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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 partbright 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. Lambreauxs 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. Its 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 dont play around with Indian Red, he explains. Its like the Our Father. And though that scene didnt actually happen, its 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 hassomething 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 cant possibly stay true to a city whose every expression of identity is ringed by concentric circles of nuance. Its 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 dont want anything getting between me and a story that I think ought to come back to the campfire and get told, he says. I dont 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 doesnt mean you got everything right or didnt get it wrong. If it doesnt, then all the excuses and prior agreements dont matter. Then we didnt pull it through the keyhole.
Simon cant 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.