New Orleans, once a hallowed American city, is now a ghost town, haunted by poverty, prejudice, and the lingering physical, economic, and social effects of Hurricane Katrina. I’ve spent only a few hours there as a pre-Katrina tourist: a day trip during a wedding weekend in Baton Rouge, where I crossed Lake Pontchartrain listening to Lucinda Williams, ate muffaleta in the French Quarter, and got my first glimpse of the mighty Mississippi River. After reading a new biography and seeing a new documentary film set in The Big Easy, I have a stronger sense of what the city was, what it is, and what it may yet become.
Rich Cohen’s The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King tells how Samuel Zemurray, a Russian Jewish immigrant, started as a fruit merchant in New Orleans and reinvented himself as an international banana tycoon, ultimately as the head of United Fruit, a behemoth arm of U.S. imperialism during the Cold War. Bill and Turner Ross’s film Tchoupitoulas (which screened in March at South by Southwest and is now seeking funding for theatrical release),is an arty portrait of the Zanders brothers, three African-American kids who wander the streets of New Orleans from dusk until dawn and reinvent themselves, if only for one night.
Both the Ross brothers and Cohen show a deep appreciation for New Orleans, capturing the city’s paradoxical beauty and squalor. Before they found the Zanders brothers, the Rosses shot city life for several months without a clear narrative in mind. As a result, the final film comes across as an ode to New Orleans, an approach the filmmakers took with their debut 453365, about their hometown of Sidney Ohio (The film won the Best Documentary Prize at South by Southwest in 2009 and later aired on PBS.) While much of Fish takes place in Central America, Cohen, a Tulane graduate, sees the city as the soul, if not the catalyst, of his story. As he writes, New Orleans was “at its maximum glory” in 1905 when Zemurray moved there “for the same reason the striver always moves to the big town: for the action.”
Both the book and the film focus on outsiders in New Orleans. Although Zemurray lived a secular life, Cohen sees his Jewish roots as a key to his life. In New Orleans, he was shunned not only by Gentiles, but by the city’s German Jewish establishment. Late in life, he became a Zionist, throwing money and influence to the nascent state of Israel and resettling European Jewish refugees. As Cohen sees it, Zemurray embodies the religious freedom of America, where Jews are free to be Jewish or not Jewish, as they choose. The interprative focus not only adds depth to Zemurry’s biography, but makes sense given Cohen’s prior books, which include: Tough Jews, Israel is Real, The Avengers: A Jewish War Story, and The Record Men: The Chess Brothers and the Birth of Rock and Roll.
Tchoupitoulas never discusses race, yet implies that the African American subjects are interlopers in the touristy parts of New Orleans. The film also raises an uncomfortable question: Should privileged white filmmakers make documentary films about poor black people?
Both stories are about the American Dream. Zemurray’s path from fruit peddler to multimillionaire to philanthropist is the classic American rags to riches story. The Zanders brothers aspire to that dream, the glittering sights of New Orleans a metaphor for the country’s promise of wealth, power, and fame. Nowhere is this clearer than when the youngest brother William riffs on his hero, Michael Jackson, whose life arc, like Zemurray’s, went from obscurity to fame to infamy. (One of the pleasures of Cohen’s book is how he portrays Zemurray first as a hero, then as a villain, and ultimately as something more complex).
In his epilogue, Cohen declares: “The story of Sam Zemurray is the story of New Orleans. It was booming when he found it and it’s foundered since he died. It’s a body without a soul. It’s a skinny man in fat man pants. The buildings are grand, the streets are endless, but the people are gone.” In writing about a man who died before his own birth, relying on second-hand accounts and interviews with the few living people who knew Zemurray, Cohen tries to capture a byegone era. By contrast, Tchoupitoulas is a story about the present, a discrete moment in time that because of the subjects’ youth, looks toward the future. New Orleans may now be a shadow of its former self –symbolized by the shipwrecked ferry the boys visit—but as in Zemurray’s early days, it’s still a place that inspires young people to dream.
Keith Meatto is editor in chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. He likes to write about two things at once, including the movies Ted and Moonrise Kingdom, new novels by Leni Zumas and Mandy Keifetz, and a documentary about Ai Weiwei and an artists’ exhibition in Brooklyn.