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.
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.