Mediating the Past: Treme and the Stories of the Storm

November 14, 2012
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**This post is part of our series, Mediating the Past, which focuses on how history is produced, constructed, distributed, branded and received through various media.

HBO’s Treme, now well into its third season, continues to occupy a borderland where lines of fiction, performance, art and journalism converge. Some characters are based on prominent figures in New Orleans such as civil rights lawyer Mary Howell, the inspiration for Toni Burnette (Melissa Leo). Other musicians, singers, chefs, and Mardi Gras Indians slide in and out of the series playing themselves. Real, composite, or invented (including the more problematic roles of cops or developers) they weave through the battered fragments that constitute the story of Hurricane Katrina, a humanitarian disaster that continues the destruction of New Orleans even as the city recovers. The hurricane remains catastrophic, but is now understood as part of an equally forceful historical flow, one defined by the legacy of power, corruption and racism. Mining the details of the hurricane embedded in the city, the producers have created a hybrid genre as they seek both accuracy and entertainment. Truth is often found in the artful, liminal spaces that dance onto the screen, propelled by the musical forces that drive the city. But the center of this narrative is always located deep in the heart of its characters, real or constructed.

Treme does not simply revisit a post-Katrina sequence of events. It tracks the mediated versions of them, underlining, commenting and critiquing previous formulations, re-inventing the story and becoming part it. Such mediations began from the start, best illustrated in a contentious exchange, after which Creighton Burnette (John Goodman) throws a newscaster’s microphone into the river. It was a strong redress to initial “disaster myth” coverage, which further victimized residents in the flooded city that Maureen Dowd characterized as “a snake pit of anarchy, death, looting, raping, marauding thugs.”

A main thread in season 3 also traces existing media footprints, this time augmenting an investigative expose. When freelance reporter L. P. Everett (Chris Coy) arrives in town he begins to unravel the enigma of human bone fragments strewn across the back seat of a burned-out sedan left about a block from the Fourth District Police Station. This on-going plot sequence refers to A. C. Thompson’s investigation into the police murder of Henry Glover, published in 2008 as “Body of Evidence” by ProPublica. Exposing Glover’s murder became part of a larger investigation that aired in 2010 as a Frontline Documentary “Law and Disorder.”

On Treme, the dogged Everett pores over files, connects a name to a number, cold calls potential witnesses, and gets a break on episode 4 when a law-enforcement source meets him in a café and shows him grisly pictures of the scene taken by police. Everett eventually locates the out-of-state forensic pathologist who first believed the charred remains pointed to murder. During Everett’s interview the words of the medical examiner are virtually identical to the quote in Thompson’s initial reporting, which are also spoken by the real doctor on Frontline: “When I heard he was found in a burned car I thought that was a classic homicide scenario: you kill someone and burn the body to get rid of the evidence.” A.C. Thompson’s description of meeting the source in the café reads like the set directions from Treme.

Glover was only one of the victims after Katrina, when police were told they could shoot looters. Mary Howell explains on Frontline, that the long-history of NOPD corruption and brutality resulted in the breakdown of professionalism during the hurricane. On March 31, 2011, a federal judge sentenced ex-officer David Warren to 25 years for shooting Henry Glover with an assault rifle.

When I ask Mary Howell about criminal justice depictions on Treme, she usually concludes with, “remember the program is fiction.” It is true that unlike Tony Burnette, Mary Howell did not have a husband who killed himself, and we don’t know if A. C. Thompson is really a fan of heavy metal. But when L.P. Everett jumps into the mosh pit it makes sense for the character. In these emotional and expressive spaces, fiction meets journalism.

Treme’s mediation of the past through the lens of past media can be temporally disconcerting. Episode 7, Promised Land, aired November 4th, and depicted the third Mardi Gras after the storm, yet it is presently 7 years after Katrina. In Promised Land, Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown) meets Kimberly Rivers Roberts who hands him a DVD of Trouble the Water. The documentary features Roberts’ video footage of Katrina flooding her home in the Lower 9th Ward. Some viewers surely remember the film, which was widely reviewed and won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2008. Watching Delmond watch it might have been little more than intertextual nostalgia, but amid the unfinished interior of his father’s damaged home, we see it steel his commitment as he returns to sewing his Indian suit.

This season Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) is sick. Though diagnosed with lymphoma, he refuses to start chemotherapy until after Mardi Gras. He, Delmond and the gang continue sewing the suits for what may be his last walk. In Episode 4, Delmond takes him to the Musicians’ Clinic, an actual non-profit facility. (The cast and producers of Treme have been involved in fundraising for the clinic.) As they prepare for Mardi Gras, Guardians of the Flame practice their chants at LaDonna’s bar, and dance with Big Chief Howard Miller of Creole Wild West. The sequence of the Indians on Mardi Gras in episode 7 features Lambreaux meeting another Big Chief, Wallace Pardo of Golden Comanche, some of which can be seen in this video with the Neville Bros. It is a stunning visual and musical mix, true to what Chief Howard told me when I asked him about the history of the Indians last March, “You see an Indian coming, you see honor and respect. It is about bringing dignity to the people and the neighborhoods. Slavery itself was a physical and biological war. [Slaves] used Mardi Gras to celebrate joy and love of themselves.”


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