Jul 1 2011

Fiction More Real Than What’s ‘Fit to Print’

HBO’s Treme covers New Orleans’ recovery


A timeline of the horrific events that unfolded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina hangs on the wall of the conference room in the Treme production offices in New Orleans. The skeletal framework is fleshed out by a team of writers, many of them locals, determined to bring to life the story of people who doggedly reinhabit New Orleans as a place, a state of mind and a culture that refuses to die.

Though Treme is scripted entertainment by David Simon and Eric Overmyer, producers of HBO’s The Wire, the events and characters—especially the musicians—are drawn from the cultural traditions, locales and experiences of the city of New Orleans. For example, Katrina survivor Phyllis Montana-Leblanc plays Desiree, the girlfriend of musician Antoine Batiste, played by fellow New Orleans local Wendell Pierce. Montana-Leblanc was not an actor before coming to prominence in Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke.

Critic David Carr (New York Times, 4/12/10) asserts that as entertainment, Treme would not exist without the “factual” reporting that first appeared in the press, specifically naming his own employer, the New York Times, along with local outlets including the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Biloxi Sun Herald. But while local news—and many bloggers and activists who go unheralded by Carr—did dig up some important stories that contribute to Treme, the show has challenged the national news narratives served up in outlets like the Times, whose post-Katrina reporting of 2006-07 was marked by the consistent selection and emphasis of violence by the poor, to the near total exclusion of police violence, corruption and culpability.

Season two, which kicked off on April 24, is set 14 months after the storm and takes on the heartbreaking resurgence of violence that shook New Orleans at the time. Early in the first episode, New Orleans Police Department Lt. Terry Colson, played by David Morse, argues over the phone with a New York Times reporter, establishing the theme that news reporting on the violence in New Orleans was off the mark.

The Times is an apt target. While independent reporters tracked stories of white vigilante and police murders in the wake of the storm (e.g., ProPublica, 12/19/08), Times reporter Christopher Drew (6/14/06) followed law enforcement, reporting that NOPD’s Swat Team (known as “The Final Option”) was “running dangerously low on firepower.”

Drew reported that “as residents return, [the team] is once again kicking in the doors at the worst drug dens.” The new police superintendent, William J. Riley, was not going to “let the drug dealers and ‘gutter punks’ take over again,” Drew wrote, further explaining that cops say they are bearing the brunt of “displaced anger” from citizens who “talk back.” He wrote of police brutality as a thing of the past: After “years of overhauls and modernization” of the NOPD, there was “concern that the department’s own notoriety” for racism and brutality could “resurface.”

A similar theme appeared six months later, in “Storm Left New Orleans Ripe for Violence” (New York Times, 1/11/07). The paper’s Adam Nossiter reported that after Katrina, though they “begged” witnesses to come forward, “the police, feared and hated by the city’s poor, get no cooperation from them in solving crimes.”

Police brutality is portrayed as only an effect of such resistance, rather than a cause: “Frustrated, police officers have been known to lash out at residents. Disturbing police brutality cases—officers beating up, or even shooting, random African-American men—are now competing for headlines with the latest killings.”

In the more balanced and nuanced narratives of Treme, we see the effects of the psychological as well as physical violence that brutalizes people already besieged by poverty, bureaucracy and lack of services. In episode 3, LaDonna Batiste-Williams (played by Khandi Alexander), a bar owner determined to keep her business open, is sexually assaulted.

Salon (5/8/11) criticized the scene as a “cheap, ugly showstopper” that “felt manipulative and wrong.” Even though the assault is not graphic or gratuitous, Salon’s Matt Zoller Seitz complained that it reduced “a complex and steely character to punching bag status.” Though not explicit, the scene was terrifying, and in most entertainment, violence is titillating, viewed mostly through the lens of the dominator. But in Treme, we feel the pain of characters we have come to care about.

Treme depicts the senseless shooting deaths of two artists, filmmaker Helen Hill at her Marigny-Bywater home, and Dinerral Shavers, a local high school band leader and Hot 8 Brass Band drummer. In response to the two deaths and the general level of violence and lack of police accountability, residents organized a 5,000-strong March for Survival on January 11, 2007, carrying signs saying, “Enough Is Enough.” Civil rights attorney Mary Howell, whom the character Toni Bernette (played by Melissa Leo) is based on, told Extra!: “It was a unity march that included a broad, diverse cross-section of New Orleanians. They demanded that the police and city officials do their jobs” and keep the public safe. Parade signs demanded, “Nagin, Bush, Get Off Your Ass” and “Presence, Protection, Accountability.”

In Treme, the march is depicted at the end of episode 5. Antone and Desiree, along with other musicians, are at the front of the line that begins in the poor, African-American neighborhood of Center City. They come together with marchers from other neighborhoods and walk on chanting, as police stand mute on the sidelines. In the last scene, LaDonna, in emotional recovery with her face still bruised, watches on television.

The New York Times (1/12/07) gave the march just over 600 words. The piece opened by reporting that the march consisted of “thousands of residents here, mostly whites,” and asserted that “the monochrome crowd” was an “unpromising augury for any possible resolution of the city’s crime crisis.” Why? Because of poor black people: “Law enforcement officials have for years spoken of mute circles of witnesses around crime scenes in largely African-American neighborhoods here.”

The series gets its name from the oldest inhabited African-American neighborhood in the country, the Faubourg Treme, where free people of color owned property as early as the 1700s. At its center, in Congo Square, African slaves drummed and danced and American jazz was born. One of the show’s writers, Treme resident and former Times-Picayune reporter Lolis Eric Elie told NPR (4/8/10): “It’s significant that the show features a neighborhood long neglected by the city’s elite…. To have people like David Simon and Eric Overmyer come here and go to the heart of a community that is emblematically black—and also considered an area of high crime and high blight—is a hell of a statement about what is really important about New Orleans.”

“Music is a character in the show,” jazz musician Donald Harrison Jr. told Extra!. Harrison, like his father before him, is also a Mardi Gras Indian Chief. The characters of Albert Lambreaux (played by Clarke Peters), and his son Delmond (played by Rob Brown), are loosely based on the Harrisons. “Masking Indian” is an African-American tradition that pays homage to Native Americans who sheltered runaway slaves in the bayous. On “Super Sunday” when over 50 Indian Tribes parade, New Orleans comes alive with drumming and chanting men in their dazzling feathered suits.

A search of the New York Times for “Mardi Gras Indians” turns up “In New Orleans, Getting Serious Over Suits” (3/23/10), a slide show with nine captions and 10 images of elaborately sequined suits of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe. We learn that Indians are predominantly black and working class, often living on the margins, and have spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on beads, rhinestones, velvet and feathers to make their costumes. Now they are “fed up” with seeing their pictures on posters and calendars without getting any compensation, especially in advertising images.

At caption six, the topic of violence is predictably introduced. On St. Joseph’s night, when Indian tribes meet, the Times reported, “Time was, these run-ins would often end with somebody in the hospital, or worse.” The next slide introduces the legendary Tootie Montana, “instrumental in shifting the Indians’ emphasis away from violence toward design and aesthetics.” The last two captions return to the copyright angle.

Bringing up Tootie Montana demands the telling of a far more timely and significant conflict. Two months before the levees would breach in the wake of Katrina, Chief Montana was appealing for an end to police violence, and giving testimony about the long history of police brutality that Indian tribes had endured. He was recounting events of St. Joseph’s night in 2005, when police blocked the annual Indian celebration because they didn’t have a permit. He died of heart failure on the floor of the council chambers at the age of 82, testifying about the police violence that erupted in the aftermath.

A more balanced, revealing view of Indians and violence appears in the last episode of the first season of Treme, when Lieutenant Colson pulls up in his patrol car and confronts Lambreaux. An impromptu negotiation takes place in the street, as both characters appeal for calm and respect from each other’s “tribes” in the hopes of avoiding violence. They both acknowledge it is what Chief Tootie would have wanted. The local blog Canal Street Car (7/20/10) described the scene as a “tribute to Big Chief Tootie.”

Indeed, one of the most important events in New Orleans in 2006 was the sight of Donald Harrison, rolling out of St. Augustine’s into the Treme, with the storm-damaged steeple in the background, in his stunning Congo Nation Big Chief suit. It was the day everyone knew New Orleans would survive, because the culture had. The Indians are now known in New Orleans as spiritual first responders.

Treme’s inclusion of this history illustrates how the show’s fictional portrayals are telling the story of post-Katrina New Orleans, its culture and communities, with empathy and understanding in ways the news media either can’t, or won’t.

Robin Andersen is director of Peace and Justice Studies at Fordham University and author of A Century of Media, A Century of War.

Research assistance by Ashley Repetti.