Downloads: Press Release
Tensions Mount as the City’s Population Grows Less Black and Less Poor
A co-production of ITVS.
“One of the most acute, brilliant and profound docs ever made about race in America.”
— Gerald Peary, The Boston Phoenix
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.
Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Peter Odabashian and Paul Stekler’s Getting Back to Abnormal, an Official Selection of the 2013 SXSW Film Festival, has its national broadcast premiere on Monday, July 14, 2014 at 10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) as part of the 27th season of POV (Point of View). American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, POV is the recipient of a 2013 MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.
Getting Back to Abnormal, as entertaining as it is serious about race in New Orleans, focuses on the 2010 re-election campaign of Stacy Head. She sees herself as a colorblind anti-corruption crusader whose sometimes jaw-droppingly politically incorrect language puts her squarely in the middle of a new black and white political battleground. Her opponents, in turn, mince no words, branding Head a racist for supporting policies that they say are driving African-Americans out of power in City Hall.
A twist in the campaign is the presence of Barbara Lacen-Keller, Head’s larger-than-life black aide with immense street cred. 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. Welcome to the new New Orleans.
The city that hosted the country’s largest slave market and the birth of jazz, with its unique American blend of black, white and Creole cultures, has a special place in the story of race in America. Early in Getting Back to Abnormal, African-American blogger Deborah Cotton tells us that while “whites and blacks interact here like families do . . . there’s this deep love and affection, but also deep wounds.” Ninth Ward survivor Henry Irvin puts it more colloquially: “In New Orleans, we have some of the blackest white people and some of the whitest black people you ever gonna see.”
Desegregation and white flight in the 1960s made New Orleans a black city, politically as well as demographically. Now, almost a decade after Katrina made landfall in 2005, the hurricane continues to reverse that reality as inexorably as its waves wiped many black and poor neighborhoods off the map.
Although both are white, Stacy Head and Mitch Landrieu (running to be the city’s first white mayor since his father, Moon, left office in 1978) represent dramatically different political styles and attitudes. Landrieu, brother of Sen. Mary Landrieu (running for re-election herself this year) is conciliatory and cultivates the goodwill many African-Americans felt toward his father. Head first won election by challenging and defeating the old black political power structure. Yet Landrieu and Head both herald the same dramatic change in New Orleans: the political consequences that ensued when many of the city’s poorer African Americans left due to Katrina and never returned.
They both strongly backed the reconstruction of the city–with Head best known for her work helping small business and literally fixing potholes–but they both, along with a majority of black city council members, supported the destruction of the old public housing projects that were home to a significant percentage of New Orleans’ black residents pre-Katrina.
Some of that fallout can be found in the story of Stephanie Mingo, an Orleans Parish school board employee and mother of four who was evacuated during Katrina from the St. Bernard public housing project. She and other former residents failed to stop demolition of St. Bernard and then refused housing in the new “mixed-income” Columbia Parc development built on its site–protesting the dramatically reduced number of low-income units and what they see as dehumanizing new rules for residents. In a climactic scene in Getting Back to Abnormal, Mingo’s frustrations come to a head when she’s out in the rain, protesting Barack and Michelle Obama’s visit to this “model” development.
Also featured are Head’s opponent, Corey Watson, a scion of a family of black ministers; local attorney Buddy Lemann, who expresses something of the town’s old spirit (“Reality is cruel and we in New Orleans prefer to have a few drinks and go get naked in the streets”); black radio shock jock Paul Beaulieu, who says, “There’s a train coming through the black community that’s going to bust it wide open–and it has white political leaders like Stacy Head on it”; the emotional 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 insanity, and biracial pride, in the streets after the hometown Saints’ first-ever Super Bowl win.
Getting Back to Abnormal sorts through its complex and fast-moving story with gusto while providing a sense of people’s love for the city–and their humor about its situation. Says David Simon, co-creator of HBO’s Treme, shot in New Orleans, “In many ways, New Orleans exists only to be New Orleans in the imagination. 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.”
As for the intent of the filmmakers, “We really wanted to make a film that communicated the love and frustration we have for the city,” say Alvarez, Kolker, Odabashian and Stekler. “We also knew we wanted the culture and richness of the place to come across as a backdrop to our political story, and so we sought out appealing local characters who could provide context. 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.”
Getting Back to Abnormal is a production of the Center for New American Media, Midnight Films and the Independent Television Service (ITVS).
About the Filmmakers:
Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Peter Odabashian and Paul Stekler, Co-directors/Co-producers
Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Peter Odabashian and Paul Stekler have worked together on and off for almost three decades on documentaries about American life, culture and politics. Some combination of the four have had films on POV in all four decades of the series: American Tongues (the very first film on POV in 1988), Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics (1992), Last Man Standing: Politics, Texas Style (2004) and now Getting Back to Abnormal.
For Alvarez, Kolker and Stekler (Odabashian is a lifelong New Yorker), making Getting Back to Abnormal marked a return to their Louisiana roots. In the 1970s and 1980s, Kolker and Alvarez were part of a wave of young activist video makers exploring the culture of New Orleans and Louisiana with such documentaries as Yeah You Rite!, a now-classic portrait of the city’s accents, and The Ends of the Earth, about the political changes in conservative rural Plaquemines Parish. Stekler was teaching Southern politics at Tulane and running political campaigns in the city. He turned to filmmaking with Among Brothers: Politics in New Orleans, after his reform candidate for mayor, William J. Jefferson, lost in 1986.
Alvarez, Kolker and Stekler first collaborated on Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics, a look at the state’s freewheeling political culture. The film earned the team its first Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award for broadcast journalism. Four years later, joined by Odabashian, they made the four-hour Vote for Me: Politics in America, which won a George Foster Peabody Award as well as a second duPont-Columbia Award for the team. Alvarez, Kolker and Odabashian’s other credits include Moms (1999), People Like Us: Social Class in America (2001), Sex: Female (2003) and The Anti-Americans (2007). They are also the creators of the 3D history game Past/Present.
Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker
Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker’s professional partnership dates back to 1975. Their film American Tongues, revealing our attitudes about the way other people speak, premiered on POV in 1988. Thanks to a Fulbright fellowship, they subsequently lived in Japan while making The Japanese Version (1991), a provocative look at how Japanese popular culture appropriates Western images and concepts to create something uniquely Japanese. Alvarez, who grew up in Milwaukee, received his bachelor’s degree in radio, television and film from the University of Wisconsin. Kolker received his bachelor’s degree in film from Clark University in Worcester, Mass. Alvarez and Kolker live in New York City.
Peter Odabashian was a sound editor on more than 17 feature films directed by Sidney Lumet, Brian De Palma, Warren Beatty, Spike Lee and Paul Newman, among others, and he was sound editor for Robert Benton’s Places in the Heart, which won a Motion Picture Sound Editors Golden Reel Award. He has edited more than 20 documentaries that have appeared on American Experience, Nova, Frontline and other PBS series. He won an Emmy Award for Best Documentary Editing for Vote For Me, and that began his relationship with Kolker, Alvarez and Stekler. Odabashian is currently working on his first solo project, a documentary about friendship, growing older and the grace, beauty and frailty of humankind.
Paul Stekler’s work for PBS includes George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire, winner of a Special Jury Prize at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival and a 2001 Emmy, and Last Stand at Little Big Horn, both of which aired on American Experience; Last Man Standing: Politics Texas Style, which aired on POV in 2004; and two segments of the 1990 Eyes on the Prize II series on the history of civil rights. For Frontline, he co-produced and wrote The Choice 2008, about the Obama-McCain election, with director Michael Kirk. He has a doctorate in government from Harvard University, was a New Orleans political pollster and is chair of the Radio-Television-Film Department at the University of Texas at Austin, where he has been a professor since 1997.
Co-Directors/Co-Producers: Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Peter Odabashian, Paul Stekler
Cinematographer: Andrew Kolker
Editor: Peter Odabashian
Running time: 86:46
POV Series Credits:
Executive Producer: Simon Kilmurry
Co-Executive Producer: Cynthia López
VP, Programming and Production: Chris White
Associate Producer: Nicole Tsien
Production Coordinator: Nikki Heyman
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