'The Wire' Creators Tap Into New Orleans

David Simon's new HBO series, 'Treme,' uses fiction to honor that city's surreal, heartbreaking fact

Yet Simon swears no fealty to the facts. “I know what I’m making here,” he says. “I’m not making a documentary. And this is not journalism.” The dramatic pursuit trumps all, he explains, “or I’m doomed.” He knows that the space his series occupies, bound by real events and yet invented on the page, serves the surreality of post-Katrina New Orleans perhaps better than any straight account.

He recalls a scene, set in November 2005, in which Dickens character Janette is running out of desserts at her restaurant. After a regular customer turns down her last remaining choice, she pulls from her purse a Hubig’s pie, a packaged local favorite found at corner groceries. Simon recalls a friend, a food writer, telling him that no real chef would do so. He bristled at the criticism. “In doing that,” he says, “Janette affirmed that ‘we are all New Orleanians in that ineffable way that this town brings people together.’ ” Yet Simon acknowledges another, more technical falsity: Hubig’s pies are locally made, and the Marigny-neighborhood factory hadn’t opened yet. “I don’t care,” he says. “You discard the piece of truth that stands in the way of what is a true moment.”

There are more inscrutable truths confronting Simon’s team, none more so than those surrounding the world of Mardi Gras Indians, who dress in elaborate suits of feathers and beads in homage to both West African and Native American traditions: Here, Big Chiefs, Spyboys, Wildmen, and others have specific duties to enact, something between ritual and game, all of it rich with both formal strategy and spiritual signification. If too much emphasis has been placed on the fact that, once, Mardi Gras Indian battles did turn violent—what within American tradition doesn’t share that aspect?—not enough has been done to understand the modern-day Indian intent to “kill ’em with pretty” as both a powerful nonviolent assertion of strength and the aesthetic credo underpinning stunning works of art. Nothing compares with the sight of a mass of colored feathers and sparkling beads, extending the whole of a man into a giant, walking soft sculpture that reveals little but two eyes aglow with purpose. “That glare in the eye, that look of supreme confidence” is how Clarke Peters describes the toughest aspect of his role as Big Chief Albert Lambreaux. That and learning how to move, let alone dance and spin, while wearing 58 pounds of feathers and beads.

Goni Montes
The Rebirth Brass Band, rising above
Skip Bolen
The Rebirth Brass Band, rising above

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.”

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.”

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