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Wednesday, August 26, 2020

August 26, 2020: Katrina at 15: Treme

[I can’t quite believe it, but this week marks the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall in New Orleans. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the hurricane, its even more devastating aftermaths, and a few other contexts for this tragic and telling 21st century story.]
On five characters through which the wonderful HBO show charts Katrina’s stories.
[NB. The hyperlinked clips are just relatively random ones from YouTube, not summations of everything about these deeply human and multi-layered characters.]
[Also NB. Here be SPOILERS, so if you haven’t watched this great show yet, hie thee hence!]
1)      Creighton Bernette: I wrote about John Goodman’s Creighton and his righteous rants about New Orleans and Katrina in Monday’s post, and those rants are what made Creighton famous, both on the show and in the responses to the show. But while those rants were indeed righteous, they were also fueled by Creighton’s inability to move on, his permanent state of mourning for what had happened to his adopted, beloved city. In retrospect, everything in this character (and in many ways in the show’s first season) built inevitably to his suicide at the end of that season’s penultimate episode, as a statement about Katrina’s all too permanent effects for New Orleans and many of its residents.
2)      LaDonna Batiste-Williams: Khandi Alexander’s fiery bar owner LaDonna’s first season arc embodies a different, even more tragic lingering effect of Katrina: all those families who literally lost loved ones in the storm and its aftermaths, and who never knew (or did not learn for months if not years) what had happened to them. But while the story of LaDonna’s brother Daymo wraps up by the end of season one, LaDonna’s character endures, experiencing another decidedly different tragedy of her own while fighting to maintain a foothold in a city that seems intent on pushing her and her family out. New Orleans is still trying even in the series finale, but against LaDonna I don’t like even an entire city’s odds.
3)      Janette Desautel: Kim Dickens’ chef and restauranteur Janette reflects a third, slower burning kind of post-Katrina tragedy—someone who tries her hardest to stay but finds the storm’s lingering effects too much for her, and more exactly for her career and passion. Like her on-again/off-again boyfriend, Steve Zahn’s DJ Davis McAlary, New Orleans post-Katrina seems as if it might be more destructive than constructive for Janette, a passionate but unsustainable relationship. But in truth, even what would seem to be a significant relationship upgrade (to the New York City culinary world) can’t ultimately compete, and the show’s end finds Janette back in New Orleans and back with Davis—and despite ourselves we fully understand and support her in those choices.
4)      Albert Lambreaux: My favorite character is Clarke Peters’ Big Chief Albert, a handyman whose true talent and passion is in the world of Mardi Gras Indians. Albert’s return to New Orleans and his decimated house (and to masking Indian) seem for much of his arc like the acts of sheer stubbornness that his children (especially Rob Brown’s jazz trumpeter Delmond) believe them to be. But the traditions and legacies that Albert embodies and carries on are too potent to be broken and, it turns out, too charismatic to be resisted, even by his frequently resisting son. Like New Orleans post-Katrina, Albert may be fighting a losing battle—but he makes the fight so irresistibly appealing that we’re with him every step of the way.
5)      Antoine Batiste: And then there’s the first character we meet, Wendell Pierce’s jazz trombonist Antoine. While Antoine is certainly affected by Katrina (particularly in the loss of his house), in some ways he is the character who seems least by either the storm or the events of the show’s multi-year arc, who feels the closest in the final episode to where he was in the opening one (down to his continued disagreements with cab drivers). But Antoine’s difficulties finding steady gigs (which might be an effect of Katrina, but might be the challenge of a city jam-packed with jazz musicians) push him into a new profession, that of middle school music teacher, and through that work Antoine becomes connected to the most crucial question of all when it comes to post-Katrina New Orleans: what it will mean for the city’s young people, and especially young people of color. That remains a painfully uncertain question at the show’s conclusion, but with Antoine at the front of the classroom I feel better about the answer to be sure.
Next KatrinaStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Katrina histories or contexts you’d highlight?

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