Respect for Respect: Treme, a serial television film program focused on the neighborhood of Treme in New Orleans

By Daniel Garrett

Treme, Home Box Office, 2010 and 2011

It is difficult to convey the consciousness of an aesthetic, of the beauty, pleasure, community, and ritual of a particular culture, such as that in New Orleans, a city of history and modernism, of manners and eccentricity, of divergent ethnicities, but that articulation of a living aesthetic is precisely what the musical drama Treme is good at: it is the most honest, intelligent, and respectable presentation I have seen of southern culture, particularly of southern culture involving African-Americans. While no one is going to argue that African-American men are perfect, southern black men who cook and sew and work on construction jobs and play jazz, and pride themselves on their elaborate feathery Mardi Gras suits, men of strength and delicacy, funkiness and wit, men who are very desirable to diverse women, offer a flexible model of masculinity. Where else would such men live? The low landscape and light of Louisiana are unique, and Treme (pronounced Tramay), a serial program focused on Treme and other New Orleans neighborhoods, such as the French Quarter and the Garden District, captures that and the delight and dignity and despair of the New Orleans populace. The culture’s friendliness and sensuality, and its rich, spicy food and joyful music, and its casual corruption and fatal violence, are all in Treme, which shows the citizens trying to recover from the devastating hurricane Katrina. With the broadcast and financial support of Home Box Office, David Simon, Eric Overmyer, David Mills, Carolyn Strauss, Nina Noble, and Anthony Hemingway are some of the people—along with the great cinematographer Ivan Strasburg and casting agents Alexa Fogel and Meagan Lewis and guest directors like Agnieszka Holland, Ernest Dickerson, and Tim Robbins—behind television’s Treme, which takes a crisis moment in a city and uses it to illuminate the past, the present, and the probable future.

Treme. Writer David Simon, producer Eris Overmyer, and director Anthony Hemingway and their colleagues have produced an imaginative document, a work of art, which can be a resource for other artists and thinkers. There have been good writers—among the journalists, Cody Daigle, Reese Fuller, Herman Fuselier, Alex Kent, David John (“Dege”) Legg, Alex Rawls, and John Wirt—who have written wonderfully well about Louisiana’s folk and popular arts and culture in magazines and newspapers, but Treme shows that culture as exquisitely, freshly, vivid, a boisterous and bustling participatory culture, rather than a culture of distant observation and expert criticism. The culture of New Orleans can make that of other cities seem theoretical, merely the idea of culture. The jazz and soul singer John Boutte, in one scenario, is asked by one Treme character to serenade another planning to leave New Orleans for New York, and on her porch Boutte sings “Bring It On Home to Me,” the beginning of a day that includes a breakfast of beignets and visits to some of the things that make the city special; and in another scene Boutte joins in a group sing of “Accentuate the Positive.” Music is pleasure, ritual, and work; and the show—featuring jazz, soul, folk, and hip-hop—portrays not only the joy and pride of musicians but gestures toward the nerve-rattling insecurities and enraging tensions of creating work that others may not value, or may value in ways that the artist would not prefer. The episodes of Treme feature cameo appearances, and sometimes performances, by significant musicians such as Kermit Ruffins, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Ivan Neville, Jon Cleary, Lloyd Price, the Pine Leaf Boys, Steve Riley, Ron Carter, Terence Blanchard, and Cassandra Wilson, as well as glimpses of the Mississippi River, and parts of the city—streets, squares, parks, restaurants and other architecture—most of us have not seen.

Treme. Homes have been destroyed, and utilities compromised, and bureaucracy is making people’s lives harder rather than easier following hurricane Katrina, but musicians and lawyers and teachers and others try to keep doing their jobs and take care of their families and friends and lovers and other charges in New Orleans: in Treme, which presents community and custom without diminishing individuality, we see the talented but struggling musician Antoine, a philanderer, a man more true to his music than his women (Wendell Pierce), and we see his feisty girlfriend and well-behaved baby, and his former wife, the tough but vulnerable bar owner LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) and their sons and her mother and new husband; and a liberal activist lawyer, Toni (Melissa Leo), who takes on public battles but has painful defeats with her husband and daughter; and an eccentric radio disk jockey celebrating different forms of local music and acting as a prod to others, Davis (Steve Zahn); a very traditional—even proudly provincial—jazz bassist and elaborate Mardi Gras masker, Albert (Clarke Peters) and his more cosmopolitan, more expansive, trumpet-playing son, Delmond (Rob Brown); and a gifted and sweetly charming violinist, Annie (Lucia Micarelli) and her lanky drug-addict pianist boyfriend Sonny (Michiel Huisman), one of those guys who is not handsome or pretty but somehow enormously attractive—and yet a heel, as well as the violinist’s mellow but ill-fated mentor, the long-haired singer-songwriter Harley (Steve Earle), whose biography turns out to be a fiction of expected authenticity; and a gifted chef (Kim Dickens), with a nice little restaurant she cannot keep and an African assistant, a sous chef, she wants to keep. The characters are believable thanks to Treme’s writing and acting and presentation within the design of the production; and the relationships among them change shapes, or end, and the characters go on to form other associations. The people in New Orleans do not create the culture, they are the culture; culture is a natural expression of their experience. How does the culture continue when so many people have been displaced to other towns? How do you rebuild your home or business when the insurance companies will not pay you for losses? How do you go on enjoying your city when floods have wiped away many of the places you have loved and you feel haunted by ghosts? The program—original literature on film, in pictures and sound—allows questions about the city and the culture’s ability to change: can political policy benefit all rather than some? Can the music take on new colors, new ideas? Can the town’s work ethic achieve greater discipline and purpose? Can consciousness be translated into practice and progress?

Treme. Wealth and poverty. Religion and hedonism. History and ignorance. Racism and multiculturalism. Good and evil rub shoulders on a daily basis in New Orleans and the neighborhood of Treme; and they may sit down and share a breakfast of beignets and coffee, a barbecue lunch, or a dinner of seafood gumbo, or merely a drink of beer, whisky, or special liquor. The story in Treme of how the bar-owner LaDonna with lawyer Toni tracks down LaDonna’s brother, who got lost in the New Orleans jail system during the hurricane, after a traffic stop and the mistaken presence of an old warrant in a police computer, reveals one of the city’s tragedies. The inability of the chef Janette to keep her restaurant going is another, but there are triumphs too—in Janette’s finding respect for her talents in New York, and in the music that continues to be made in New Orleans clubs and on street corners, in carnivals and parades. The trombonist Antoine’s girlfriend tells him it is time to get a job job rather than a gig job; and busker and backing guitarist Sonny despises musical clichés and tries to write songs but realizes his violinist girlfriend is much more talented than he; and while drink and drugs are temptations, the men move toward growth and mastery. Toni’s relationship with a trusted policeman (David Morse) goes through stages of consultation, romantic possibility, and distrust, when she investigates another young man killed during the great storm, when many policemen acted like criminals. Treme, which allows for the exploration of ethnicity, emotion, and ethics, is entertainment as art, and art that is idea, form, and matter, but Treme is not perfect—I did not think Antoine would forget Dr. John’s real name (Malcolm—‘Mac’—Rebbenack), and I think Toni may have taken too long to acknowledge the true cause of her husband’s death to their daughter, and while Jon Seda is appealing as a charming, back-slapping entrepreneur, Nelson, his character’s rise and fall may have been too swift (yet I remain partial to season two)—and, while Treme is not perfect, Treme, as model and example, is great as art that is of such depth and length that it becomes for a time a way of living: there is a river of truth coursing through it.
Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana, a graduate of the New School for Social Research in New York, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.