Telling New Orleans

The Wire's creator moves south in Treme on HBO.

In one pivotal scene, when Big Chief Lambreaux must implore a fellow Indian to rekindle tradition in the ruins of the flood, he looks the part — bright red and canary yellow feathers, glittering beaded patches. Simon and Overmyer were pleased when they viewed a playback. But after they showed it to real-life Indians, they got instant criticisms. Lambreaux's friend needs to come down from his porch into the street, they all said; the Big Chief looks up as if in supplication, undermining his character. "We needed to reshoot," recalls Simon. "We went back and chased it."

A later scene tackles yet more delicate material. After a Wildman is found drowned in his garage, a memorial is held. It's a brief yet hard-hitting scene, a ring of Mardi Gras Indians wearing plainclothes and intense expressions, slapping tambourines and singing a traditional song, "Indian Red." As the camera pans, those in the know will recognize faces: Cherice Harrison-Nelson, daughter of Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., sister of Donald, and Big Queen of her own tribe; Darryl Montana, Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas and son of Alison "Tootie" Montana, well-known as "Chief of Chiefs"; and Fred Johnson, a founder of the Black Men of Labor, who gave up "masking Indian" decades ago, after 17 years alongside Tootie.

When I meet Johnson at the offices for the Neighborhood Development Foundation, where he serves as CEO, a tattoo on the back of his left hand peeks out from under his white shirt cuff: "SPY BOY." "You don't play around with 'Indian Red,' " he explains. "It's like the 'Our Father.' And though that scene didn't actually happen, it's true to what we went through. What it says to some viewers is that New Orleans is one of the most African cities in America. What it confirms for some others is that New Orleans has a culture that nobody else has — something we can rely on for comfort and strength."

On the set: Steve Zahn, Kermit Ruffin and Wendell Pierce.
Skip Bolen
On the set: Steve Zahn, Kermit Ruffin and Wendell Pierce.

Still, there are bound to be detractors, who will claim that the series treads where it ought not or that it can't possibly stay true to a city whose every expression of identity is ringed by concentric circles of nuance. "It's a tough nut to crack," says Xavier University professor White, "right down to the way we walk down the street." Some of the guys hanging out one afternoon next door to the Candle Light Lounge, where the Treme Brass Band holds court weekly, felt a tinge of betrayal. "Our lives are real," one tells me. "So why do we need fiction?" But Simon is undeterred. "I don't want anything getting between me and a story that I think ought to come back to the campfire and get told," he says. "I don't care about the politics of it. I am responsible for the story being credible to all those involved. That I get there is the only and ultimate arbiter of this. If, at the end of the day, the story has resonance for people within and without the culture doesn't mean you got everything right or didn't get it wrong. If it doesn't, then all the excuses and prior agreements don't matter. Then we didn't pull it through the keyhole."

Simon can't pull through his keyhole precisely what drew him to New Orleans more than 20 years ago as a music fan: Those moments, transcendent and transitory, are big and shifty beyond even his skills. But what he can and likely will do is bump aside misinformed stereotypes of victims and heroes, replace them in millions of living rooms with credible tales of resilience and triumph, and seed a conversation about culture. That, and mightily entertain.

St. Joseph's night, March 19 — an Italian-American holiday appropriated as one of three times each year that Mardi Gras Indians come out in feathers and beads — is chilly but clear. A nervous energy spikes the mood, the residue of the Mardi Gras Day dust-up with police. Yet by 9 p.m., the Indians are out on the corner of Washington Avenue and LaSalle Street, the cameras clicking, the patrol cars keeping deferential distance. Two gangs, the Seminole Hunters and the Red Hawk Hunters, face off in mock battle — a glorious blur of deep green, lime green, lavender, and royal blue set to a mash-up of fierce chants and incantatory beats. As backdrop, unfinished two-story, mixed-income units, masked in Tyvek HomeWrap, loom from the site of the former Magnolia Projects, an unsightly reminder of a lost battle over public housing. Mary Howell stands amid a small group wearing Day-Glo green caps emblazoned with "National Lawyers Guild Legal Observers." An older black man in a shirt shouts, "Two-Way Pocky Way" (a Spyboy's warning, some say, that rivals approach) to no one in particular. Two girls and two boys, none more than ten years old, sit on the curb, their blue-feathered fans beside them, one girl rubbing her eyes. And there's Simon, wearing a black Kangol hat and a broad smile, his face just inches from a mass of feathers, perhaps making feverish mental notes or simply thinking what I'm thinking: You just can't make this stuff up.

Editor's Note: Treme writer/producer David Mills died of a brain aneurysm Tuesday in New Orleans. He'd written extensively about the Treme process and his burgeoning love for New Orleans music on his blog, His Times-Picayune obit is here.

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