Treme Observations: “Meet The Boys On The Battlefront”

by Latoya Peterson

*Spoilers*

The second episode of Treme was full of political references and began building the tension that will push the plot forward.

(Before I get into the analysis, The Times-Picayune has published a second weekly guide to the references in Treme, which is well worth a read.)

The episode opens with local musician Coco Robicheaux reminiscing about the good old days, then pledging his loyalty to Marie Laveau at the radio studio where Davis is broadcasting. After breaking out a live chicken from his bag, Davis nervously gulps “Are we entering some sacrificial realm here?”

Robicheaux replies,  ”You just play the next cut on the CD.”

Despite the colorful opening, this episode of Treme is fraught with political tension. Toni, the investigator, sits down with other members of law enforcement trying to locate Ladonna’s missing brother, David. The scene is used to explore the issues of prisoner rights post-Katrina. The story explains that many prisoner’s went missing, and their records were destroyed in the storm, meaning they could be free or in lock-up. While one of the law enforcement officers floats the idea that Ladonna’s brother could be “doing Katrina time in East Jesus,” Toni is still hopeful he will be found. The episode also references the fact that poorer parishes in Louisiana may not be so enthusiastic about returning prisoners to NOLA – it would symbolize a loss of FEMA funds, which most cash strapped states desperately need. Toni traces David to another parish, only to disappoint Ladonna and her mother by finding a different David Brooks.

Back on the scene downtown, two musicians named Sonny and Annie are rocking out with the live music. They are entertaining a group of church going volunteers who came down to help with the rebuilding effort, with both Annie and Sonny voicing different perspectives on the nature of the help. While Annie expresses gratitude for the extra assistance, Sonny demands more answers of the outsiders: “Have you ever heard of the 9th ward before the storm? So why are you so fired up about it now?” He mocks the small group before finally breaking the tension by playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Checking in with Creighton, we find the professor going off about staff and resource cuts. He is aggrieved at chopping classes and majors dealing with engineering and infrastructure, and channels his rage toward the remaining majors like women’s studies, Jewish studies, and Africana studies. As Creighton puts it, “I am black, Jewish woman, hear me roar.” This tirade is not commented upon by the other character in the room. Later in the show, Creighton has a conversation with his daughter about school which reveals some contradictions. While his daughter does not want to return to boarding school, she is concerned about coming home to a public school when she has been educated in private schools. When Creighton assures her that her education will be taken care of by the university taking over one of the public schools, she grows concerned, asking about the fates of the public school kids. Creighton sighs and reminds his daughter that a lot of things aren’t fair.

Davis, after being fired from the radio station, returns to his parent’s home to beg for more cash. Here it is revealed that Davis has well-off parents and a long time black servant of the family, Melba. Davis asks his parents for more money, which they agree to if Davis finds himself another form of employment. Interestingly enough, both Davis and Janette are in the position of asking their families to help them out through hard times. Janette, the restaurant owner, asked her parents for $20,000 additional dollars, to which they replied they could do five or six thousand. In contrast, none of the black characters seem to be able to rely on any outside financial support.

Ladonna heads to see her husband and children in Baton Rouge. Her husband is clearly professional class – her children are in a prep school. However, Ladonna finds resistance when she mentions moving back to New Orleans. While Ladonna loves the city, her husband points out that he and her children are settled – they don’t want to deal with another move.

While strolling through the city, Albert and his friend have a quick conversation about the state of the projects. They refer to the fact that the buildings didn’t take much water, and had in fact withstood hurricanes before Katrina. This ties into some of the current issues in NOLA, as discussed by Colorlines. As Tram Nguyen writes:

For 29 years, Sam Jackson lived in a three-bedroom apartment in central New Orleans. He and his wife, Shirley, raised their five children in a tight-knit community within the sprawling, 1,546-unit public housing complex known as the B.W. Cooper. Every summer, Jackson boarded up the windows during the hurricane season, and the family always managed to ride out the storms inside the sturdy walls of one of “the Bricks”—the local name for New Orleans’ public housing projects.

In 2005, the Bricks survived Hurricane Katrina, too. The Jacksons had no water or electricity, though, and after hearing about broken levees and flooding in other parts of town, they packed up their truck and drove to Baton Rouge. A month later, Sam Jackson drove back to check on things at the B.W. Cooper. He found the door to his apartment broken open and the apartment ransacked. When he returned a week after that, there were “No Trespassing” signs everywhere. A metal fence had been put up around the property, and Jackson soon realized that it was the residents themselves who were being kept out.

The Bricks made it through Katrina with little flooding and minor damage. But none of the city’s four big public housing developments—the B.W. Cooper, C.J. Peete, Lafitte and St. Bernard—survived the demolition plans of the government and private developers in the post-Katrina rebuilding. Two years ago, the New Orleans city council cast a controversial, unanimous vote to tear down and redevelop what became known as the Big Four. The demolition of all those homes turned Sam Jackson into an activist.

“We had nowhere to stay when we came back, and I said, ‘We should go and make some noise,’ even though we had only a few residents here to protest,” Jackson recalls.

With a few other returnees, he held one of the first press conferences on the demolitions; eventually, he traveled to Indonesia and Thailand as part of an international delegation to meet with tsunami victims and share rebuilding strategies. “As the process went on, I wanted to let people know we were forced out of our place and we couldn’t return. We have to be the ones keeping the noise up about it. You just can’t give up.”

Community advocates estimate that almost 20,000 people, all Black and low-income, remain displaced and separated from their communities. Worse, the 4,500 or so Big Four households have been thrown into a tight rental market, competing with thousands more low-income people also living precariously in a city where rents spiked almost overnight. This includes nearly 9,000 families transitioning out of the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, which provided subsidies for people whose homes were destroyed by hurricanes Katrina, Rita or Gustav.

Finally, the progression of Albert in this episode threw me for a loop – not as to what was happening on screen, but because of discussions held during the viewing. It really has me thinking of how important reference points are in cultural critique. In the first episode, Albert was established as a headstrong pillar of the community, a respected elder, and the keeper of a long standing tradition. Near the end of the second episode, he’s beating a local thief down with a pipe. Some of the folks I was with read this as a contradiction in character, as proof that even the best people have an inner darkness.

But watching the episode showed a lot of markers that Albert’s background was kind of rough. His first response when his tools were stolen was anger – but not at the theft, more about the fact that someone “punked” him. Later on, he asks around about his tools – and they are returned to him, with an apology, and with the person who bought the tools taking a $250 loss. Nice people garner sympathy, but since when does a nice person have their stuff returned after it was stolen, by the person who purchased them? By the time Albert confronts the thief, it is clear something is about to go down. So how did folks think this move was out of character, when the scenes in the episode do refer to this part of a person’s character? Pondering that…