Post-Katrina Politics in New Orleans

A new documentary looks at the racial, economic, and cultural divisions the storm brought to the Big Easy.

Three diehard Saints fans during the miraculous 2010 championship. This is a still image from the movie Getting Back to Abnormal. 
National Journal
Charlie Cook
July 11, 2014, 1 a.m.

Not every­one should watch the doc­u­ment­ary Get­ting Back to Ab­nor­mal, to be aired on PBS next week. If you are someone who loves vis­it­ing New Or­leans for the great food, ter­rif­ic jazz, and un­par­alleled night­life, or for the unique his­tory and ar­chi­tec­ture, and you don’t want that idyll­ic im­age com­plic­ated in any way, you should prob­ably avoid the film. However, if you are up for a strong dose of what passes for real­ity in an of­ten seem­ingly un­real place, you should con­sider tun­ing in.

Get­ting Back to Ab­nor­mal is a look at the stark ra­cial, eco­nom­ic, and cul­tur­al di­vi­sions that char­ac­ter­ize post-Kat­rina polit­ics in New Or­leans. The film­makers tell the story through the lens of a 2010 City Coun­cil con­test in a dis­trict that is 60 per­cent Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, and that in­cludes the im­pov­er­ished and be­lea­guered Lower Ninth Ward. The prot­ag­on­ists are Stacy Head, the con­tro­ver­sial, shoot-from-the-lip white in­cum­bent, and Corey Wat­son, a black min­is­ter who is no shrink­ing vi­ol­et, either. Ra­cial ten­sions lie just be­neath the sur­face, with many whites see­ing city gov­ern­ment as cor­rupt and dys­func­tion­al, while many blacks in the dis­trict re­sent that they are rep­res­en­ted on the City Coun­cil by not just a white per­son but one who is prone to mak­ing either polit­ic­ally in­cor­rect or in­flam­mat­ory state­ments (de­pend­ing on your point of view).

A still im­age from the movie Get­ting Back to Ab­nor­mal. (An­drew Kolk­er)

An­oth­er key fig­ure in the film is Bar­bara La­cen-Keller, a flam­boy­ant Afric­an-Amer­ic­an polit­ic­al op­er­at­ive and com­munity act­iv­ist who works for Head and who serves as the in­cum­bent’s emis­sary to the black com­munity. La­cen-Keller of­ten deals with the con­sequences of Head’s words and ac­tions, wheth­er Head is tak­ing on — usu­ally Afric­an-Amer­ic­an — city of­fi­cials whom the coun­cil­wo­man sees as at least in­com­pet­ent, if not cor­rupt, or is just say­ing things that many of her con­stitu­ents find of­fens­ive.

The doc­u­ment­ary, part of the Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing Sys­tem’s ac­claimed POV (Point of View) series, was made by four ac­com­plished film­makers: Louis Al­varez, An­drew Kolk­er, Peter Oda­bashi­an, and Paul Stekler. It premiered at the 2013 South by South­w­est Film Fest­iv­al in Aus­tin, Texas, but was held for air­ing on PBS un­til the elec­tion year. Al­varez, Kolk­er, and Stekler have teamed up be­fore, on the duPont-Columbia award-win­ning film Louisi­ana Boys, Raised on Polit­ics, and all four (in­clud­ing Oda­bashi­an) col­lab­or­ated on the Pe­abody-, Emmy-, and duPont-Columbia-win­ning Vote for Me: Polit­ics in Amer­ica, the best doc­u­ment­ary about polit­ics that I have ever seen (it aired in the fall of 1996).

At times, the film is ad­mit­tedly un­com­fort­able to watch. This is not Mr. Smith Goes to Wash­ing­ton; these are not the polit­ics of the civics classes we all took in school. Since many of New Or­leans’s poorest Afric­an-Amer­ic­an res­id­ents fled the city dur­ing or after Hur­ricane Kat­rina — quite a few of them nev­er to re­turn — a pop­u­la­tion and polit­ic­al power shift has oc­curred in the city: 22 con­sec­ut­ive years of black may­ors gave way in 2010 to the elec­tion of Mitch Landrieu (con­tem­por­an­eous with this City Coun­cil race). A City Coun­cil long con­trolled by a black ma­jor­ity sud­denly found it­self with a 5-2 white ma­jor­ity. No group likes to give up power, and dur­ing the 2010 Dis­trict B City Coun­cil race at the cen­ter of this film, the trans­ition was just be­gin­ning. Dur­ing the same peri­od, the city made the con­tro­ver­sial de­cision to close down four huge pub­lic-hous­ing pro­jects in in­cred­ibly poor neigh­bor­hoods, in part be­cause of the de­cline in the city’s pop­u­la­tion, but primar­ily to break up con­cen­tra­tions of crime and urb­an de­cay. Mixed-in­come hous­ing was built to re­place the pro­jects, and of­fi­cials placed strict re­stric­tions on res­id­ents, with the rules de­signed to pre­vent the neigh­bor­hoods from de­clin­ing again in­to crime and drug cen­ters. Some res­id­ents saw these rules as a heavy-handed at­tempt by the city to run the lives of those who agreed to live there.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5072) }}Spliced throughout the film are plenty of col­or­ful, only-in-New-Or­leans per­son­al­it­ies, and the sense that for hun­dreds of years, res­id­ents and politi­cians neg­lected to ad­dress mount­ing prob­lems un­til the city be­came es­sen­tially dys­func­tion­al. Bob Mar­shall, out­doors ed­it­or of The Times-Pi­cay­une, uses a rather vivid meta­phor to de­scribe the be­ha­vi­or of New Or­leans’s cit­izens: “A guy sees smoke and fire and gets up and looks out his win­dow and real­izes that his kit­chen is on fire — he’s up in the front room. He says, “˜Well, I’m gonna watch the end of the Saints game, but the fire­men’ll get here even­tu­ally.’ And he goes and sits down and opens an­oth­er beer and watches the Saints game.” Mar­shall con­cludes the story by say­ing the guy thinks, “He’s gonna take care of it later be­cause someone al­ways takes care of it, and we’ve al­ways lived like this and it’ll be OK.” Oth­ers liken the pre­vail­ing at­ti­tude with­in the city to that of those who would rather en­joy a good meal, go to a Mardi Gras parade, or go party than con­front a press­ing prob­lem. What is cer­tain here is that this is a film un­like any you have ever seen be­fore.

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