What happens when America’s most joyous, dysfunctional city rebuilds itself after a disaster? The ongoing drama of New Orleans’ struggle to rise after Hurricane Katrina gets a provocative update in the new documentary Getting Back to Abnormal. Serving up a rich Louisiana mix of race, money, corruption and politics, the film tells the story of the polarizing re-election campaign of a white woman to a city council seat traditionally held by a black representative. Featuring a cast of characters as colorful as the city itself, the film presents a New Orleans that outsiders rarely see.
Getting Back to Abnormal has its national broadcast premiere on Monday, July 14, 2014 at 10 p.m. on the award-winning POV (Point of View) documentary series on PBS (check local listings). The film will stream on POV’s website, www.pbs.org/pov/abnormal, from July 15-Aug. 12.
Desegregation and white flight in the 1960s made New Orleans a black city, politically and demographically. Now, almost a decade after Katrina made landfall in 2005, the hurricane continues to reverse that reality. Ninth Ward survivor Henry Irvin expresses the paradox: “In New Orleans, we have some of the blackest white people and some of the whitest black people you ever gonna see.”
Getting Back to Abnormal focuses on the 2010 re-election campaign of Stacy Head. She sees herself as a colorblind anti-corruption crusader whose sometimes politically incorrect language puts her squarely in the middle of a new black-and-white political battleground. Her opponents mince no words, branding Head a racist for supporting policies that they say are driving African-Americans out of power in City Hall.
Barbara Lacen-Keller is Head’s larger-than-life black aide. As the unofficial “mayor” of the old Central City neighborhood, Lacen-Keller sets out to prove that her boss isn’t a racist, but rather someone who gets things done for the community.
Featured in the film are Head’s opponent, Corey Watson, scion of a family of black ministers; local attorney Buddy Lemann; African-American radio shock jock Paul Beaulieu; Mitch Landrieu, running at the time to be the city’s first white mayor since his father, Moon, left office in 1978; the 50-year reunion of the three young girls who first integrated the New Orleans public schools and the federal marshals who protected them; and the celebrations in the streets after the hometown Saints’ first-ever Super Bowl win.
Getting Back to Abnormal sorts through fast-moving story with gusto and humor. Says David Simon, co-creator of HBO’s Treme, shot in New Orleans, “The truth is, it’s one of the most dysfunctional cities in America . . . but at the end of the day we will find a way to make you smile and dance.” Or, as civil-rights lawyer Tracie Washington puts it, “I don’t want a post-racial New Orleans. That would be—I hate to say—Minneapolis.”
“We really wanted to make a film that communicated the love and frustration we have for the city,” say filmmakers Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Peter Odabashian and Paul Stekler. “We also knew we wanted the culture and richness of the place to come across as a backdrop to our political story. A lot of post-Katrina docs were made by outsiders who never quite captured the city’s weird DNA. We’d be happy if people came away feeling like they’d spent a weekend in New Orleans, hanging out with the locals and getting the inside story.”