“I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful”
Rebuilding New Orleans
On Thursday, September 20th on PBS, we will get a chance to see an amazing new documentary from Jonathan Demme about what has been happening in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This is the story of Carolyn Parker who, along with other Ninth Ward residents, was told to “Look and Leave” but she decided to “Look and Stay”. What so many do not realize is that there is something about living in New Orleans that holds people to stay in the city and as a former New Orleanian (who did not go back), I totally understand what Parker feels.
“When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August 2005, the hardest-hit neighborhoods were also the city’s poorest. But nowhere was devastation greater than in the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood bordered by the Industrial Canal and the Mississippi River, home to a vibrant African-American community and one extraordinary woman. Several months later, Academy Award®-winning director Jonathan Demme set out to document the devastation and rebuilding of the Crescent City”.
When Demme met Parker and spoke to her about Katrina, he quickly saw that what was supposed to have been a political documentary was going to also be a very personal story and a character study of a woman who defied the odds. Parker is a highly opinionated woman and a community activist who was not going to let anyone take her city of New Orleans from her. During five years Demme shot his film and gives us a look at Parker as she worked her own crusade to save her home, her church, her community and her life. This is a true profile in courage.
When the levees broke and the floodwater came over them, Parker’s home (some eight blocks from where I lived) and neighborhood went underwater and the people there (like myself) had to be rescued by helicopters. When no trace of Parker could be found, she was pronounced dead in the local media but it later was discovered that she had gone to the Superdome with so many others who had to flee their homes. These people were to become the new homeless population of New Orleans. When Parker was reunited with her brother and her children, she became a voice of the displaced who were all over the United States (I was in Arkansas) and were waiting to go back home. What propelled Parker into the spotlight was her very public rebuttal to the mayor, Ray Nagin, and said that her house would be demolished only over her dead body. Suddenly the world noticed Carolyn Parker and even the president, George W. Bush, heard her words and replied with a simple “no comment”.
When the water began to retreat, Parker was one of the first to move back into the Lower Ninth Ward and as she waited for funds to rebuild her house, she lived in a FEMA trailer for four years. Her daughter, Kyrah, came home from college to help her and her son; Rahsaan began to live in the shell of the former family home. Parker immediately began her campaign for the rebuilding of her church which was the only Catholic Church that welcomes blacks when she was a girl. That same church had held the community together and the rebuilding was Parker’s primary concern.
Parker became involved in dealing with some get rich-quick tradesman as she was recovering from knee surgery. Her daughter picked out the colors for the remodeling and the family began the task of rebuilding their lives and their home. We get to go on a tour of the house and see the destruction and hear Parker’s memories of New Orleans during segregation; stories that I remember so well (but from the white perspective). Parker was raised poor but she was resourceful. We hear how she and her husband moved into her home, a home that was built on love. After her husband was murdered, Parker raised her family and made sure that they had a stable home life. After Katrina she says that she did not cry like everyone else because she realized that she was alive and her little house was still standing.
Starting a few months after Hurricane Katrina, Jonathan Demme follows the strong matriarch from the Lower Ninth Ward named Carolyn Parker as she struggles to rebuild her home over several years. Parker is a retired hotel chef with disabilities yet she makes the most of what she has— a bold sense of humor with a fierce activism and a pervasive spirituality. A few months after the flood waters receded, filmmaker Jonathan Demme met Parker outside her damaged home while he was interviewing locals. From their casual introduction grew this poignant documentary which was filmed over five years of one family’s struggle to rebuild from devastation.
Using the personal approach, Demme conducts conversations from behind the camera. We first meet Parker when her house is in shambles and needing new walls, electricity, windows, and more but Parker cannot consider living anywhere else. Over the next several years, Parker’s toiled to save her home and church and we see her as alternately good, mad and beautiful.
Demme takes pleasure in Parkers company, whether she is reminiscing about her early days in the civil rights struggle or just cooking dinner. “Parker is a friendly, welcoming and observational woman whose passion for her home and community in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans led to an angry and powerful speech at a meeting about the recovery plan after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.
After being told about plans to buy out residents and knock down the Lower Ninth, one of the worst hit areas, Carolyn S. Parker is mad as hell, and she lets them know about it. “I don’t think it’s right that you try to take my property. “Over my dead body. I didn’t die with Katrina.” And she did not die—she lived and lives just as New Orleans has returned.
Demme successfully shows the viewer an intimate portrayal of how Katrina impacted Carolyn’s family and the reasons why her home is so important to her. Carolyn Parker is a force to be reckoned with and watching her in action is an inspirational and emotional journey.