell himself is a member of the crime organization.

The exchange between Bell and McNulty magnifies the notion of “target,” as Bell becomes the subject of a white-masculine gaze, a potential victim of his hegemonic power and surveillance. In this moment, sensing the pressure exerted by McNulty, Bell turns and shows him a picture reading, “F--- You Detective.”  After successfully foiling the prosecutions’ case, Bell stands up, silver attaché in hand and respectfully bids goodbye to McNulty. His dress, unflinching antagonism towards the Detective, and fluid articulation mark him as a man of power and as an intellectual. But more importantly, this encounter is one of the first to indicate how Bell is a figure symbolizing defiance, one in need of policing from both the law and Avon Barksdale.  

Stringer Bell, consistently throughout the series, can be seen in his professional attire, suit, tie, or business garb, assuming a sophisticated posture and articulation. However, the viewer gets a more direct reading of Bell as an intellectual in season one, episode eight. Wandering around the halls in Baltimore City Community College, Detective McNulty locates Bell in a Macroeconomics class being the star intellectual he postures to the world. Acting like a figure from a Foucauldian exposition on the regulating gaze and surveillance, McNulty peers through the glass of this intellectual panopticon and solidifies for the viewer that Bell is indeed an intellectual. What is critical in this scene is how Bell immediately becomes rendered a traditional intellectual, as his formal education is aptly applied in the subsequent copy-paper business scene and his later business transactions in the series. Ironically, he also defies Gramsci’s notion of the traditional as his intellectuality is used for non-noble and illegal means. He does not emerge to compliment the dominate white world, though he seeks entrance into the capitalist game; rather, he exploits his “epistemic privilege” to build up a notable crime organization. And it is this channeling that necessarily makes him simultaneously an organic intellectual. 

Bell, alongside pursuing a formal education, is grossly entrenched in the Baltimore underworld. As Barksdale’s second-in-command, he is the second most powerful figure in the organization, submitting only, in theory, to Avon. And while a stellar economics student, he also proves to be equally savvy and thoughtful in the drug game – brilliantly negotiating the terrain as he moves within the streets of “B-More.” However, despite his skill, he is still under the power of Barksdale and confirms a certain Gramscian idea. Accordingly, “One of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle to assimilate and to conquer ‘ideologically’ the traditional intellectuals” (Gramsci 10). Barksdale’s success is partly due to his ability to recruit a traditional intellectual into his crime family.He, a master of manipulation himself, understood the power of having a black Cartesian 1. within his ranks. That “thinking thing” is Stringer Bell, as the philosopher of the organization, the teacher of those beneath him and organizer of the structure and flow of business. It is his role as Barksdale’s reliable thinker and voice that positions him as the organic intellectual of the establishment. This fact is evidenced in how he is always present in major legal and financial negotiations. The problem with Bell’s organic nature lies in how it is directly influenced by his traditional training. The viewer can easily witness his formal education in action within his crime personality. It is unable to separate the two and for that reason defies Gramsci on another level, as he problematically connects two disparate worlds. Nevertheless, for three seasons and thirty-six episodes he masterfully vacillates between the two worlds, the white academic/business world and the black urban/crime world. 


Changing the Game

At the beginning of season two, the anxious viewer finds Avon Barksdale, the chief of the drug operation, incarcerated. Quite naturally, his second-in-command, his thinker (Bell) takes the reigns and commences to run the organization. It is here that the viewer really witnesses Stringer Bell’s propensity for reconciling his two worlds, as he fundamentally restructures the organization without Avon’s guidance and projects himself as more of a traditional crime mind than ever before. Additionally, within this extended moment, Stringer Bell holds the viewer with a profound gravity, as he displays the beauty of his twisted intellectuality and the depth of his violent manhood. In “The Lost Boys of Baltimore: Beauty and Desire in the Hood,” James S. Williams explores elements of homoeroticism in The Wire that further highlight how Bell became an enchanting figure. Discussing the influence of shot and angles, Williams purports: “We are drawn into rituals of spectatorial desire through the stylized representation and mise-en-scène of the black body” (59). Williams captures the relationship between the black body and the camera, persuasively arguing that it creates a certain spectatorial sentimentality. He is right in this regard, particularly as it relates to Stringer Bell. For instance, there are several scenes where the contemplative Bell is heavily foregrounded, almost to the point where the viewer becomes intrusive on his thinking. Furthermore, often times, when shot in tandem with others who remain are static in the frame, “we move slowly and irresistibly towards Stringer in close-up” (59). Although Williams reveals the unique function of camera employment and shot, the article does not fully account for Bell’s attractiveness. 

Apart from the handsome appearance or seductive sexuality of Idris Elba on screen, Stringer Bell becomes somewhat irresistible because of his intellectual mission.  Without dismissing the ugliness of violence and the cold brutality that he spearheads, he is determined to change the game as it is played.  With Avon, the H.N.I.C. (Head Nigga In Charge) tucked away in prison, the thinker of the Barksdale crime family has the freedom to reconcile the two worlds theoretically disconnected. And the viewer, privy to Bell’s desire to minimize the illegitimacy of the game, falls prey to his beautiful idealism. This is not to suggest that Bell manipulates his unsuspecting spectator; rather, it points to the human tendency to support the fight for freedom. Ultimately, Bell’s restructuring of Barksdale’s organization - his cooperation with Proposition Joe, implementation of Robert’s Rules of Order, facilitation of the co-opt and regulation of territorial warfare, highlight his effort to transform the game.  I argue that such a noble (albeit naïve and idealistic) pursuit garnered Bell a certain favor.  He becomes a young black man attempting to right an enterprise steeped in wrong.  Moreover, his attempt to change the game reflects a personal desire to transform himself; however, one is constantly reminded that his “bid to redevelop himself as a businessman presents an intriguing mixture of ruthlessness and naivety” (Clanfield 44). As indicated, Bell’s failure at reinvention is an interesting byproduct of the idealism associated with the grit of organic intellectualism and the idealism of traditional intellectuality.  Despite his “intelligence and driving ambitions, he is still too naïve to understand the power dynamics that drive the so-called legitimate worlds of business, law, and politics” (Kinder 52).  Inevitably, his intellectuality, while the definitive marker of his success, would also become the seed of his ruin.


Bell as Tragic Intellectual

The Wire
, as a crime drama, naturally showcases death. But beneath the violence, corruption, and death runs a narrative so provocative and moving that the viewer is exploited for his/her emotion. In Craig Detweiler’s estimation, “The Wire makes us care about these people, whether dishonest union bosses or calculated drug dealers. It puts a human face on inner city life, turning mere crime drama into epic Greek tragedy” (77). Detweiler’s observation is near perfect, except the fact that Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides never wrote the character Stringer Bell. The Greek’s tragedy, while serving formulaically for other writings, cannot possibly encapsulate what is experienced in The Wire. More specifically, the tragedy that befalls Russell “Stringer” Bell is meta-artistic, as he emerges at the end of the third season as a symbol for a peculiar reality. The suffering of the black intellectual is at times ineffable, and the death of one of the series’ most cherished characters delves into the darkest part of the human condition. To be clear, what is magnified is Cornel West’s sentiment regarding black intellectual subjectivity: "The contemporary black intellectual faces a grim predicament. Caught between an insolent American society and insouciant black community, the Afro-American who takes seriously the life of the mind inhabits an isolated and insulated world. This condition has little to do with the motives and intentions of black intellectuals; rather, it is an objective situation created by circumstances not of their own choosing"  (302). West conveys the “The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual” with a seriousness that evades critique. There is honesty here, bleak candor which illuminates the tragic fate of black Cartesian subjectivity. Given this thought, Stringer Bell’s death was inevitable, preordained by the racial dynamics surrounding him and the body that embodied him.  The tragedy rests, not in his death, but in his birth.

The tragedy witnessed at the end of season three is a culmination of many things.  On one hand, “Stringer’s undoing plays partly as the result of a capitalist utopianism that has led him to assume that the redevelopment of downtown Baltimore is a more honorable and orderly industry than the one he is trying to leave behind” (Clanfield 44).  This fact, of course, when coupled with the idea of race as a hindrance to upward mobility, makes sense of his death; his idealism, naivety and ambition were espoused from the wrong racial body.  However, more significant is his relationship with the game he attempted to change and the community he attempted to leave. For Jason Read, “Stringer views the world of the drug trade to be a world of brutal survival, a world to be escaped as quickly as possible” (133). This hints towards the idea that Bell’s tragedy is largely the product of his fraternal betrayal of Avon Barksdale. He dies, in essence, so that Avon and all that Avon represents can live. 

Following Barksdale’s release from prison, his relationship with Stringer Bell takes a drastic turn. The profound fraternity once defining their bond is reduced to human skepticism and lack of trust. Additionally, the fight for power, which is more a quest for survival, mars their relationship. The two come to understand that they represent two disparate philosophies for living. This revelation is evidenced in one of the most powerful scenes of season three, following the wounding of Avon Barksdale. The viewer sees Stringer Bell dressed as the professional intellectual and thinker he has come to represent while Avon, with a recently stitched wound, is comfortably and urbanly dressed. The heated exchange is characterized by Bell’s indictment of Barksdale as one who irrationally seeks blood and death, while Barksdale questions Stringer’s masculinity:

AVON:  You know what the difference is between me and you? I bleed red, you bleed green. What you been building for us?  You know what, I look at you these days, you know what I see?  I see a man without a country.  Not hard enough for this, right here.  And maybe, just maybe – not smart enough for them out there.
STRINGER:  Not hard enough?
AVON:  No offense, but I don’t think you ever really were. You got skills, yeah, no doubt, but…
STRINGER: What? What, ‘cause I don’t shoot up a block, indiscriminate, I ain’t hard enough?  Because I think before I snatch a life, I ain’t into this bullshit?
AVON:  Snatch a life? What life you snatch, huh? 

The dialogue continues with Stringer Bell’s passionate pronouncement of how D’Angelo’s death was not a suicide and how he was the coordinator. The men have a physical moment in which Avon is thrust to the floor in pain, and they lay there as Bell justifies his “rational” behavior. From a technical standpoint, “our point of view remains tight in between them, compressing the shot/reverse-shot technique into as close and proximate a range as possible as they speak, losing sight of any of the mechanics of framing and representation we may have noticed around them and instead coming as near to their bodies as the camera can” (McNeilly 215). With this shot, the camera aids in spectatorial impression. One comes to view how the closeness once permanent between the men is replaced with tension. The proximity of the bodies captures the intimacy of the situation while simultaneously signalling a fraternal crisis. It must be noted, the break down in fraternity, though evident after Bell’s confession, comes a bit earlier in this scene. Specifically, it is the product of Barksdale’s audacity to utter the “truth” of Bell’s rejection from the only two worlds in which he seeks existence. He is not black enough for the crime world, as his intellect makes him weak, and he is not smart enough for the white world as his race makes him unintelligible. Avon strips Bell of his livelihood, turns his strategic travel into an inevitable nomadism, foils his hopes for reconciliation. Stringer Bell is, in Barksdale’s eyes, “A man without a country.”

Russell “Stringer” Bell meets his tragic fate after a complete breakdown in his fraternal relationship with Barksdale. Subsequently, the two men betray each other, while maintaining the guise of brotherhood. Unfortunately, Bell becomes the tragic figure. The mise-en-scène is loaded with symbolism. The camera zooms in on Bell in a heated moment of realization as he curses the white contractor for making him a victim of the manipulation of a corrupt capitalist system. Bell is uncharacteristically enraged as Brother Mouzone (hired by Barksdale) and Omar Little enter the warehouse in a cloak of fraternity.  As Omar fires on one of the side men, and the white contractor pleads for his life, Stringer Bell runs throughout a labyrinth, ending with him caught between Mouzone and Omar. Symbolically, this represents a crisis of masculinity, as Mouzone and Omar represent diametric opposites in terms of black masculinity. Mouzone, as a signifier of Black Nationalism, tamed/controlled manhood, and Omar, as a figure of deviant and rebellious sexuality, compose the poles that give the black masculine world its variance. Their positions in the shot highlight Bell’s vacillation, how he is forever positioned between two warring worlds.  And after a desperate plea, Bell’s dialogue indicates that he knows the inevitability of his death.  Before he can utter his last words, both men murder him. Bell’s tragic fate is ultimately reflective of a crisis in masculinity. Black masculinity has no space for intellectuality, and this is a script co-written by black and white societies. The historical white world, one defined by white-male patriarchy, racial slavery, social and economic oppression, allows no space for a black Cartesian subject. And the black world, submitting to the stereotypes of an oppressive structure, only embraces the black masculine figure when he is outwardly antagonistic to the powers that be, radical in his orientation or proud in his racialization. There simply is no room for the black thinking thing, not a male one at least.

The last episode of the season begins at the site of Russell Bell’s death, he lies murdered on the floor as Detective McNulty once again gazes on him. There is a melancholy pervading the room as Bell’s death clearly signifies loss on multiple levels. McNulty muses disappointedly about how he caught him on the wire, Barksdale emotionally expresses “That nigga String was right about this shit man,” and the spectator mourns as he/she journeys with the Detectives back to Stringer’s home. The immaculate order and urbane aesthetics of the place compliment the perplexity of McNulty, who pulls a copy of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations off the bookshelf and asks, “Who in f--- was I chasing”?

The confusion surrounding Stringer Bell ultimately reflects his defiance of Gramsci’s theory. In the end, he is neither a traditional nor an organic, but a tragic intellectual. He is denied entrance into a white-capitalist world because of his race and denounced by a black-crime world because of his thought. Undoubtedly, Russell Bell emerges as a quintessential model of the black intellectual’s Promethean struggle. And as a viewer who admittedly fell under the gravity of his character, as a person who understands the existential reality within the American city, as an African-American male intellectual, I am haunted by John Donne’s seventeenth meditation: “Now this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, thou must die.” Stringer Bell’s death is didactic - it teaches the viewer, the spectator, the person - that whether fictive or real, tragedy is tragic, “and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”


1. By Black Cartesian, I simply mean to suggest an African American largely defined as an intellectual. This personification is evidenced by Stringer Bell who, while fully able to offer himself into a discussion of the mind-body duality, is more specifically employed as a symbol of that “thinking thing” espoused by Rene Descartes.

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Works Cited

Clanfield, Peter. “'We ain’t got no yard': Crime, Development, and Urban Environment.” The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television. Eds. Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2009.

Detweiler, Craig. “The Wire: Playing the Game.” Small Screen, Big Picture: Television and Lived Religion. Ed. Diane Winston. Waco: Baylor UP, 2009.

Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Eds. Quinton Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971. 

Hoare, Quinton and Geoffrey Smith. “Introduction.” Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Eds. Quinton Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971.

Kinder, Marsha. “Re-Wiring Baltimore: The Emotive Power of Systemics, Seriality, and the City.” Film Quarterly 62.2 (2008): 50-57.

McNeilly, Kevin. “Dislocating American: Agnieszka Holland Directs ‘Moral Midgetry.’” The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television. Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall, eds. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2009.

Read, Jason. “Stringer Bell’s Lament: Violence and Legitimacy in Contemporary Capitalism.” The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television. Eds. Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2009.

The Wire. David Simon. Dir. Joe Chappelle. HBO, 2003-2008.

West, Cornel. “The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual.” The Cornel West Reader. New York: Civitas Books, 1999. 

Williams, James. “The Lost Boys of Baltimore: Beauty and Desire in the Hood.” Film Quarterly 62.2 (2008): 58-63.

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