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And That’s a Good Thing

HBO Rewrites Post-Katrina History

by JORDAN FLAHERTY

After three and a half seasons, HBO’s Treme concluded in December, and last week the entire series became available as a box set. The show started with low ratings that got lower as time went on, never won many awards, and divided critics. But as time passes and more audiences discover the show, it may rise to the position it deserves, as a groundbreaking and important work of art and as a powerful political statement on what happened in New Orleans in the years after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures.

The struggle over the post-Katrina narrative has brought many filmmakers and journalists to New Orleans. In one of the most notable efforts, Spike Lee spent over 8 hours in two multi-part documentaries presenting a version of this history. But at over 36 hours, Treme shaped a deeper and more complex narrative that was also obsessed with authenticity. Although the show is credited to creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer, it is in many ways a collaborative process, born of hours of meetings with community members from all walks of life who helped shape everything from small details to major storylines. Simon and Overmyer hired local writers, like Treme resident, filmmaker, and columnist Lolis Elie and Why New Orleans Matters author Tom Piazza. The show seems almost pathological in capturing every major protest and musical performance and news event that happened in those first few years after the storm. Crew members would recreate the clothes residents were wearing, the apartments they lived in, the food they ate. Residents would play themselves, even if they had no lines of dialogue, just being there was important. The implicit promise was, after so many films and TV shows had gotten New Orleans wrong, this was the show that was finally going to get it exactly right.

When Treme launched, televisions across New Orleans tuned in like it was the Super Bowl. Throughout the first season, you could find the show playing in bars and social spaces (and even in one funeral home) throughout the city. It was the talk of the town, with a post-Wire hype that in retrospect was unfair to burden any show with. But as time went on, less and less locals came out, and by the end of season two, there were only a couple of spots left where you could go and see the show, and the debate over plot points became less of a conversation starter across the city.

This obsession with authenticity is part of what turned many locals off of the show. I heard many residents complain, especially in the very bleak first and second seasons, that they couldn’t watch the show because it caused them to relive personal trauma. Others said they were bored because it was too close to their lives – they wanted escapist fantasy, not home movies. In focusing on culture more than crime-solving, Treme never was going to hook viewers in the same way as a show about cops chasing suspects.

There were still, of course, many fans, and the nola.com website continued to post near-daily stories about the show, but the series failed to become the phenomenon it first seemed destined to become.

I was among those who never stopped watching. I should also note as a disclaimer that I appeared (very briefly) as myself in season three, and I know several writers, performers, and crew involved in the show. But I am hardly alone in having some bias. It feels that nearly anyone who has lived here for some time knows someone connected with Treme. The show was breathlessly dedicated to capturing every aspect of cultural life in the city. Local musicians of every conceivable genre appeared on the show playing themselves. Journalists, Mardi Gras Indians, activists, poets, police, lawyers – all were cast in the evolving drama.

To me, this is part of what was exciting about the show. I love the way it blurred the line between fact and fiction, between drama and documentary. Although David Simon has resisted seeing Treme as journalism or documentary, given the evidence it’s hard not to take this view.

When speaking about Treme, inevitably the first point of comparison is to The Wire, the David Simon series often named as among the best shows in TV history. But The Wire itself is inheritor to a long tradition of social change cinema that sought to change reality by depicting a realistic but idealized version of it. Treme goes even further in that direction. In that sense, the best comparison for Treme is Italian neorealist cinema of the 1940s and 50s, or Iranian cinema of the 90s. In both cases, political filmmakers sought new ways to depict reality, for the goal of affecting change. Both were looking to get at deeper truths through examining the everyday lives of real people.

In Italy, filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica used the palate of their country’s post war shattered landscape and nonprofessional actors who came from poverty to show a reality that was missing in the state propaganda of the Mussolini era – at the time, this commitment to non-artifice was revolutionary.

In Iran, after the country’s long and bloody war with Iraq, a post-revolutionary generation longed for societal change. As Minister of Culture and later as president, Mohammad Khatami helped give support to filmmakers and other artists who sought an opening to push for this change. Even more than post-war Italy, the Iranian films of this period were based on true life, featured working class people playing themselves, and ventured into topics – especially related to women’s rights – that were often off-limits in the state press. Emblematic of this period is the filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who’s films reflect the director’s own transformation from Islamic revolutionary to opposition intellectual. Abbas Kiarostami’s And Life Goes On, filmed in the aftermath of an earthquake that devastated northern Iran, is another great point of comparison.

The landscape of New Orleans post-Katrina (and post decades of urban disinvestment that came before Katrina) may be the closest the US has to the post-war devastation of the previous neo-realist experiments. Detroit has a similar landscape, but without the mass loss of life that the levee failures brought.

Of course, Hurricane Katrina was not a war, and the Hollywood polish of Treme is stylistically light years distant from the grit of Italian neo-realism. But New Orleans post-Katrina was a weighty, haunted place and time in our country’s history. The government reaction to the storm shaped the way we view the legacy of the mayor, governor, and president that presided over the disaster (as well as dozens of supporting players, like FEMA’s Michael “Heck of a job” Brown). As a site for commentary on contemporary issues of race, gentrification, policing, housing, and education, there may be no better site.

Treme is a love letter to cities in general, and New Orleans in particular. By naming the show after arguably the oldest Black neighborhood in the US (populated by free Black citizens as early as the 1730s), the show’s heart is placed in the city’s Black culture. The very first moments of the first episode place the viewer in the midst of a secondline, one of the roving street parties sponsored by Black community groups called Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, and the episode ends with the haunting images of a jazz funeral. The show is about race and racism, about Black culture in our cities, and the displacement of that culture by gentrification and class warfare.

Although I love the show, I think it faltered at the end. The abbreviated fourth season somehow manages to feel both rushed and aimless. The show’s creators seem to be trying to wrap up loose ends and also cram as much music in as they can, but any urgency to the character’s stories seems to fade away. Also, across the span of the show, the writers seem afraid to delve too deeply into complicated personalities. Everyone seems a bit too lovable. The show has rapists and murderers and killer cops and corrupt contractors, but aside from an affable construction profiteer we never spend much time with any of them – they appear as plot points in our heroes lives. Treme even creates the sympathetic character of a whistleblower cop, played by David Morse, while in the actual post-storm history there were no whisteblowers. It’s as if Simon was afraid that if he showed the truth he’d be accused of being too negative towards the NOPD. One of the strengths of The Wire was that it made us get to know, deeply, the killers and corrupt politicians and cops. Treme is after something different, but the lack of characters that we have complicated feelings about lessens the drama of the series overall.

While the show may not have taken as many risks with difficult characters, the politics were always bold. By the time the series came to an end, the protagonists in Treme had made firm statements against the charter school takeover of the New Orleans school system; the firing of thousands of teachers and their replacement with Teach For America workers; the tearing down of the city’s public housing; and the mismanagement of federal aid – especially the federally-funded, state-administered Road Home Program. In short, the program was a sharp and articulate denunciation of the entire neoliberal agenda that came to represent New Orleans’ (lack of) recovery.

But perhaps the most important statement the show made was to rewrite the narrative of post-Katrina “first responders.”

In the days after the storm, people around the world felt sympathy for the people of New Orleans, trapped on rooftops surrounded by water. But then media coverage began relentlessly speaking of the people of New Orleans as looters and murderers and thugs. Suddenly, the rescue was militarized. Then-Governor Kathleen Blanco announced, “I’m sending in National Guard troops, they’re locked and loaded, they’ve been trained to shoot to kill, and I expect they will.” Police were given orders to “take the city back,” and armed vigilante groups roamed parts of the city. In the following days, police shot and killed unarmed civilians on Danziger Bridge, at a shopping center in the Algiers neighborhood, at the New Orleans Convention Center, and other locations. It was not until 2009 that the media (and federal investigators) were suddenly interested in these post-Katrina killings.

The narrative of what happened after Katrina, and whether police were rescuers or part of the problem, remains a highly contested issue. A dozen officers have been convicted for their role in the killings and subsequent cover-ups, but several of those convictions have been thrown out on appeal. Treme, however, took a strong stand on what happened in those days. The show depicts a police department rife with corruption and officers literally getting away with murder. Actress Melissa Leo plays one of the main heroes of the show, a lawyer based on Mary Howell, a real life attorney that has represented victims of police violence and their family for decades. Chris Coy plays a character based on A.C. Thompson, the journalist who brought the stories of police killings to a national audience. New Orleanian Lucky Johnson plays a corrupt cop who acts with impunity.

George Orwell wrote that “He who controls the past controls the future.” When the next disaster comes, will we have learned the lesson that unfettered police do not bring safety? Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” Treme counters that narrative, showing struggling and underfunded schools. The redevelopment of New Orleans public housing into mixed income developments is portrayed in the mainstream media as another victory. Treme shows the cost to the former residents left homeless, and dramatizes some of the protests that sought to prevent the demolitions.

It took until a few years after The Wire ended for its reputation to rise as a modern classic. Although I don’t believe Treme will achieve the same acclaim, I think it will eventually be seen as a successful storytelling experiment, taking television somewhere it hasn’t really been. More importantly, I believe it will help shape how people view this period in history. As we near the 9th anniversary of the storm and levee failure, the storm has faded from many people’s memories, and is slowly being added to history classes. Treme tells a story of musicians and activists and Mardi Gras Indians and restaurant workers and lawyers and journalists fighting for the survival of a beautiful city unlike anywhere else in the world, and that’s a good first draft of history.

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New Orleans and author of the book Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six.