It has been seven years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, and the impact is still being felt both locally and nationally. The event is still a touchstone for conversations about race, class and government, one that usually pits the haves against the have nots. But in truth, the story of how New Orleans and its residents continue to live and rebuild is something much more layered and complex, with the past playing a prominent role in how to shape the future. And for director Jonathan Demme, he found a way to delve into the many sides of post-Katrina life by telling it through the eyes of Carolyn Parker. Joining her from months after the floods and tracking her life for years afterward, “I’m Carolyn Parker” is an insightful and at times moving eye on the ground of the day-to-day struggles that are still common for many in the city.
To start talking about this doc, we need to go to the end for a moment, because as the credits roll, the first thing that will strike viewers is that not once do we see Carolyn Parker shed a tear. Even as her home was destroyed by flooding, looted and stripped by vandals, and deemed unsafe to live in, when Parker first returned to her house in the Lower Ninth Ward, it was the blessing that she had something at all that she clung to. “I didn’t cry…As I got into that house…I realized that I had to look and say ‘Thank you God, thank you. It’s still standing.’ ” Yes, Parker has a firm and unshaken faith in God and it’s actually her (in)ability to worship that found her getting some national attention. In January 2006 at a forum about the redevelopment of New Orleans, she admonished mayor Ray Nagin and everyone else involved for barely mentioning the ravaged Lower Ninth Ward nor her church, St. David’s, a community institution for black Catholics, especially those like Parker who remembers in her youth being told she wasn’t welcome at the white Catholic church in the same neighborhood.
To call Carolyn Parker an activist doesn’t seem quite right, her instincts are just more innate than any label would imply — she simply can’t tolerate injustice, and morever, she has the strength of will to stand up for what she believes in and take life’s knocks and refuses to be stopped. And in the time Demme spends with her, we learn just how much she has gone through. As a young child, she witnessed segregation first hand, she lost her husband tragically after he was brutally murdered, and she still raised her children, and was a celebrated cook in New Orleans who earned the admiration of her chef peers (and indeed, you may need a bib to soak up the drool when as you watch her prepare meals for Demme). And after Katrina, there were more problems to deal with. The contractor hired to fix her house while she lived in a FEMA trailer was crooked, and even more, she underwent double knee replacement surgery. But it’s a testament to her indefatigable spirit in how fast she ditches the walker and begins moving again on her own (and don’t you dare try and help her down the stairs).
But perhaps most heartening is seeing how all of these experiences haven’t wiped the ambition and smile off the face of her loyal, beautiful and brainy daughter Kyrah. She’s candid with Demme about what she’s gone through on her own end, and her commitment to making sure her mother is taken care of. But despite everything both she and her mother endured (she recalls being so poor at one time, they shared a Hershey’s Kiss), her goal is to give back to the community in some fashion, whether through teaching or other means. Enrolled in university, she’s a shining example of the potential of those from the Lower Ninth Ward — or poor, underserved neighborhoods in general — who are often given up on, before they get a chance to start.
While not as comprehensive as something like Spike Lee‘s “When The Levees Broke,” and at times a bit too lesiurely and almost inconsequential running barely around eighty minutes long, Demme’s film does offer a unique perspective. Through the reselience and welcoming heart of Carolyn Parker, we see the often indescribable qualities that make up some of the most important and undersung citizens of the country. While we see a glimpse of Brad Pitt‘s noble project to rebuild over a 100 homes that have been destroyed (watching Parker kiss one of the architects for the work he’s doing is pretty heart swelling), people like her are just as important. She sets a tone of resiliency, dependability, strength and generosity that has always served to build great communities, cities and culture around the country. “I’m Carolyn Parker” isn’t so much a movie title as a “Spartacus“-like shout that, if we all embraced, would make us a better people and country. [B]
“I’m Carolyn Parker” airs tonight at 10 PM on PBS.