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.
After Demme met Carolyn Parker and gained permission to film her progress, what began as a historical documentary morphed into a deeply personal character study of the courage and resiliency of this fierce, opinionated matriarch and community activist. I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful, shot over the course of five years, is Demme’s intimate, unvarnished chronicle of Parker’s five-year crusade to rebuild her beloved neon-green house, her church, her community–and her life.
As the levees broke and the floodwaters of Katrina barreled up the mouth of the Mississippi River, Parker’s home in the Holy Cross neighborhood was submerged and her neighbors had to be rescued from their rooftops by helicopter. Parker was pronounced dead in the local newspaper after authorities found no trace of her for weeks. It turns out she was one of the last people to leave her neighborhood under mandatory evacuation, but she survived and took refuge in the Superdome along with thousands of other newly homeless victims of the storm.
Carolyn Parker. Credit: I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful.
Reunited with her children and her brother, Raymond, Parker became a voice for the displaced people of the Lower Ninth Ward who were scattered all over the country waiting to come home. She gained instant recognition in January 2006 for her public rebuttal of Mayor Ray Nagin, when she railed at him and a committee of experts, promising that if they pulled down her house it would be “over my dead body.” The entire country took notice, and when President George W. Bush was asked about Parker’s indictment of the government, he replied, “No comment.”
As the waters retreated, Parker was one of the first to move back to the Lower Ninth. While she waited for the funds to reconstruct her house, she lived in a FEMA trailer for four years with her daughter, Kyrah Julian, who had returned home from Syracuse University to help. Her son, Rahsaan, joined the family from California, where he had just completed his master’s degree, and lived in the gutted shell of Parker’s home. Parker immediately began advocating for the rebuilding of her cherished St. David’s Church, the only Catholic Church that welcomed blacks when she was growing up. It was the glue that held her community together, and its resurrection became a primary mission for Parker.
From dealing with fly-by-night tradesmen to recovering from double knee surgery to enlisting her daughter pick out bright paint colors (including her signature neon green) for remodeling, Parker’s story is underlined by her profound gratitude and good humor. Demme joins her in the tiny kitchen of her FEMA trailer as she makes sumptuous fried chicken injected with pickle juice and tells stories of cooking for the biggest hotels in New Orleans, without ever divulging her coveted recipes. (“I’m not into making books or writing books, but I know you will,” she reports telling one master chef, adding, “So I wrote him a recipe for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!”)
Parker gives viewers a guided tour of her home after its destruction. She recounts her early memories of segregated New Orleans; because she was fair-skinned, she was allowed to ride in the front of the bus while her grandmother sat in the back. But being poor didn’t stop her from being resourceful. To make sure her mother looked fashionable, Parker would cut pictures of the latest styles out of the newspaper, make her own patterns and sew new dresses for her mom. “And boy, did she look good going to church every Sunday,” Parker exclaims.
She remembers moving into her home with her husband, who asked why she wanted that old, tiny house. “Because it wants me,” she replied. “All it needs is love.” Later, when Kyrah’s father was murdered, Parker pressed on, raising her family and making sure they had a stable home. And after Katrina hit, “Everyone else was crying,” she recalls. “I didn’t cry. . . . As I got into that house . . . I realized that I had to look up and say ‘Thank you God, thank you. It’s still standing.'”