A lament for a drowned culture, “Faubourg Treme” is a celebration of the venerable African-American history of New Orleans, notably in the titular neighborhood, once an incubator of enlightenment and tolerance. Passion for the subject infuses the film, which will be limited to extensive broadcast play.For all its remarkable footage and charming interviews, “Faubourg Treme” (the title refers to what may be the oldest black neighborhood in America) takes a defensive attitude in making its case. “Almost a century before Rosa Parks,” we’re told, the transit system of Faubourg Treme was desegregated, and while this is fascinating, it also serves to somehow dismiss Parks. The sense is that the filmmakers feel a good offense is a good defense, and they’re more than a little defensive.
They needn’t have been. Co-director and writer Lolis Eric Elie, a journalist who bought a home in Faubourg Treme in the ’90s, when the crack epidemic had brought the area to its knees, makes an effective tour guide in an area that sells itself as the birthplace of jazz and the civil rights movement. (The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of racism, was rooted in Faubourg Treme.)
Pre-Katrina images of Louisiana Living History performers, who brought the past alive through period costumes and archaic street repartee, make the Faubourg of yore seem like a theme park with brains. Archival materials are used knowledgably and with a certain rhythmic elan, which is fitting, given the musicality of the area that seems to inform the entire project.
Still, the film has an attitude problem and a heavy hand. Everything about Faubourg Treme sells itself. The filmmakers needn’t have come spoiling for a fight.