Stepping on Brecht’s toes…

I was an unabashed fan of The Wire, one of the very greatest shows ever on tv. I’ve read all of Richard Price‘s books, who was a chief writer for the series. I’ve looked forward to the debut of Treme, (accent on the last syllable, like flambé), the new HBO series put together by most of the folks who did The Wire. So far it’s been okay, with some great visuals, great acting, some good writing. It’s about the impact of Katrina on New Orleans. But I’ve had an itch that’s something is amiss and this afternoon, after standing on a street corner in the cold for half an hour, I think I figured out what it is.

Remember how everyone joked that Avatar was Dances With Wolves in space? Well I think Treme is Avatar in the ghetto. All the cops in Louisiana as portrayed in Treme are venal, predatory and racist, just like the corporate looters in Avatar. The corporate interests in Avatar want to pave over paradise for some McGuffin chemical or other; in Treme it’s the real estate interests that want to tear down the black neighborhoods in the interests of gentrification. The scientist played by Sigourney Weaver in Avatar has her equivalent in Melissa Leo’s lawyer: both characters are professionals who “get it,” and struggle to maintain some kind of ethical stance while being part of “the system.”

Good Lawyer Melissa Leo in Treme.  Sigourney Weaver as Good Doctor in Avatar

The soldier who “goes native” in Avatar has his Treme equivalent in a character who is white but whose life is completely immersed in playing and promoting the African-American music that is truly the main character in Treme.

Kevin Costner goes Native in Dances with Wolves

Sam Worthington goes Native in Avatar

What was so shocking and disappointing about Avatar was that in 2010 a people like the Pandorans could be portrayed in such a sloppy, sentimental and false way as relentlessly pure, superior, spiritual and utterly at one with their natural environment, like soulful pets endowed with intelligence. Like the Native Americans in Dances with Wolves twenty years ago. But I’m truly horrified to see this happening again in a place where I least expected it—in Treme—as the African-Americans of New Orleans are being portrayed as spiritually superior artist cum shamans, who deeply are in touch with the values of what really matters: family, art and soul, and for whom almost every encounter with white people is a violent lesson in racist oppression.

Now I don’t doubt for a second that the racial politics of that part of the country is undoubtedly historically and contemporaneously horrific. Nor that monied interests are behind much of the displacement and suffering experienced by the black communities there. What I’m trying to articulate is a dismay that in all three cases—Wolves, Avatar and Treme—the tediously pedantic and predictable mediation of these experiences are not coming from the Right but from the Left. It is as though we can only justify progessive critiques of our culture if they are couched in the most saccharine of terms, with simplistic and two-dimensional sufferers and transgressors. The Wire achieved the status of art because there was not one episode, not one scene, not one line, in which we knew what was about to happen, could predict what a character would do or say, especially based on who they were. Everyone’s behavior was particular and complex, you couldn’t keep the poetry out of the tragedy the same way you can’t keep germs out of a wound.

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