Monday, May 10, 2010

episode 5: humanizing

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.


  1. Keep up the great blogging, Matt!

  2. Your analysis is fantastic. I look forward to it every week. I'm really glad I stumbled upon it after the 2nd week.

  3. Hi Matt,
    Don't forget Manny Chevrolet Bruno--he does work in the bookstore and all! He deserves a shout-out.

  4. Yeah, cry me a river, humanized/sympathetic NOPD. To me, this points to a problem the show is going to keep having: nobody above the level of city government--probably nobody above that cop's pay grade--is going to get to make a speech like that ("There are lots of big problems; in the grand scheme, yours isn't one), and everyone could, right up to Mike Brown and George Bush, if he got the chance. The federal government, after all, was in the midst of fighting two wars, which had seriously depleted the numbers of available National Guardsmen. Bush was trying to get around the Senate to appoint Bolton to the UN, there was a civil war in Colombia, Guantanamo was being exposed. And you wanna talk about a trombone? As a matter of fact, yes. When we agree to obey the law, the law agrees to protect us. Period.
    But so the larger problem I mentioned earlier is that the reason the cop gets to make that speech is that he's from New Orleans and therefore righteous (or at least sympathetic), in a way no outsider has yet been. I think the show needs to outgrow or at least complicate that simplistic insider-outsider logic. Otherwise it's just a pep rally with a soap opera built in.

  5. Nice. Seems like the consistent backlash against Treme from New Orleanians is that in the scriptwriters' zeal to be 'authentic' - to capture the idiosyncrasies of this place - they're making an island out of the city, and everyone on the island gets a pass for choosing to return to the city of good-time music and po-boys. Would anyone on The Wire get away with throwing his hands up and saying "well, that's Baltimore for ya... let's forget about it and boogie down at the second line parade"? The answer is 'no' not only b/c B-more doesn't have 'culture' but also b/c N.O. is portrayed as a place apart rather than a symbol of how catastrophic decisions at the national level, in collusion with neglect and corruption at the local level, can royally f-up an American city.

  6. Edie points out that Davis' mayoral run is based on the grassroots campaign of Manny Chevrolet Bruno:

    The recording session for Davis' campaign song @ Word of Mouth Studios in Algiers Point featured a wild-n-wooly mish-mash of N.O. musicians: Ben Ellman of Galactic(sax), Derrick Freeman (drums), Aurora Nealand of Panorama (sax), Jimbo Walsh (bass), Davis Rogan (piano), Kermit Ruffins (trumpet), and the Pfister Sisters on backing vocals.

  7. Can someone explain where the photo at the top of this page was taken?

  8. Anon, it's Claiborne Avenue in front of the St Bernard Market.

    And as far as countering the insider/outsider logic in the story lines of the show goes, I think we ain't seen nothing yet.

  9. Thank you, Leigh. There's a flood photo here:

  10. Yup - the Circle Food Store... That's a pic I took at the Black Men of Labor second line parade in Sept. 2007... the band is just about to lead the parade 'under the bridge'... just like Rebirth did in Ep1 of Treme.

    Some Tulane architecture students are helping to reopen the store:

  11. Fantastic blog - I'll be returning often and will link and credit all your constructive analysis on Treme's music. Having only a cursory knowledge of NOLA and its music, this tv reviewer is daunted by the challenges of Treme - but loving it.

  12. Thanks - looking forward to Ep6 in a few hours!