by Leonard Gill
That's Daniel Wolff (pictured) speaking by phone from his home in Nyack, New York. "Jonathan" is Jonathan Demme, the film director. And it's taken another five years for Wolff and Demme to put together their new documentary, I'm Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful, which aired this week on the PBS series POV (and airs locally on WKNO2 tonight, Sunday, September 23rd, at 9 p.m.).
Daniel Wolff is the author of How Lincoln Learned To Read: Twelve Great Americans and the Educations That Made Them (with an especially valuable chapter on the family and boyhood of Elvis Presley). He's written the definitive biography You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke. He's worked with Memphis photographer Ernest Withers on Negro League Baseball and The Memphis Blues Again: Six Decades of Memphis Music Photographs. And he's now written The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back (Bloomsbury).
I'm Carolyn Parker has been featured at recent international film festivals, including those in Venice and Toronto. It's opened in New York City (to praise from critic A.O. Scott). But you may know Carolyn Parker already. It was Parker who addressed, in no uncertain (yes, angry) terms, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission after her house, her Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, and much of New Orleans suffered the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that followed. Those comments of Parker's earned her national attention. And it's Parker who plays one of the principal roles in The Fight for Home, which chronicles, January 2006 to October 2011, the efforts of New Orleans residents to return and reclaim their ruined homes and property — and lives — and the efforts of outside volunteers, in particular the young people of the radically minded Common Ground Collective.
What kind of city is New Orleans to become, post-Katrina? What of the city's poor, its retirees? What is the role of government when a disaster the size of Katrina strikes? And on a national scale, what of America itself after the ongoing economic crisis, which has sent households across the country "underwater"? Big questions. Some questions for Daniel Wolff ...
Take me back to how you and Jonathan Demme started this project.
Daniel Wolff: Jonathan and I went down to New Orleans first on the theory that this was a major American event. We had a couple of introductions but essentially didn't know anybody. Jonathan brought a little camera, I brought a notebook, we rented a car, and we started driving. This was five months after Katrina. Eventually, we ran into people. What we thought we'd do is come down every quarter, like the four seasons, film something that would maybe run on YouTube or as a little movie.
Once we got to New Orleans, it was not only overwhelming, we met these great people and wanted to follow their stories. And we made a vow to ourselves and to the people we'd gotten to know: We'd keep coming back until they were back in their houses, which we figured would be a year or two.
One of those people we met was Carolyn, a woman who opened her door to us and simply said, "I'm Carolyn Parker." She invited us in.
But it was Jonathan who said I should really write a book. I resisted the idea, because I thought I was helping him make a movie. There seemed to be other aspects, though, I could get at. The documentary and the book: They're two different takes on the same problems. The film, partly because of the nature of film, is much more intimate. We're in Carolyn's life. The film, in part, is getting to know Carolyn, how she deals with us.
The stories here needed to be told, still do. And for all the stuff — Spike Lee's documentaries, various books — there's room for a lot more, because we don't really know how to talk about these long-term issues, hear the voices of, you know, poor people. I don't blame the media for that. All of us avert our eyes, want to look at something else, but this is too important.
I don't recall a single instance in your book where you yourself — first-person singular — intrude on the story.
I kept my voice out of it, because the people's voices were more important. I wanted readers to hear those voices. They're extraordinary. And now, given the economic crisis, they're all over America: people, like the ones in New Orleans, trying to think through, live through these problems.
It's useful, after reading the lengthy quotes in your book, to see that quoted material as it was spoken in the series of short films posted on the Right To Return website, films directed by Demme and co-produced by you.
We have 500 hours of videotape, an incredible amount, and I could turn to the videos for direct quotes in my book. My notebook was there to capture the color, the scene, what I was thinking about.
Carolyn Parker: Has she seen the documentary?
Yes, Jonathan showed it to her, and she opined that it was pretty good.
We've also done five half-hour shows on Tavis Smiley that ran on the first anniversary of Katrina. Then we did an hour feature with Tavis. I'm pleased to say people didn't run us out of town as carpetbaggers but in fact seemed to think we'd done a fairly good job getting their concerns.
Part of what's kept us going is the fact that the people we filmed kept saying make sure people hear our story. Don't let them forget what's going on down here. We're delighted they liked the documentary.
Brandon, the Common Ground leader who has since turned to the far right politically: That's a story in and of itself. Do you understand what caused him to do such an about-face?
In New Orleans, Brandon was the radical he appeared to be. But after he left New Orleans, he started wondering about the radical left and what they were up to. He started talking to the FBI. At the Republican National Convention in 2008, Brandon was with some protesters who talked about Molotov cocktails and using them on the police. He informed on them and testified against them at their trial, where they eventually pleaded guilty.
After that, Brandon was totally rejected by the left and his former friends, including the ones in New Orleans. Now Brandon spends most of his time with the far right and the Tea Party. When I last spoke to him, he was at the Republican convention in Tampa filming protesters and reporting on how the left was agitating.
That doesn't explain Brandon's actions, but at least them's the facts.
What you see with Common Ground are people trying to make radical changes and then burning out. Brandon was one of them. I think it was very heady stuff. People just reacted differently, and this is where Brandon ended up being. Most of the people he worked with have never forgiven him.
There's a moment in your book when Suncere, of Common Ground, says, "[New Orleans] can be saved; there's still time. But if the American people don't look at the folks in New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast and don't see themselves in their place, we're gonna lose. ... And we're losing." When it comes to those living in the hardest-hit areas of New Orleans, that's it in a nutshell, isn't it?
All we were trying to do is reflect what these people were trying to do. They were all, in their own neighborhoods, trying to make a point: that this story is bigger than our block, bigger than New Orleans. It's not just that there was a big flood in New Orleans, and we have to have a government that can respond to it.
The bigger questions are: How is the economy going to work? How are my kids going to get along? How will this work here in New Orleans? This opportunity to rebuild, to start over, and to ask all these questions ... are we really asking them in a fruitful way? That point of view came from everybody we interviewed. As soon as you looked at your ruined house, you thought, Okay, what's my relationship to the government now? Can the government help me out? Can my neighbors help me out? Who can I turn to?
It's more than seven years since Katrina. What do residents of the Ninth Ward and elsewhere in New Orleans need, right now, for things to get back to normal?
Within that question is another question: what "back to normal" means. When I was in New Orleans a few weeks ago, the neighborhoods looked much better, obviously, than they did immediately after the flood ... people in every other house and in between there's maybe an abandoned house or an empty lot, especially in the Lower Ninth Ward.
The bigger problem is: The rebuilt houses are starting to take on the look of a ghetto. The neighborhoods are starting to head back to what they were before. And meanwhile, the prosperous side of New Orleans is continuing to prosper.
The issue when you ask what's needed … we need to figure out how you have an economy and city and country that gives everybody a chance to get ahead. As old-fashioned as that is, we still come back to that question.
And so, they still need people to come down and help. But we all need to think about these issues. It'd be great if we could just get the fundamentals. Health care, say. In the Holy Cross neighborhood of New Orleans, you have to drive a half-hour not only if you break your leg. You've got to drive a half-hour to find a grocery store and that means finding a cab.
You need a house you can afford to live in and a job that can not only bring in enough money to pay for that house but gives you some sense of participating in a democracy, in a world you want to have. That's a big order.
When Pastor Mel in the book says New Orleans before the flooding was a "happy plantation" of low rents and low-paying jobs, that's not the New Orleans he wants to rebuild. Those aren't the good old days. He wants something better, and here we are with a service economy that's substituted for the American dream.
But as Carolyn Parker says of the city, "they don't want us back."
Lots of people said that. And it surprised me that all of them reached that conclusion in practically those very words. I think there's still the feeling that officials and developers and big business see the future of New Orleans as a "boutique" city.
Developers say: Let's do something downtown that'll attract some tourists. And then, kind of in parentheses: Somebody will have to clean up after the tourists and those somebodies are Carolyn Parker and her neighbors. They'll do the service work.
Same case in cities such as Memphis or St. Louis. Most American cities have that vision: They're going to rebuild their downtowns. There will be a baseball stadium or an arch or something to draw tourists to make it all happen.
No official in New Orleans is stupid enough to say publicly, "We don't want you." But if it's not exactly we don't want you back, it's you're not exactly on our priorities list either.
Your book ends on the word "underwater," an ironic note to sound, since it applies now to so many home owners after the national mortgage crisis.
There is the sense, Oh look, the flood has spread across the country now.
The bubble that the mortgage crisis broke was this idea that everybody could get a house and could afford it. Nobody in their right mind wants to go back to that economy. If it felt then, before the mortgage crisis, like there was more money, it's now clear that was based on a fiction. New Orleans was a kind of microcosm of that: Here was a set-up, a "happy plantation," that the flood ruined. We don't need that. We need something better. But we're still trying to figure out the alternative.
The reaction of writers and filmmakers and musicians during the Great Depression was to have a documentary approach. You saw it all over … in photographs … everything: as if to say, we need as a country to look at this and as a country to talk about it in a very primal way ... this is the system we've set up ... how does it work? ... how should it work? ... it's failing a bunch of people ... we need to take people's stories, so we can figure out some solutions.
That's what's called for now: stories. There can't be Katrina "fatigue," because this isn't just about Katrina. If you're fatigued about that, you're fatigued about the American experiment. And I don't think we want to ever get tired of that.