Monday, April 28, 2008

Tribeca: Faubourg Treme

The Tremé/Sixth Ward neighborhood of New Orleans has a storied jazz history as the one-time home of pioneering musicians like Sidney Bechet, Freddie Keppard, George Lewis, Jimmie Noone, and later even Louis Prima. Despite lending its name to one of the city’s best known brass bands, residents of Faubourg (French for suburb) Tremé (from the land developer Claude Tremé) were losing sight of its rich cultural history. To rectify that, director-producers Lolis Eric Elie and Dawn Logsdon began production on Faubourg Tremé: the Untold Story of Black New Orleans (screening this week at the Tribeca Film Fest). And just as they were wrapping production, Katrina hit.

As the film opens, Elie, a columnist for the Times-Pic, has moved into a fixer-upper in Faubourg Tremé. His restoration efforts frame the film’s history and provide a link to the neighborhood’s storied past in the form of his contractor, Irving Trevigne, whose great uncle Paul Trevigne was an early champion of civil rights as the editor of the nineteenth century New Orleans Tribune. For post-Katrina filming, the rebuilding of his house becomes an analogy for the rebuilding of a neighborhood and city.

Faubourg gives a lucid explanation of New Orleans’s rather exceptional position in the south during slavery, given its large population of free blacks and it’s comparatively humane treatment of slaves. It becomes clear these attitudes and traditions would have a lasting impact, as New Orleans became the cradle of the post-Reconstruction civil rights movement. It was a New Orleanian, Homer Plessy, who agreed to become a test case for a legal challenge to segregation that tragically resulted in the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy vs. Ferguson.

(Demographically, New Orleans was even more diverse and complicated than Faubourg has time to detail. Left unaddressed in the film are the relationships between Creoles of French and African descent and African Americans, often expounded upon in Louis Armstrong biographies, for instance.)

The filmmakers make clever connections between past and present, as we meet Irving Trevigne, who restores houses to their former glory, and then his ancestor, who endured death threats to fight for a just cause. Ironically, the filmmakers used a descendant of Homer Plessy to re-enact his attempt to integrate the East Louisiana Railroad and his subsequent arrest. Perhaps most provoking is the analogy made between post-Civil War Reconstruction and post-Katrina Reconstruction.

Since music figures so prominently in the history of Tremé, and New Orleans in general, it logically plays an important role in the film. Wynton Marsalis served as an executive producer, and while he is interviewed on camera, there seemed to be a conscious decision to use his voice sparingly. We also hear from musicians like Bob French (briefly) and troubled Katrina survivor Glen David Andrews.

The music we hear in the film is great. We hear classics from George Lewis and contemporary selections from John Boutté and the Rebirth Brass Band. Perhaps most rewarding is the original jazz-based score composed by Derrick Hodge. Hodge has worked with jazz musician-film composer Terence Blanchard on many projects. Most notably he played bass and contributed the original composition “Over There” on Blanchard’s A Tale of God’s Will, a full length album based on themes composed for Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, making him an inspired choice to score Faubourg. It is one of the strongest original soundtracks recorded in years. It would be great to see the original themes released in some fashion, and to hear future film work from Hodge.

Faubourg is a thoughtful meditation on a city and its culture, particularly its music. It has been playing to sold out audiences during the Tribeca Film Fest, but tickets are still available for the Thursday screening. It will be playing selective theatrical engagements, before airing on PBS sometime next year.