Race, Place, and New Orleans in Film and Television

On the set of Treme, Mother's Lounge, Tremé, New Orleans. Photo by the author.
In this post, Helen Morgan Parmett takes stock of some of the ways in which media culture and practice, and particularly film and television, has helped to shape discourses of New Orleans historically and the ways in which more recent shifts in the city’s post-Katrina cultural economy have implicated the industrial conditions of media in the city as well as its global representation.
[Ed. note: This post is adapted from the author’s keynote address for the Media & Communication Geography Specialty Interest Group at the American Association of Geographers  Annual Meeting, 12 April 2018.]

New Orleans in film and television figures the city as a signifier—for the extraordinary, the spectacular, a city of excess that is unique, rich in culture, and, ultimately, “authentic.”1Claims to authenticity are never innocent. Indeed, for this essay, in referring to New Orleans as “authentic,” I am not meaning to suggest that it is, or that the cultural practices being referenced in relation to the city, are, in fact, authentic. Rather, I am drawing attention to the way in which the city, and those practices, are deployed as signifiers of authenticity, and how, in so doing, film and television figures and constitutes New Orleans more generally, and Black cultural production in particular, through a kind of rhetoric of authenticity that makes a particular claim on, and at times struggles over, what gets included in claims over authentic New Orleans place and culture. For further discussion of rhetorics of authenticity in New Orleans, see Gotham, Kevin Fox. Authentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture and Race in the Big Easy. New York: New York University Press, 2007; see also Zukin, Sharon. Naked City : The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. New Orleans seems to promise to be that place where one can gain access to a kind of existential encounter with the real, even when that real is painted in artifice and masked with spectacle. Sometimes referred to as “the northernmost city in the Caribbean,” New Orleans too is often figured as an outsider, an Other through which its exceptionality becomes fodder for struggles over the cultural imaginary of the nation, particularly with regards to its cultural politics of race. 

For the city’s tricentennial—indeed, a celebration that few American cities can boast—such rhetoric is ubiquitous: “There is no city in the world like New Orleans.” It is… “One of the world’s most unique and diverse cities.” Even my own image of the city at dawn, from a street in the Marginy neighborhood, gazing toward the Central Business District on the horizon, is suggestive of that kind of seeking, yet unattainable grasp for the real. Likewise, the images coming out of New Orleans in 2005, after the failure of the levees during Hurricane Katrina, seemed to speak to the spectacular existence of New Orleans: Images of a city in one of the most developed nations in the world, seemingly completely below water. Citizens, mostly Black, stranded on roofs, on bridges. For days. It seems that it is in New Orleans, amongst its beyond proportion images of American life, whether in its luxuries or in its margins, one approaches an encounter with the extraordinary.

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This understanding of New Orleans as a place for affectual experiences of both authenticity and the spectacularly extraordinary is a core narrative trope in film and television representations of the city. Indeed, New Orleans has been the fodder of myriad film and television productions. The Internet Movie Database cites Dupont, a documentary short shot in 1898 as the city’s first. Film New Orleans (the city’s film commission) cites close to 450 films in its filmography list, which it dates back to the 1938 feature film The Buccaneer, directed by Cecil DeMille. In this early era, the city was rarely a filming destination—it was source material. While both the original 1938 and 1958 remake of The Buccaneer used some local locations, primarily as establishing shots, the majority of both films were shot on a Hollywood set.

The same is true for perhaps New Orleans’ most iconic imagistic representation—the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire, based on the play by Tennessee Williams. It is only the film’s opening scene, at the L&N train station at the foot of Canal Street, that was filmed on location. Although this on-location shooting perhaps helped to create a sense of place within the film, with a kind of localness of the streetcar, the dark shades, and billowing smoke from which Blanche emerges, it is the sets built by Richard Day that make up the bulk of the film’s iconicity that seem to render the film  distinctly New Orleans. But these sets were built on a Paramount Pictures backlot. Day had travelled to New Orleans, studying the city, and built a set to evoke an “authentic” sense of place, one that would be, in his words, “the kind of scenes you might see in certain parts of New Orleans.”

Easy Rider (1969), trades on a sensibility of the real much like its filmic predecessors, where the film’s narrative and its counter-culture, anti-establishment protagonists seek out an “authentic” experience only New Orleans, amidst the extraordinary revelries of Mardi Gras, could provide. Unlike these earlier films, Easy Rider was filmed primarily on-location, experimentally and improvisationally, without any permits, taking advantage of locations as the crew came upon them. Famously, the crew was purported to have filmed recklessly, damaging St. Louis Cemetery #1. The cemetery soon became flush with graffiti and marks of tourists, perhaps seeking out their own experiences of authenticity. Following Easy Rider, the archdiocese and the city cracked down on permitting, and they no longer issue permits to film in the cemeteries—you even need a special permit to visit the cemetery today.

Like Easy RiderThe Big Easy (1987) was also filmed on-location and centers the city as a kind of character in the film, taking its title from one of New Orleans’ many nicknames, despite the fact that the original script was set in Chicago. The culturally rich and unique city that appears on screen position The Big Easy, a film that is otherwise a fairly standard 1980s Hollywood blockbuster, with a tinge of the real.2Still, as J. Mark Souther notes, after the release of The Big Easy, city officials considered whether they should take out references to the city as “the big easy” in their own promotional materials, fearing that the association with the film’s themes of crime, sex, and revelry might detract from their new efforts to promote an image of New Orleans as a family destination. Further, New Orleans natives have been quick to critique most representations of their city on screen for their failure to capture the city authentically, despite many of these films’ trading on the image of New Orleans to signify authenticity. See Souther, J. Mark. New Orleans on Parade: Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City. Louisiana State University Press, 2013.

Although New Orleans’ rich practices of Black cultural production, such as those of jazz and brass bands, parading and the second line, and of Mardi Gras Indians, eventually made their way into both New Orleans’ tourist promotions and some filmic and televisual representations, they did so in ways that were largely evacuated of their specific cultural contexts and meanings. Each of these practices of Black cultural production are highly specific, often rooted in particular neighborhoods and histories borne out of Black struggles for autonomy, justice, and a right to occupy place—both physical and sonic—in the city of New Orleans. Yet, following the representational taxonomy long established by the city’s tourism promoters and Hollywood, Black cultural practices were instead presented as accoutrements that represented the flair and extraordinarily spectacular nature of quirky and authentic New Orleans.

An example of this is the 1973 James Bond Film, Live and Let Die.

As Helen Regis notes, representations of Black New Orleans’ culture in this film, “Alongside the staged voodoo performances and the outrageous Afros of stylish Harlemites, the New Orleans jazz funerals probably appeared as another colorful, if somewhat perverse, black cultural practice.” 3Regis, Helen A. “Blackness and the Politics of Memory in the New Orleans Second Line.” American Ethnologist 28, no. 4 (2001): 752–77. https://doi.org/10.1525/ae.2001.28.4.752. Regis further suggests that Live and Let Die coincided with the era of Blaxploitation films, when Hollywood began to recognize that Black-oriented films could be profitable. Black culture and Black New Orleanian culture, then, became potential commodities.

So, while New Orleans promoters increasingly turned to Black cultural production from the late 1960s onwards to promote a particular version of “authentic” New Orleans, they did so by depoliticizing those cultural practices and extracting them from their relationship to struggles for justice. As Lynell Thomas notes, “On the one hand, tourists were encouraged to think that they were experiencing and celebrating black culture by eating Creole cuisine, listening to jazz music, and sharing in anecdotes of quadroon balls and secret voodoo rites. On the other hand, tourists were directed to adopt the white supremacist memory of slavery and black culture that views the Old South with a sense of loss and nostalgia. In effect, the city’s promotion of black cultural consumption produced a ‘desire’ for ‘blackness’ at the same time that this ‘blackness’ was used to signify the ‘disaster’ of black emancipation and desegregation.” 4Thomas, Lynnell L. “‘Roots Run Deep Here’: The Construction of Black New Orleans in Post-Katrina Tourism Narratives.” American Quarterly 61, no. 3 (2009): 750. Arguably, this same framework is applied in Live and Let Die, where Black cultural practice is figured as a mask that hides the dangerous criminal elements that James Bond must uncover and root out by pulling back the mask. 

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A potential outlier to much of the history of the representation of New Orleans on screen is the television series, Frank’s Place, which aired in 1988 for just one season. Frank’s Place aired amidst a slew of representational assaults on Blackness and Black culture—from discourses of “welfare queens” and “crack mothers,” to the controversial “Willie Horton” political advertisement used during the 1988 Presidential race—where images of Blackness, most frequently abstracted from any explicit or overt discussion of race, were coded as dangerous and criminal, a threat to the nation. In contrast, Frank’s Place, to a degree, explicitly engaged the struggles of working class Blackness in specific and particular ways. As Herman Gray notes, the opening title sequence of Frank’s Place—which was the result of pictorial and video footage taken during producers’ visits to the city and set to Louis Armstrong’s “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?”—placed, “The viewer aurally and visually into the experience of Black New Orleans. In representing this space and place, the producers foregrounded African American New Orleans, thereby situating the program’s location and identity within a particular African American formation. Frank’s Place is not just Anywhere, USA, populated by anonymous folk, but Black New Orleans, with its own particular history and story.”5Gray, Herman. Watching Race : Television and the Struggle for “Blackness.” Minneapolis: Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1995, 120-121. Frank’s Place drew on the longer history of representation of New Orleans as a site of authenticity, but it offered up an alternative rendering of what constituted the “authentic” and real New Orleans, one that was rooted in the specific histories and struggles of Black, working class, New Orleanians. In so doing, it demonstrated the ways in which authenticity is itself a site of struggle.

But I would be hard pressed to argue that the show made any kind of particular claim on the right to New Orleans—it might have signified Blackness through drawing on New Orleans as a signifier of Blackness and a structure of feeling, but in so doing the show was more about Blackness making a claim on any city. Not necessarily on New Orleans. What is significant about Frank’s Place and these earlier films I’ve discussed, then, is that they depend on establishing New Orleans in representational terms—as a signifier, and particularly as a signifier for the spectacular, the extraordinary, but also the authentic. New Orleans, as image, becomes a vehicle for both the protagonists and viewers to reach toward, and make contact with, something that feels real, feels vital. It is a signifier that stands in for a struggle over what is real in terms of the cultural imaginary of the nation, and, as such, is deeply intertwined with struggles over the cultural politics of race.

But analyses of the particular ways in which the place of New Orleans has been implicated by and in these images are actually few and far between. In emphasizing New Orleans as signifier, much of the ways that the city itself has materially implicated filmmaking practices, cultures, and images, and likewise how those have influenced city space, have been under-explored. This is, for me, a bit of a shame. For example, I found it fascinating to just recently learn—from the AV Club’s web series, Pop Pilgrims—that the sounds you hear in the background of the famous cemetery scene in Easy Rider are from the Claiborne Avenue overpass being built over the Tremé neighborhood. The overpass, built in the 1960s as part of the Interstate 10, bulldozed directly through the city’s Black and poor neighborhoods, including Claiborne Avenue, which was a thriving street for African American businesses and culture.

These ambient sounds in Easy Rider provide the eerie backdrop to the crew’s “bad trip” in St. Louis #1, speaking to something otherworldly in ways that might be reminiscent of the more spectacular associations of that space with voodoo and carnivale. But, in the end, they are the spectacular sounds of destruction, of struggle and white supremacy, that is never referenced in the film, and has only recently been part of the broader discussion of the film, often in ways that eschew any reference to the cultural and spatial politics bound up with those sonic undertones. 

Perhaps these absences in studying these more material aspects of place in scholarship on media in New Orleans are inconsequential. But, perhaps they are worth exploring—how might these explorations shape how we understand film and television’s relationship to the city, and its histories, as not just a signifier, but as a material practice?

Considering film and television’s material interventions into New Orleans has become ever more prescient in the post-Katrina era, as well as in the wake of the influx of film and TV productions resultant from the state’s aggressive tax incentive legislation. In 2002, the state of Louisiana passed a landmark tax incentive legislation bill that provided a 30% refund in tax credits to productions filming in the state of Louisiana with a minimum $300,000 budget. It also provided an additional 5% credit for local payroll expenditures. The legislation at least appears to have drastically increased the number of films and television series shot in the state, and, in particular, in New Orleans.6More recently, amidst debate over the economic value of the tax credits for states, in 2015, the state voted to put a cap on the credits at $180 million. In 2017, after the state saw much production go to Georgia (who offered more generous incentives and no cap), the state upped the potential tax credits to 40%, including 25% base, 10% for LA screenplay productions, and 5% for those filmed outside the New Orleans metro area, but it still maintains a cap. For further discussion on the effects of these incentives, particularly for how it implicates everyday experiences of home in New Orleans, see Mayer, Vicki. Almost Hollywood, Nearly New Orleans. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017. http://www.luminosoa.org/site/books/10.1525/luminos.25/.

As the graph shows, it was only the year before Hurricane Katrina that New Orleans was coming to be known as “Hollywood South,” or a major runaway filming destination, but film and television production was figured, increasingly, as a core part of diversifying the city’s economy. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there was a lot of anxiety and skepticism, not only if the city would recover in terms of rebuilding homes and infrastructure and whether or not the tourist industry would return, but also whether or not the film industry would return.

Within these broader anxieties, Brad Pitt, who had an affinity for New Orleans since filming of Interview with a Vampire in the 1990s, pushed for filming of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to remain in New Orleans and the region. Doing so, he argued, was part of his and the film industry’s philanthropic responsibility to the city—to ensure that it would “come back.”7Pitt would later go on to found the Make it Right Foundation, which built 150 environmentally sustainable houses designed by famous architects in the Lower Ninth Ward. Residents have since sued Make it Right over claims that the houses are poorly constructed and contain shoddy building materials. Pitt’s version of film production as charity became a ubiquitous discourse. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, more and more films and television series figured filming in New Orleans within this discourse of social responsibility, as doing something good. Screening New Orleans became understood as more than representing the city as signifier—it became bound up with the very rebuilding of the city itself. 

Whereas pre-Katrina discourses problematized the city’s Black and poor, so-called “back-a-town” neighborhoods as sites in need of disciplining, discouraging filmmakers and tourists alike from going there, post-Katrina discourses in urban planning and cultural policy figured these spaces as areas of potential. These new discourses figured Black cultural production as an expediency to Black empowerment, and especially, to the potential for neighborhoods to come back, through individuals and communities entrepreneurializing these cultural practices in order to revitalize and rebuild their neighborhood themselves.

This kind of discourse is evident in the Claiborne Corridor Cultural Innovation District project. As stated by the Foundation for Louisiana, a non-profit organization affiliated with the project, “The Cultural Innovation District (CID) is an exciting community development project to transform the space in a 19-block area — from Canal Street to St. Bernard Avenue — underneath the I-10 bridge. Built with green infrastructure, the CID will include a world-class market with arts, crafts, produce and seafood vendors, classrooms and exhibit space, interactive technology and education demonstrations and will be a site for youth programming, health, environmental and social services, community projects, workshops, and special events for the residents of the Claiborne Corridor. As a culture-based economic driver, the CID will support indigenous entrepreneurs and culture bearers in achieving their goals for equitable and sustainable community development.”

It’s a complicated case because, as noted, the Claiborne Overpass was constructed with little to no respect for the culture that it destroyed. Second-lines, parades in which parade-goers march after the first-line of the band and the club sponsoring the parade in the proverbial “second-line,” have for years been parading under the overpass, reclaiming that space and the right for Black bodies to occupy their own neighborhoods. And, indeed, neighborhoods that had been demolished to make way for the overpass have repeatedly fought the city on how to rectify the harms brought about by that destruction. The Claiborne Corridor Cultural Innovation District in some ways speaks to the triumph of justice. Residents and others were invited to participate in helping the Mayor’s office map the cultural places and spaces within the corridor.

But the project also represents how neoliberal rationales of Black cultural practice, as vehicles and expedients to economic and social well-being, are being put to work. It instrumentalizes what had heretofore been a space that had been occupied and reclaimed by culture bearers, in acts of resistance and pleasure, and orchestrates them in manageable, governable, and perhaps more police-able ways in order to transform them into vehicles of entrepreneurialization and economic growth rather than resistance and a demand for justice.

The differences between what actual second-line parades look like under the overpass versus those activities the Claiborne Corridor Cultural Innovation District imagines perhaps speaks to this transformation more powerfully than my words can.

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As one attendee, Muskoghee Alibaamuu of Tremé, put it, “You’re gonna come down here with your degrees, do what you want to do then go back where you came from. How do we know this is no different?” Presumedly, they are referencing the long history of planning and revitalization efforts that have substantially harmed the community and led to the Claiborne overpass in the first place. 

The film and TV industries were called forth in the post-Katrina context through much of the same logic as the Claiborne Cultural Corridor project. A primary role for film and TV became not only in signifying New Orleans but, rather, as vehicles of renewal—as a means of entrepreneurializing New Orleans’ culture and rebuilding its neighborhoods. The case of the HBO series, Treme, helps to illustrate some of the new modalities by which I am arguing film and TV has been called forth to intervene into the place of New Orleans in post-Katrina contexts, which I detail in my forthcoming book Down in Treme: Race, Place, and New Orleans on Television. Produced by David Simon (showrunner of The Wire) and Eric Overmyer (with whom Simon worked on the 1990s series Homicide: Life on the Street), Treme details the struggle to return and rebuild New Orleans after Katrina. In many ways, Frank’s Place is a clear influence on the ways in which the series figures New Orleans as a structure of feeling aimed to interpellate viewers into the specific sites, smells, tastes, and cultures of New Orleans, and, especially, the more marginalized spaces, places, and cultures of the city in film and TV history. But unlike Frank’s Place, Treme was filmed almost entirely on-location in New Orleans. And producers did so purposefully, both within the broader discourses of social responsibility that other film and TV productions had used, but also to lend authenticity to their imagistic representations. Indeed, the series trades on, sometimes to the point of cringe, being uber-“authentic” 8David Simon’s “open letter to the people of New Orleans” prior to the premiere apologizing for the “magical Hubig pie” that appears in the first episode—since the Hubig factory had not yet opened 3 months after the storm—is a good example of this. Though Treme takes narrative license, it is impeccably researched and shot in order to emphasize, in an almost documentary-like fashion, “the real New Orleans.” The emphasis of the series on representing the “authentic” is most notably trafficked through its shooting locations. Treme made a point to highlight places bound up with histories of Black cultural production, creativity, and struggle.

Perhaps the best example of this is in Season 3, when the Davis MacAlary character takes it upon himself to become a jazz heritage tour guide, in a kind of homage and perhaps wayward attempt by his character—and maybe series producers—to play a role in helping to preserve those places themselves.

As Wendell Pierce notes in the audio commentary for the episode, the scene is a prime example of cultural conflict in New Orleans, in which the city fails to “preserve and revere the landmarks for which we are known around the world.”  Indeed, many of the jazz sites Davis takes the tour to are not actually there, having been demolished in various phases of “urban renewal.”9The series is also flush with locals both in front of and behind the cameras. There is a kind of affectual performativity that is evident on Treme, where the living labor of everyday citizens comes through in the rendering of the image. The sites, scenes, smells, sounds of the city and its inhabitants are produced in and through more than the producers’ imaginary (though this clearly still plays a part)—they are assembled together though too with the imaginaries and performativities of everyday New Orleanians. Producers claim that hiring locals and filming on location is a way for the series to give back—it helps to “spread the wealth.” Although producers pitch this kind of set up as a win-win for both the cultural laborers and for Treme and HBO, there is no doubt that the latter stands to profit a great deal more, at least from the filming of the individual episodes, than do the cultural laborers.

As I argue in my book, Treme is doing more here than representing and re-signifying New Orleans—filming in these places and the productive practices bound up with filming, are transforming these sites as well. These sites are, in the words of Wendell Pierce, preserved and revered by demonstrating to the public, to New Orleanians, to city leadership, to viewers and to filmmakers alike that these are sites of productive potentiality—sites of creativity, able to be entrepreneurialized, and, especially, able to be used as sites for future filmmaking.

The complicated ways in which Treme both represents and films in the city speak to new terrains of struggle, much like the Claiborne Cultural Corridor project, which figure Black cultural production not so much for white consumption, but as a strategy of governing and orchestrating the productive resistances of Black cultural practice to render them expedients of economic and social value.

Title screen for the Food Network’s TV Series, “Baked in Vermont”

This terrain of struggle appears similarly in a show a bit closer to my current home in Vermont, as well, in the Food Network show titled, Baked in Vermont. The show, starring Gesine Bullock-Prado (sister to the actress Sandra Bullock), is filmed at her 18th century farmhouse in the state’s rural, “up-and-coming” Upper Valley, where, as the network informs us, she “lives with her husband, two dogs, two cats, one goose, three ducks and five chickens.” Though very different from a show like Treme, Baked in Vermont too trades on the production of authenticity, entrepreneurializing the state’s most vital economic and cultural asset—its farms—within the framework of new systems of value. And it does so in ways that reproduce social and cultural antagonisms over the state’s whiteness, particularly because these new value systems systematically erase and displace the work of migrant farmworkers who are, and have long been, central to the Vermont farm-working economy, or demands that if they want a piece of the pie that they’ll need to do more image production and less cow milking. Like Vermont, New Orleans’ particular histories of racialized geographies and antagonisms, that were made so utterly manifest in the aftermath of Katrina, are both very local and very particular, whilst at the same time demonstrate broader antagonisms as well.

And so, to conclude, what I want to suggest is that film and TV in New Orleans is ordinary.10Here, I am referencing Raymond Williams theory of culture as ordinary. For Raymond Williams, to suggest culture is ordinary meant that, “The making of a society is the finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery, writing themselves into the land…These are the ordinary processes of human societies and human minds…it is always both traditional and creative; that it is both the most ordinary common meanings and the finest individual meanings.” See Williams, Raymond. Resources of Hope : Culture, Democracy, Socialism. London ; New York: London ; New York : Verso, 1989. Suggesting New Orleans is ordinary perhaps seems counterintuitive. New Orleans seems to be anything but ordinary. But in calling New Orleans in film and TV something ordinary is not to suggest that New Orleans is just like anywhere else. Undoubtedly, every place is unique, with its own history tied to other places on intersecting scales. But it is in its uniqueness of place in which I think New Orleans, and its relationship to media culture and practice, has something to demonstrate about how places are transformed into media places, in the contemporary cultural economy. New Orleans throws focus onto some of the ways in which film and television have a stake in struggles over cities, producing and promoting those places as both unique and ordinary spaces in which to carry out the more mundane and everyday practices of global media production. And those stakes play out not only in grand and orchestrated practices of the political economy of the industry, or the unfettered agential practices of everyday citizens—although both of these play their parts—but also through the everyday practices that perhaps make up the struggle over the right to the city and the right to place.


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