HBO Series Focuses On Post-Katrina New Orleans

Nearly five years have passed since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, devastating the city of New Orleans. The Crescent City continues to experience revitalization and generate new interest from outside its borders, thanks — in part — to a new television series on HBO called Treme. The project highlights the successes and struggles faced by a number of characters a few months after the storm. Host Michel Martin speaks with Lolis Eric Elie, one of the writers for the program, about the show's success, and it's roots in one of America's oldest African-American neighborhoods.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now, another view of life in New Orleans. Some of you may have been glued to your television sets last night for the latest installment in the critically acclaimed series "Treme." The HBO drama has already garnered critical acclaim and counts President Barack Obama among its fans. In "Treme" the characters are as big as the music they love and everybody is trying to navigate life in a post-Katrina New Orleans.

The series begins three months after the hurricane when many in New Orleans began to greet each other in a new way.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Treme")

Unidentified Woman #1: Hey, how's your house?

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, no.

Unidentified Man #1: How's your house?

Unidentified Woman #1: We're up on Octavia. How about you?

Unidentified Man #1: Still living on the boat.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, I got a lot of water. Need a line over my head.

Unidentified Woman #3: Can't stay here, daddy.

Unidentified Man #3: Please.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #4: I'm this close to getting a new water heater. You think you could float me a loan?

Unidentified Man #5: I'm a musician, what do you want me to say?

Unidentified Woman #4: You're a disc jockey.

MARTIN: Few know these corners of New Orleans as well as Lolis Eric Elie. He's a writer for "Treme," a former columnist for the Times-Picayune and also co-producer of a documentary on the New Orleans neighborhood from which Treme takes his name. And he's joining us now from his home office in New Orleans to give us an update on how things are going. Welcome to you, how are you doing?

Mr. LOLIS ERIC ELIE (Writer, Filmmaker): I'm doing well, Michel. Thanks for asking.

MARTIN: Well, can I just get your sense of things in the wake of this, well, Bob Marshall just told us, it's not a spill, it's a river of oil. And could I just ask how you're reacting to all this?

Mr. ELIE: It's a shock and that so much is going well this year. I mean, between the Saints and the announcement of this show and it's doing well, the impression was that we might have been leaving our worst fears behind. But this brings to mind many of the disaster worst-case scenarios that we feared after the federal levee failure.

MARTIN: Is it bringing up some bad memories for you? And not just you, I assume.

Mr. ELIE: Well, at the time when Hurricane Katrina hit, I was a columnist for the Times-Picayune, and one of the things I wrote about was the impact on fisheries. And there's a lot about the federal policy that made it difficult to get aid to fishermen. And that is not only our livelihood financially, it's also our culture.

MARTIN: I want to mention that today is a big day in the life of New Orleans nearly five years after Katrina struck the coast. Today is also the last day that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin serves. A new mayor is taking over. How is all that playing together? You've got on the one hand new leadership coming in, who was elected with wide ranging support and I don't know, how is all that working together?

Mr. ELIE: Well, Mitch Landrieu's election as mayor is another part of the optimism here, a sense that we can turn a new page in the book. And so it's just a great juxtaposition to have those two different elements happening simultaneously. The last couple of years of the Nagin administration have been particularly troubling in that it seemed to many people that the mayor had been beaten down by all that he'd gone through and was not particularly effective nor particularly interested in the job. So Mitch Landrieu brings a new energy to the office. But this reminds us that - also reminds us that some of the old problems still remain.

MARTIN: So let's talk a bit about "Treme." Why did you want to be involved in the series and how did you come to be involved in it?

Mr. ELIE: Well, I had met David Simon during the last season of "The Wire" because my high school classmate Wendell Pierce lived next door. At that point we threw a joint carnival party. So all the guys from "The Wire" were down here. We met then. And he called me a couple times subsequent to that. And although I had not initially thought about it going into television writing, the opportunity to tell our story to the HBO audience and perhaps more importantly, to humanize these issues that everyone in American has heard about, but relatively few of us have any real sense of, that was a great opportunity.

And most of the time what you hear from the politicians and from the Chamber of Commerce is about all the economic stuff. You should come down here and build your plant and so forth. But that's not really what we're good at. (unintelligible) interested in what we're good at and who we are.

MARTIN: You know, the series doesn't pull any punches about some of the things that how can we put this that many people find kind of crazy making about New Orleans. Like, there's a line in last night's episode, an exchange where the character of Sonny, the musician, tells somebody a line to the effect of: I traveled all the way from Amsterdam to New Orleans and you couldn't drive five hours?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELIE: A lot of what Sonny is talking about is the fascination that the world has with New Orleans. But part of what's been problematic for us is the things that New Orleans is so great at - we're talking about food, music, architecture, culture, a sense of a regional culture even in the midst of all this American culture - those things are not really valued nationally.

Most people around the country wonder whether or not they're going to get the new Wal-Mart or new McDonald's. We're more worried about whether or not the old traditions of poboys and of our local grocery stores, et cetera, will remain.

MARTIN: Do you feel that the series is in part a way to help the country understand what it is that they should value and love and love as much as you do?

Mr. ELIE: It really is because part of what was problematic about getting our story out immediately after Hurricane Katrina was the politics of it were so complicated, because George Bush took so long to get here initially, any criticism of government reaction was really going to be focused on him. But, in fact, our main problem was not his fault. Our main problem was the failure of the Army Corps of Engineers over several decades to build decent levees.

And neither George Bush nor Barack Obama now seems to really understand the magnitude of that crisis. Everyone talks about what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina did not do that much to New Orleans. It did tremendous damage to the Gulf coast of Mississippi. What Hurricane Katrina did was overtop and breach levees that were supposed to be able to withstand it.

That's what John Goodman's rant about is in the first episode. It's, like, wait a minute, this is what actually happened here. And more important, when you look at flooding in other places, now we're talking about flooding in Tennessee today, these are also Army of Corps Engineer projects that need to be examined, need to be subject to further scrutiny. That's the lesson of New Orleans.

MARTIN: Well, it obviously, one doesn't want to overstate the impact that anyone tells in show, book, series, whatever, can have on that kind of an ingrained point of view. But having said that, do you have any sense of how you will know if your point of view and the point of view of others who are shared there is getting headway or that whether people are starting to see it the way you see it?

Mr. ELIE: Well, I tell you, we have messages that we would like to convey, but fundamentally, this has to be good television and good storytelling. And if people enjoy the show on whatever level they enjoy it, we'll be happy and we'll feel ourselves to be successful.

There's a public school here that has been a predominantly black public school that now is a charter school and predominantly white. We had a brief line about that situation in one of our episodes. A lot of local people caught it. The national audience probably didn't and shouldn't have. It was not something that they needed to understand. But in that sense, if the national audience can enjoy the show and be interested in what happens to our characters, we'll be successful.

MARTIN: Finally, I just want to read a line from David Simon, as you mentioned, one of the co-creators of "Treme" wrote an open letter to the people of New Orleans that appeared in the Times-Picayune where he talked about kind of the balance between good drama and being sort of journalistically accurate and he wrote: Your sensibilities matter to us because we have tried to be honest with that extraordinary time. Not journalistically true, but thematically so. We have depicted certain things that happened and others that didn't happen and then still others that didn't happen, but truly should have happened. This is a nice way of saying, we have lied.

I'm sorry, I just wanted to read that because I thought it was funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Any final thoughts for us? And good luck to you with all that's going on down there.

Mr. ELIE: Well, I appreciate you calling. Dawn Logsdon and I did a documentary about this neighborhood called "Faubourg Treme," which is a big part of my education in the neighborhood and understanding its importance to the country. So that was really a big part of my understanding. And I'm happy that we're now getting the kind of attention that we deserve for this part of the country.

MARTIN: All right. Lolis Eric Elie is a writer for the HBO series "Treme." He's also co-producer and co-director as he just told you of the documentary "Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans." And he joined us from his home office in "Treme." And I thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. ELIE: Thank you, Michel.

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