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“Levees Around My Heart”, part 2

April 9, 2010
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To begin…yes, I know the character Stephen Colbert plays on his Colbert Report is a parody of most right-wing talk show hosts out there, especially a certain Bill O’Reilly, and the line of questioning Colbert whips out on his guests is largely a put-on, but there is always some truth behind the humor.  Some of the best comedians of years past – Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, to name a few – have sought to make you think through your laughter, to see the absurdity of this thing called life, warts, dingy corners, under-the-table shenanigans, hypocrisy and all.  It simply occurred to me, when watching Colbert stymie David Simon with a question of why white people like to watch black people on TV, that it isn’t such a joke of a question.  It doesn’t just surround Simon, it surrounds us all.

I’ve done a lot of thinking in recent years about the ways in which white privilege is still with us despite the civil rights movement and the acts that were passed in the mid-sixties.  I went back and consulted a list I’d found in David K. Shipler’s A Country of Strangers of benefits we as white people enjoy that are unseen to us but are front and center to members of the “Other” category.  A larger sampling of the list, authored by women’s studies educator Peggy McIntosh, can be found here.  When you consider how much our society is still largely geared towards the stuff white people like, the way white people learn, and the way white people do business, it changes your vision some – how you act, how you regard the things you take for granted…

…like, for instance, a TV show.

It’s a pisser that a show with as much potential as Treme has can’t get past the programming wall the nonpay channels have set up against programs of its ilk – and when something does get through, the results have been less than satisfactory, to put it mildly.  I’m happy that locally, the Mother-In-Law Lounge has decided to step in and show the premiere, and I hope it and other public places will keep it up.  If there’s one thing the entertainment industry as a whole has been quite good at, it’s turning creative voyeurism into greenbacks, but I don’t know too many people wanting to run out and get HBO just to watch this show (hell, I’m not even going to run out and get basic cable).

And so, because one has to shell out extra money right off the bat just to see this in the living room, the audience is already quite limited.  With that alone, it leans heavily towards white people looking over a cathode-ray chasm at a realistic tale involving more black people than are usually seen on TV trying to rebuild their lives in a devastated New Orleans.

The question of white people watching TV shows about black people is only the beginning.  The questions that further probe this subject involve how the entertainment industry works, and how it perpetuates the distances between the races for its own benefit... and how much we still take all of that for granted.  Because, after all, our society is fueling what we see and what we don’t see, as well as what we choose not to see.

For nearly five years, the rest of this country has been able to push the problems exposed so harshly and cruelly by the events of 8/29/2005 off to the side. Some of those problems are unique to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but the bigger ones concerning our crumbling infrastructure, the decisions our politicians make that send our taxes God knows where,  our (lack of) preparedness for anything the future may throw our way, and how much these problems affect us differently depending on what color we are have taken shape in the form of a massive weight that has not been lifted from us to this day.  I want to hope that the creative powers behind Treme reopen everyone’s eyes about these problems, especially about how unequal all things still are.  Contrary to some folks’ beliefs that we are “so over it” down here, we’re not.  In reality, no one else in this country is, either.

But here we all are, still doing no better than looking at each other through one-way glass.

I do hope the levees around everyone’s hearts are permeable, at least.

10 Comments
  1. April 9, 2010 11:27 pm

    >>It’s a pisser that a show with as much potential as Treme has can’t get past the programming wall the nonpay channels have set up against programs of its ilk – and when something does get through, the results have been less than satisfactory, to put it mildly. <<

    Uh, Leigh, Simon never considered doing Treme on broadcast teevee. He he's worked exclusively with HBO since the cancellation of Homicide. HBO gives show runners much more autonomy than the NBCs of the world.

  2. April 10, 2010 1:06 am

    As a partial rejoinder to the worry that Treme will play to largely white audiences wanting to watch black people on TV, I remembered this story I heard during Season 5 of The Wire. I don’t remember if I first read it or first heard it from Davis (he loves telling Felicia Pearson stories), but I googled around and found an interview that covers it pretty well:

    From http://www.campusprogress.org/page/community/post/ksteiger/CLdj:

    “My colleague, Erica Williams, asked him about how he squared the fact that this was a show about the poorest of the poor, yet it broadcasts on a subscription-only premium cable network. Simon said he didn’t really worry about that for one reason: bootlegged copies that flood the streets of Baltimore the day after the episode airs. In fact, Felicia “Snoop” Pearson once accosted someone on the street in Baltimore who was selling bootlegged copies. She called Simon, carefully reading off the serial number and asking what she should do. Simon laughed and told her to let the bootlegger go.”

    I get it about the concern, but I wonder how much of it is white guilt, and whether many of the underprivileged people who are like the subjects of these shows really worry about the racial/ethical concern. Information wants to be free, and these shows do get into the hands of most everybody who wants to see them, by and large.

  3. Charlotte permalink
    April 10, 2010 1:07 am

    “And so, because one has to shell out extra money right off the bat just to see this in the living room, the audience is already quite limited.”

    Quite. That is the thing about this show that’s stuck in the back of my mind just bothering the hell outa me. How great would it have been if this show were on a non-pay channel and accessible to people who maybe can’t afford cable or satellite – people like the ones whose stories the series tells.
    But I guess that would mean working outside the HBO box. Just sayin’.

    Great post, Liprap.

  4. April 10, 2010 7:47 am

    there are literally a metric ton of free streaming sites , most of them in Europe but available to anyone anywhere with an internet connection, that are on sort of, halfway, technically, semi-legally shaky ground because they don’t actually host the files, upon which almost every show in the world can be found.

    Between them and the torrent sites, and the bootlegged tapes for people without internet, the show is gonna get out there, about 12 hours later than when it first airs on HBO.

  5. April 10, 2010 7:51 am

    oh, for the record, I re-subscribed to HBO (and Showtime, for Nurse Jackie) for at least the duration of the show.

    I only know about that other stuff because a friend told me….

  6. April 10, 2010 9:22 am

    Thanks, Sheckrastos. I know that HBO gives greater creative autonomy to folks like Simon, and I’m grateful for that. I just wasn’t sure what price was paid in terms of the distribution of the results. 😎

    I love that story of the bootlegs, Ray. In NYC, some relatives of mine occasionally pick up movie bootlegs off the street – as a cousin puts it, the worst that can happen for a few bucks is that the DVD doesn’t play.

  7. April 11, 2010 1:54 am

    I don’t want to ascribe too much to it, but I’m kind of digging the community that is cropping up as people crash their friends’ houses to watch. No “Bowling Alone”, this. I myself will be part of a group tomorrow night. Seems fitting for a show about a culture that thrives on being in groups, (outside, quite often). Now this doesn’t address the question of white privilege, or those whose friends or friends of friends can’t afford HBO, but getting people together in a small way is a good thing.

  8. I'm watching too! permalink
    April 11, 2010 9:00 am

    I appreciate the comment of “Watching Treme.” I too will be piling into a friends house to watch Treme tonight (no cable here!), and I would rather put it in a positive light. To me, one of the beautiful things about where I live in New Orleans is that, outside of the national debates and statistics about race relations, etc and however true those debates may be, people of all kinds live together with joy, love and harmony in my experience. I live in the West Riverside neighborhood, that is full of shotgun doubles, apartments and single-family homes. My little block has a homogenous bunch of white people, black people, and a great couple from South America. We all do Night out against crime, talk in the streets almost daily, and have parties at each others houses. Everybody comes because we all genuinely care about each other and, yes, the food is usually fantastic! In the past year, our block has also had our experiences with crime: a shooting (white guy) where luckily everyone was ok, a burglary (another white guy), a fire (no guy), and a drunk driver crashing into a parked car (no clue).

    I hope Treme captures one of the best parts of the city in my experience, that for the most part in New Orleans, people of all types meet on grounds of common ties and celebrate the beauty of life together. I also hope that this city can get a handle on crime and find a way to combat crime in the long term by putting a real priority on the youth of the city and helping them find positive prospects for the future.

  9. not really permalink
    April 11, 2010 9:14 am

    Two points: Ray is exactly right. Treme DOES NOT EXIST without a pay cable model. A non-pay model is based on ADVERTISING. There are no other choices than those two models because there must be a revenue stream in order to generate the $40 million in costs to make a 10-hour drama.
    Given these two choices, pay cable allows Simon to make the show he wants to make without having to try to get the maximum eyeballs to it. If its on non-pay network, then it must be dumbed down and tarted up with violence and hot babes in order to maximize viewership and bump ad rates.

    Second point: HBO’s subscriber base is 20-percent African-American, and the viewership for something like the Wire is something like 35-percent African-American of the HBO universe. The notion that black folk, being 8 percent of the population, don’t have HBO or cable is your own assumption, and not at all accurate.

  10. April 11, 2010 1:37 pm

    “HBO’s subscriber base is 20-percent African-American, and the viewership for something like the Wire is something like 35-percent African-American of the HBO universe. The notion that black folk, being 8 percent of the population, don’t have HBO or cable is your own assumption, and not at all accurate.”

    Not Really, that’s one of the things I wanted to know, and I thank you for clarifying.

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