Longtime PBS contributors Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker and Paul Stekler (Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics and Vote for Me), premiered their latest film, Getting Back to Abnormal, at SXSW. It’s a post-Katrina look at New Orleans. But in contrast to the myriad stories on the cleanup (or lack thereof) of the city, the documentary concentrates instead on the political transformation taking place there.
It turns out that because tens of thousands of non-white residents left after the hurricane destroyed their homes, white politicians are now being elected in areas that had been dominated by African-Americans for decades. That’s rankling many.
The documentary centers on Stacy Head, the first white council member to be elected from the central part of the city in 30 years. Her tart tongue and dogged calls for investigations into alleged corruption lead to charges of racism and an attempted recall. The filmmakers follow her tough re-election campaign in 2010.
Head and her sassy African-American campaign manager, Barbara Lacen-Keller, fight back. They’re a documentarian’s dream: running toward the camera, rather than away from it, and unleashing streams of words unrestrained by any emotional levees. Lacen-Keller in particular is compelling, at one point breaking down while talking about her disappointment in her black friends who think Head is a racist.
Along the way, the filmmakers rub some Cajun spice into the program with scenes of the seemingly weekly parades; there’s a celebration for everything in the Big Easy to help people forget their worries.
But they also show a less reported aspect of a post-Katrina New Orleans—a second displacement of those who don’t qualify for public housing because of new, stringent rules.
We also learn about Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation, which is building “green” homes in the devastated Ninth Ward. Some residents love the oddly shaped buildings while others resent them, saying the group hasn’t worked closely enough with the community on the designs.
In a particularly poignant sidebar, the film takes us to the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of McDonogh No. 19 Elementary School by three African-American girls. The girls, now women, thank the white marshals who protected them in 1960.
The film’s underlying theme is perhaps best personified by this scene and those with Lacen-Keller—that the “crazy DNA” of New Orleans (which, as one commentator notes, has “some of the blackest white people and some of the whitest black people you’re ever going to meet”) will enable the city to rise above racial disharmony.
A program like this is easy to miss in the lineup of “edgy” documentaries that populate film festivals these days. That’s a shame, because it’s educational, entertaining and well-filmed. It appears that it will be picked up by POV on PBS, though, so watch for it.