Episode 5 is stitched together by a massive parade that brings virtually all of the characters out to march, dance, and play. Like much in Treme, the scene is based on an actual event: the All-Star Second Line Parade, which brought together multiple brass bands and Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs and was likely the largest community parade in this city's history. It was also one of the first parades post-Katrina and was meant to be a catalyst to bring back New Orleanians, if only for an afternoon, for a joyous reunion and peaceful display of unity. (As has been discussed elsewhere, this was not actually the 1st post-K parade.) And that's exactly what it was until the march ended, shots were fired, and the parade became a catalyst for something else entirely: a moral panic over the return of violent crime to the city and an aggressive police response.
Journalist and Treme resident Lolis Elie wrote a masterful script that shows how parades create a very real sense of community among participants but that this unity is fragile because people - cops, thugs, musicians, second liners, blacks and whites - aren't going to necessarily get along just because they're all marching to the same drum. As always, the underlying subtext of the show is that black culture is a kind of meeting-ground where diverse New Orleanians can get together in the name of pleasure but without escaping the pain: urban violence, interracial conflict, and civic institutions that rely upon local culture to prop up the local economy with tourist dollars but consistently marginalize and punish the actual culture-bearers.
Outside City Hall, Big Chief Lambreaux runs into two Social Aid & Pleasure Club presidents who are fighting the NOPD over the permit fee for the parade. This is a reference to a major showdown over the price of parading, which in real-life began AFTER the shootings at the All-Star parade when police tripled the parade fee from $1250 to $3760. A coalition of clubs banded together as the Social Aid & Pleasure Club Task Force and partnered with the ACLU to file a lawsuit claiming that the violence had occurred away from the parade routes and after the parade had disbanded and that the fees for Mardi Gras parades (which require exponentially more police) remained at $750 despite occasional shootings along the parade route. Eventually, attorney Mary Howell (the basis for character Toni Bernette) forced the city to settle the suit and lower the parade fee to $1985.
Onscreen, actual Task Force president Tamara Jackson explains to Lambreuax that the NOPD wanted to "cancel our permit and try to shut our parade down," even through the purpose of the parade was to draw African American residents back to the city, if only temporarily, as housing was scarce in no small part because virtually all public housing in the city remained shuttered. This is surely the most telling example of racial exclusion post-Katrina; while Mayor Nagin campaigned on a platform to return evacuees and make New Orleans a "chocolate city" once again, he was taking directions from the Forty Thieves to mount obstacles for the return of the black poor. Again, the city cannot function without local culture but ideally - in an imaginary utopian New Orleans - those who create it would be somehow excluded.
Fortunately the momentum of the parade was too powerful to stop, and by Sunday afternoon the streets were filled with sights and sounds. In the aftermath of the flood, second line parades became sites for those displaced from their neighborhoods to reconnect with friends, family, and neighbors. ("Lemme guess - you came all the way from Houston for the big second line?" the Big Chief asks his daughter when she appears on his doorstep unannounced.) Second line parades are always about participation through music and dance, and the disruption of Katrina only intensified these shared emotions (the subject of a great article by Rachel Breunlin and Helen Regis.)
We hear the Free Agents Brass Band playing their post-K anthem Made It Through That Water and see all kinda second line regulars strutting their stuff: drummer and dancer Jerry Anderson, the ubiquitous BBQ maestro Biddles with the Vittles, and the real Davis (who made an earlier appearance playing piano for the fake Davis' campaign song.) The diversity is notable: the three white couples (Davis + chef Janette, buskers Annie + Sonny, and the Bernettes) represent the many sides of white New Orleans and the black characters (down-and-out Antoine Batiste and his ex Ladonna w/her respectable dentist hubby Larry) do the same for black New Orleans. The music and dancing work their magic to unite everyone together.
But unity always masks underlying differences, making TV and real-life more interesting. The shooting mars the positive images the parade was intended to project, allowing the media to stoke fears that displaced criminals are returning to the city. But it ain't just hype: everyone seems conflicted about the thugs' "right to return." A tipsy Davis laments "Niggas will fuck up a wet dream," prompting a black stranger to get up from his barstool and punch him in the face. When Davis comes to, he's been rescued by his gentrifying neighbors that he detests, and he glumly faces up to the reality that full acceptance by the black community is as much of a wet dream as a full disassociation from his white neighbors. Everyone is human, and in this episode of Treme, everyone is humanized. As a sequel to last week's post, the relationships in Treme don't conform to the protagonist-antagonist mold so much as they place everyone on an even playing field and track them as they stumble and scheme.
This is clearest in the scene where lawyer Toni Bernette chastises her contact at NOPD for cops aggressive policing and gets an earful in return about the plight of cops who try to maintain order while struggling to keep their lives together. Even the corrupt criminal justice system is humanized.
"It's all coming back isn't it?" asks Bernette. "For a moment the storm took it away: no dope, no guns, no bodies...."
The parade provides New Orleanians with a sense of community, but that community is populated by people with very different perspectives on what New Orleans is and should be.