David Simon's rich, complex shows have always been rewarding to watch alone, but they almost demand conversation, whether it's a debate over Baltimore's future or a reality check at a particularly audacious act of cruelty, style, or recklessness. His new show, an exploration of New Orleans' Treme neighborhood, premieres on HBO on Sunday at 10 p.m. And to start the inevitable discussion, Alyssa Rosenberg, Latoya Peterson, Matthew Yglesias, Anna John, Kay Stieger, and Rachael Brown will be talking Treme.
Alyssa kicked off the discussion by writing about what makes Treme different from Simon's other shows. Then Matthew Yglesias questioned how realistic the show is. Here, Latoya Peterson examines the series' approach to race and class.
Treme is first and foremost dedicated to exploring New Orleans' humanity, and considering the tone of most media coverage about the storm, it is easy to see why the focus lies firmly on each individual character. Each person explores the strain of day to day life in the Big Easy, engaging with tourists, smug journalists, and failing structures and systems while being enchanted by the intrinsic magic of the city. Indeed, the sights and sounds of New Orleans leap off the screen. From the introductory second line celebration (where revelers celebrate their lives and neighborhoods with a rolling party) to a somber, yet revelatory jazz funeral (also known as a dirge) closing, Treme discusses the political and social issues still in play through the lens of lived experiences.
Watching the first two episodes of Treme, the meandering focus of the pilot quietly overshadows the revolutionary nature of the show. David Simon, David Mills, and Eric Overmeyer created a television drama showing working class and racial narratives that dare to reveal the perspectives of those involved. Known for breaking racial casting norms on television, The Wire introduced a cast of color to the overwhlemingly white ranks of a mainstream cable. The SMO squad recreated this dynamic again within Treme, placing the lives of affluent professors and investigators alongside musicians and bartenders, all making their way through the post-storm landscape. As a viewer, Treme has the same feel as the critically acclaimed 90s comedy Roc, or August Wilson's stage play Jitney--these works reveal the reality of African American lives, but are conducted with a measure of dignity, something that is hard to come by. One of Treme's lead characters is named Ladonna, a Pam Grier type who is allowed to be both hard and vulnerable, shown as neighborhood enforcer, devoted daughter and sister, and loving mother, all during the same episode. These types of shows are about affirmation in a vacuum of constructed portrayals, of individually truthful narratives where people only expect to see pathology.
Each character appears to serve a different purpose outside of the story, with many vocalizing contemporary issues in New Orleans. For example, Albert Lambreaux is fascinating for a variety of reasons, one being his representation of different life stages. While he is currently a respected member of the community and a pillar of tradition, the events in the second episode hint at a less virtuous path to his current position. Lambreaux is also the neighborhood's resident "chief" - a title conferred due to his involvement with the Mardi Gras Indians. As Lambreaux struggles to pull together the members of his "tribe" before Mardi Gras and Super Sunday (St. Joseph's day), outsiders are treated to an interesting historical footnote: the exact origins of the Mardi Gras Indians tradition are not known, but most inception stories trace the practice to the intermingling of black and Indigenous peoples during the slavery era and the growth of the tradition as an homage to shared culture and solidarity.
Adrienne Keene, of the Native Appropriations blog, discusses the aspects of both appropriation and respect that inform the longstanding tradition:
Inherent in the concept of cultural appropriation is the notion of power. The group in power takes cultural aspects of a subordinate community out of context and uses them how they see fit. These Mardi Gras Indians are African American, and arguably at the lowest economic strata of society (the nytimes article talks about copyrighting as a means to recoup money for these performers). They are by no means in a position of power over Native communities in Louisiana or elsewhere. The Mardi Gras Indian culture does not appear to come out of a desire to "play Indian", and in many ways, it has moved outside of the realm of cultural appropriation into a distinct culture and community of it's own. But above all, it seems the history comes not out of a relationship of power, but out of a shared position of marginality and discrimination.
Considering that many people are not aware that Mardi Gras celebrations were ever segregated, the display of a notably black tradition and references to NOLA's indigenous peoples on HBO is a major coup.
However, race is not the only story revealed in Treme. Class narratives also loom large, with characters representing pieces of lower middle class and upper middle class life. Class narratives have fallen out of favor on television--after the 90s and groundbreaking series like Roc and Roseanne, the assumed standard of life on television is firmly affluent. Another recent HBO series, How to Make It In America, flirted with working class narratives, but chose to focus more on the character's close proximity to wealth. Treme digs deeply into the various parts of NOLA, positioning a wayward son of affluence next to the struggling musician who gives in far too often to the pleasures of the flesh without thought to the consequences. Treme is the story of both the young restaurateur trying to keep her dream alive despite heavy setbacks as well as the story of a son seeking his fortune in the world. And the characters often provide commentary on ongoing issues in NOLA--in the second episode Lambreaux and Robinette are walking past the boarded up projects, referring to the lack of water damage and lamenting the fate of those who lived there. The offhand reference is still a major point of contention in New Orleans--as Colorlines reports in "Pushed Out and Pushing Back in New Orleans:"
The Bricks made it through Katrina with little flooding and minor damage. But none of the city's four big public housing developments—the B.W. Cooper, C.J. Peete, Lafitte and St. Bernard—survived the demolition plans of the government and private developers in the post-Katrina rebuilding. Two years ago, the New Orleans city council cast a controversial, unanimous vote to tear down and redevelop what became known as the Big Four.
The artful weaving of politics and social awareness combined with the storytelling chops of Simon, Overmeyer, and Mills ensure that Treme is going to be one of the most culturally significant shows on television--even if history has shown it will be criminally slept on.
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