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The Thing about Treme

Revolution Online, June 13, 2010

Soon after the debut of the HBO series Treme, which takes place in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Revolution posted a letter from a reader who really praised the show and urged people to watch it. I want to offer some thoughts on this after watching the first seven episodes.

Treme opens with a montage of photographs—flooded neighborhoods, ruined houses, moldy living room ceilings and people dancing in the street. These images brought me back to when I was there in February 2006, seven months after the hurricane, and then again in 2008. Both times, I walked through the empty neighborhoods and saw remnants of broken lives amidst tremendous devastation. This is the reality Treme brings to the screen.

The camera pans across the rigid, nervous faces of cops—who always seem to be in the background acting like a brutal occupying army. They beat up a Black man for bumping into their car. They arrest someone for occupying an apartment that's boarded up while thousands ache to come home. A woman desperately looks for her brother who was locked up when Katrina hit and has "disappeared into the prison system." And there's a whole lot of seething anger at the government which isn't doing a god damn thing to really help people. Professor Creighton Bernette (played by John Goodman) articulates a refrain repeated in other episodes, that "What hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast was a natural disaster, a hurricane pure and simple. The flooding of New Orleans was a man-made catastrophe, a federal fuck-up of epic proportions and decades in the making." When you hear him say this you can't help but think about how the people in New Orleans are now being hit by the BP oil catastrophe.

These are all very positive things about Treme and I'm sure it's a big reason a lot of people like this show. I read many comments on the internet, including from people living in New Orleans. And a lot of them welcome the show because they say it portrays the New Orleans they are proud of—the great and unique culture, the music, rich sense of history—and the spirit of the people who refuse to give up in the face of immense adversity. Indeed, at a time when the Black masses are constantly blamed and demonized by the system, Treme's sympathetic portrayal of the people of New Orleans is a breath of fresh air.

These are reasons why I too like watching the show. And I have to add that in particular I really enjoy the infectious, rebellious, history-laden music woven into and around the story lines. But there are also some things about the show that I find really troubling.

First of all, while there are strong women characters in the show, at least one of the main male characters is just downright bad when it comes to how he treats the women in his life. I'm not a plot spoiler so I won't go into detail, but let's just put it this way—he's a guy who cheats on the woman he lives with, wants to sleep with his ex-wife who is married, and ogles women in a strip club. And you're supposed to like him. Now, my point here is not that characters in works of art should be cardboard one-dimensional heroes with no flaws. This would indeed be bad art that doesn't in any way reflect the reality of life, people and society. But art should be higher than life. And there is a way that the complicated, contradictory sides of people can be portrayed in works of art that can help people sort out right and wrong.

Art is a distinct sphere of human endeavor and creativity that is different than politics per se. And art is not, or at least good works of art are not, political slogans or analysis "put to music and acted out." But at the same time, works of art do contain political views and ideological outlooks. And it is important to think about this, even as we can appreciate and simply be entertained by movies, novels, paintings, etc. It is important to tease out and understand the themes and messages in something like Treme exactly because it is an engaging work of art and it can influence people's thinking, one way or another.

There are at least four or five plot lines in this show and I find them all pretty interesting. Treme gives us "slices of life" that reveal the struggles, thinking and aspirations of different kinds of people—musicians, small business people, Black youth, street musicians, and progressive lawyers and professors. As in real life, these characters are complicated and full of contradictions.

One moment I find myself really liking one of them, then the next second they say or do something that really puts a sour taste in my mouth. For example, one ideological thread I find troubling in the show is an outlook that amounts to revenge. It should really make you pause, for example, when one of the main sympathetic characters in Treme, Albert Lambreau (played by Clarke Peters), brutally and viciously takes out his suppressed anger on a youth who is trying to survive by stealing. I don't know how the characters in Treme will develop and change. But so far Lambreau seems to be really down on the Black youth, seeing them as the problem. And I think the more or less negative portrayal of the youth—and the fact that none of the central sympathetic characters are youth—is a real weakness of Treme. I'm not arguing we should idealize the youth. But far too many people are sucked into the poisonous Cosby-line that the youth are to blame for "making bad choices"—when the truth of the matter is that this system, which offers no kind of future to the youth, is the real problem.

I really encourage people to check out the powerful documentary, Trouble the Water—described on its official website as "a redemptive tale of two self-described street hustlers who become heroes." Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott, who lived in the poor 9th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans, were trapped in their attic when their home and community were flooded. We experience their harrowing days through video taken by Roberts and we witness a neighbor who heroically rescues them and others using a floating punching bag and then a boat to navigate the floodwaters. I remember hearing other stories of Black youth rescuing people and organizing to get and distribute water and food to those who had been abandoned by the government. In this we can see the potential of the masses—to rise above the me-first, dog-eat-dog mentality this system puts on people, to change in the course of struggle. And this is a very important part of the revolutionary movement we are building.

There is also a thread in Treme where, in different ways, people end up directing righteous anger and blame at wrong or lesser targets that in effect let the capitalist system off the hook. A judge suddenly "discovers" that the prisons are abusing people and orders them to clean up their act. One character decides to take on the corrupt politicians and run for city council. The professor rails against cutbacks of what he considers more down-to-earth, practical classes that teach how to build levees and power grids, ridiculing courses (that didn't get cut) that deal with what he sees as useless abstract, philosophical study.

In thinking about this contradictory nature of Treme, it reminded me of how on the one hand, the masses' anger and hatred of their oppressors are a necessary element of any revolution. But at the same time, this is not enough. This provoked me to think about how there will be many people who fight the system, who join the revolution with the outlook of "now we want to make those who oppressed us suffer too"—but that this cannot be the outlook of what leads the revolution whose goal is the emancipation of all of humanity.

It is good that millions of people are watching this show and seeing what it was like after Hurricane Katrina. And I'm going to keep watching, learning from and critiquing Treme. This show, even with what I see as real problems, is a work of art that has the power to move people and it raises big questions about how society is presently organized—and this is something everyone needs to be thinking about.

One person posted this comment on the official Treme website: "First, I'll say I haven't watched it. Why should I? I live here, lived here before during and after The Thing. I hope it does well. I hope it's nuanced and multi-layered and whatever else they call good TV. But just the thought of re-living those early dark days is enough to make me tense up, I don't cry every day anymore, in my car when I'm alone. I'm still driving past broken things and abandoned houses every day. For me, and this is only for me, it's too soon. I hope they do a great job with Treme. I hope people everywhere else watch it and learn something and learn to love New Orleans."

We should never forget and never forgive the towering crimes this system has done—and is doing—to the people of New Orleans. This alone is reason enough to make revolution.

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