In true New Orleans fashion, the final rehearsal for The Passion‘s 1.5-mile Procession of the Cross commenced exactly 54 minutes late. Glimpsed from afar, the assemblage of cross-bearers in the shadow of City Hall might have been mistaken for a baptism, or a prayer circle — until I came close enough to see the 20-foot-long symbol of Christ’s sacrifice resting on their shoulders, that is, and heard the voice of the crew member stage-managing the whole affair rise above the faint sounds of sirens and helicopters. “As fast as we can go safely, please! As fast as we can go safely!” she urged. And on her mark, the most surreal parade I’ve witnessed in more than six years as a resident of the city was finally on its way.
By nightfall, when host and narrator Tyler Perry promised the viewers, “Something special is in the air as New Orleans becomes our Jerusalem,” the effect of the procession through the French Quarter was at once Edenic and debauched. (This didn’t exactly come through on TV, where live stand-ups with the cross-bearers tended to themes of “hope” and “triumph.”) Imagine perusing sex toys or downing a Big Ass Beer on Bourbon Street as an illuminated icon of the Christian faith sweeps by you, a crowd of followers chanting “Jesus!” and singing hymns streaming along behind it. Imagine preparing to lead a fresh group of tourists on one of the city’s popular Haunted History Tours, only for a crew member to ask you to lower your “Vampire Tours” sign because it’s in Fox’s nationally televised live shot. (Earlier, in the same spot, I’d witnessed a camera operator swing his crane above the head of a gold-painted mime. I wanted to ask the street performer for his impressions of the event, but he was thoroughly in character, so I snapped a photograph, tipped him a dollar, and went on my way.) “There’s so much that goes on here every day,” the tour operator told me, unruffled by the interruption of his routine. “This is my battleground.”
Throughout the rehearsal, the procession, and the live performance (staged along the Mississippi River in a place called Woldenberg Park), “battle” — between ordinary and extraordinary, routine and unusual — seemed to me an appropriate term. Residents catching the bus to or from work barely acknowledged the march from City Hall (another reason for the Regional Transit Authority to be running behind), while across the street a woman in a BMW stopped traffic to lean out her window and capture a photo with her iPad. In the shadow of St. Louis Cathedral, a grimacing fortune teller ignored the bustle behind her — cross, congregants, cameras — while a nearby busker with the voice of Odetta caught the spirit, launching into a mournful rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
If the pre-recorded sequences that aired on Fox failed to play for the audience in the park — “I bet it makes sense when you see it on TV,” I heard one woman say to her companion as we headed for the exits — the live musical performances were undeniably powerful, marked by calls of “Hallelujah!” that cut through the cold spring wind. One needn’t have been religious to appreciate the solace and sustenance the faithful drew from The Passion, and even my black heart swelled when a man cried, “He’s up on the roof!” and the crowd turned its attention to the white pinprick (Jencarlos Canela’s Jesus) singing of unconditional love atop the Westin New Orleans Canal Place. I don’t care what you believe in: showmanship is showmanship.
And yet, as Perry connected The Passion to the “resurrection” of New Orleans — that was the term, “resurrection” — I couldn’t resist the niggling feeling that he, Fox, and the producers had stepped over the line between insider and outsider that has defined the city, for good and for ill, almost since the moment of its founding. (Of our host, a New Orleans native, one woman I spoke with during the rehearsal scoffed, “Tyler Perry needs to live here full time and get his hands dirty. Start building some stuff!”) New Orleans is one of the greatest cities in the known world, and Louisiana offers lucrative tax incentives to motion picture productions. (I suspect that this, and the local government’s willingness to take all comers, played a part in the decision, though that went unacknowledged.) Why attempt to shoehorn the city’s checkered history into your carefully choreographed made-for-television event?
“The city was devastated during Katrina, and out of that the people that live here, the people that love this city, they stayed here, and they worked, and they got their city back,” executive producer and showrunner Robert Deaton had told me at Friday morning’s press junket, held on a soundstage as frigid and forbidding as an airplane hangar at the local Fox affiliate. “It was a like a resurrection for the city, from ruin. Jesus suffered and was then resurrected. For us it was a direct parallel.”
Each member of the cast had reiterated this point to me as if it had been scripted, but in this production of The Passion, the notion that the reconstruction of New Orleans in the decade since the storm might not have stitched every tear in the city’s social fabric seemed a bridge too far to cross. The neighborhoods in which Katrina and the failure of the levee system wrought the worst destruction — Central City, Lakeview, and the Lower Ninth Ward, to name but three — remained outside the frame. Their stories of ongoing struggle — of moldy FEMA trailers and blighted properties and people who never returned — suggest a more complicated moral than the one contained in Scripture. The Passion‘s New Orleans was instead the city as the Convention and Visitors Bureau might have presented it: “As much New Orleans as we can show safely, please! As much as we can show safely!”
And so, as I reveled in the more secular glories of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s grand finale, I found my thoughts drifting to an image from Sunday afternoon’s rehearsal. Having decided to intercept the procession further along the route, I headed from the melee of hurricanes and hand grenades outside the Hard Rock Café to Royal Street, where I live. There, on the sidewalk, a woman comforted a fussy toddler with one hand and held a sign, “Mother in Need,” with the other, while a man a few dozen feet distant propped his own cardboard marquee against the building behind him: “Homeless Is Anything But a Blessing.” The number of pedestrians had noticeably thinned, leaving few passersby to toss a coin in one or another of their collection plates. Nearly everyone, it seemed, was a block away on Bourbon Street, following The Passion‘s parade.
Matt Brennan is a film and television critic whose writing has appeared in LA Weekly, Indiewire, Slant Magazine, The Week, Deadspin, and Slate, among other publications. He lives in New Orleans and tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.