Sunday, February 07, 2010
Faubourg Treme': the Untold Story of New Orleans
"Faubourg Treme': The Untold Story of Black New Orleans" has been out since 2008 and appeared on PBS as early as January of last year. So initially, I was befuddled as to why they would offer me a preview copy at this late date. But living only 45 miles from New Orleans myself these days and making it a point to get there as often as possible, I followed through and requested the preview copy they offered, thinking I could at least write about it for Black History Month, mentioning that it would appear on PBS stations nation-wide during February.
As the weeks passed, however, and February came, I thought I had missed the cut and erased the email making the offer, sending only an apology that I wouldn't be reviewing the film as I hadn't gotten to see it. Then it arrived.
And now I find, after watching it three times in a week, that I don't know where to begin. It's beautifully produced and the music alone, heavily influenced and imbued throughout, I suspect, with Executive Producer Wynton Marsalis' genius, is worth the sixty minutes it takes to watch the film. But the story it tells crawled up inside me during my first viewing (after which I stared for some time at the blank television screen) and despite the subsequent viewings and more than three pages of notes, I can't seem to process it the way I normally might. It's more than a film. It's a love song. And if I ever buy a house again in life (which I have said for some time I wouldn't), it will likely be in Faubourg Treme' and I will feel that I've come home.
Films aren't supposed to carry that much weight if you're at all sophisticated. I tend to be, it is true, "an all or nothing kind of person," as my daughter once gently reminded me. That's why I rarely review anything I don't like. Why waste my time? But this is hardly my first time at the Black history party. And I've managed to watch a number of excellent films without wanting to sell the family farm and set up shop in a location with the problems of the Treme' (pronounced Tre-MAY). So why this one?
I mean, it hardly pulls any punches, what with the opening scenes of the destruction filling the neighborhood streets after Katrina, the discussion of how taxi drivers beg not to go to the Sixth Ward (the area's more recent identifying designation), the litany of how death stalks its more poverty-stricken residents, and the description of the wholesale attack on the area in the name of Redevelopment (better known colloquially as the I-10 overpass running right down Claibourne Street -- originally an oak-shaded promenade).
So what about this film is so compelling? The spirit of the tale. And to understand that, you're going to have to watch it yourself. Still, I can share a bit about it to encourage you, I hope, to move in that direction. It should be seen and discussed and heralded and, in truth, its website reports that it has been. So maybe there's nothing left to say except "Ditto." But you know me better than that.
The story interweaves the entire history of the Faubourg Treme' (the word faubourg meaning a suburb divided into small plots and Treme' being the name of the man who originally owned the area) with its more recent evolution. How filmmaker Dawn Logsden and New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Lolis Eric Elie managed to cover it all so elegantly without being confusing or making it seem rushed is beyond me. The film moves back and forth between drawings and old films from the sometimes long distant past (the area was settled two hundred years ago) and the streets and people just pre- and post-Katrina. And some of the connections are downright magical.
Elie, for example, hired 75-year-old Creole carpenter Irving Trevigne to restore an old house in the Treme' a few years before the infamous hurricane hit. Trevigne is charming and real-er than real when he first talks about how "anybody can build a new house; I like to take an old one and watch it come back to life" and then later describes with bitter and somewhat bewildered sadness what it was like during segregation to always be addressed as "boy," while going home to the Treme' with all its Black and White residents living right next door to each other, sharing their lives, but being separated at school and in church by law.
Irving Trevigne's ancestor, Paul, it turns out, edited the L'Union, the first African-American daily in the U.S. from his printshop in the Treme'. Veteran actor Lenwood Sloane, founder of the Louisiana Living History Project, plays the editor in scenes that thread through the documentary, speaking the words the earlier Trevigne published in the mid-1860's, words every bit as poetic and commanding as those of Martin Luther King, Jr., at his best.
Proclaiming the Declaration of Independence as the basis for their platform, L'Union editor Trevigne demanded full citizenship, including land, education, and the vote for free people of color, a group heavily represented in the area even then because slaves were allowed to make money, buy their freedom, and move around at will in New Orleans. In fact, local African-Americans, under the encouragement of Trevigne and the organizational tutelege of what was boldly called The Citizens Committee, had forced the de-segregation of public transportation in the city by 1867. And over the next decade, a Louisiana legislature that was more than half Black passed the most progressive state constitution in the country. Even the schools were de-segregated. Until Plessy v. Ferguson, that is.
Actually, Plessy v. Ferguson, the famous case that established the legality of separate-but-equal accomodations for White people and all others was initiated in New Orleans. It was The Citizens Committee's response to the White man's boot landing resoundingly back onto the necks of African-American people when the federal troops left the South after Reconstruction. Homer Plessy was chosen for his White appearance and his Black heritage to board the Louisiana Railroad car where he was subsequently arrested because he refused to go instead to the car reserved for Black folks. When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the Justices decided that "separate but equal" accomodations (which were, needless to say, rarely if ever anything close to equal and sometimes garishly and obviously unequal) satisfied completely the legal requirements of the U.S. Constitution related to U.S. citizens of varying skin tones.
The people of the Faubourg Treme' were devastated. Almost over night, 95% of the Black voters in Louisiana were purged from the registration files. Black children were thrown out of integrated schools using physical force and all educational programs for children of color past the fifth grade were shut down. Still, Paul Trevigne was intransigent. "If [our movement] did not succeed," he wrote, "it is because it was premature...Oh, the Courts, it is true, denied the demands of our people, but future generations will remember." And they have.
Lenwood Sloane believes that "New Orleans is living history...the presence of the past." Wynton Marsalis, describing how the heartsick Treme' residents took those feelings and pushed them through a horn, suggests that, for New Orleanians, every improvisational jazz riff simultaneously serves as "a moment that has never happened," even while also being "a moment that has always happened." "Our rich history doesn't shield us from our problems," explains Louisiana Poet Laureate Brenda Marie Osbey, "but it does help us deal with them."
Nevertheless, the bitter sorrow floats to the surface as the film demonstrates how continued legislated oppression, discrimination, and targeted "redevelopment," led only to the final stunning shock of poorly engineered levees creating a disaster of incalculable horror further exacerbated by a severely lacking governmental response. "I sincerely hope nobody ever asks me to say the Pledge of Allegience or sing God Bless America or any of those other dumbass songs ever again," declares trombonist Glen David Andrews. "because I don't feel like an American citizen. I know I'm not a citizen in the eyes of the Powers-That-Be."
Still, Osbey seems to reflect the long dead editor who had such faith in the ideals of the people of the Faubourg Treme' when she says in a post-Katrina reflection: "It's a great catastrophe truly, but it isn't a greater disaster than we are a people. And that's what has to come through -- that we hold onto this city for who we are and what we are and that everywhere we go, we take this city with us. We take the spirit of this city with us, the spirit of this city's heroes with us, and the will to live and fight again."
In doing my homework to write this post, I discovered the probable reason I was offered a review copy of this extraordinary documentary. HBO has sunk serious money into an up-coming series entitled "Treme'" and co-created by David Simon and Eric Overmyer (the pair that gave us "The Wire"). So, if you really want to have a clue when the time comes (projected for mid-April), you would do well to see "Faubourg Treme': the Untold Story of Black New Orleans" first, if at all possible and you haven't already. But I'll warn you now; this is powerful stuff coming out at an interesting time in history. And courage, I think, is catching.