The city of New Orleans was built on high ground. It was only a few blocks wide at the time, though, so it was easy to fit the whole settlement on a bluff above the Mississippi. New Orleans in its infancy is the starting point for PBS's new American Experience documentary, New Orleans, and the historical perspective is a great way to see this legendary city in a new light.
All too often we know New Orleans through its cliches ... as the birthplace of jazz, the birthplace of cajun food, ground zero for Mardi Gras. But there's a long history behind this city's dynamism, and this new documentary wisely chooses to tell us about things we don't already know. Like the fact that early New Orleans was two cities separated by a canal: one French, Haitian, Cajun and Creole, the other protestant English. It also turns out that the sad landmark US Supreme Court Plessy vs. Ferguson case, which upheld legalized segregation, was about an incident in New Orleans.
The city's wealthy financiers do not come off well in this documentary, especially in 1927 when they carry out a plan to flood a neighborhood near New Orleans so as to prevent a flood in the main city. But New Orleans is mostly about the city's great vistas and colorful citizens, including a charming gumbo chef who tours us through her flood-wrecked kitchen where she's unashamedly happy to be getting new appliances. A tomb restorer is photographed applying loving dabs of cement between bricks on an antique grave, telling us about the local practice of cemetery picnics.
This is a more visual documentary than most, and in many of the above moments it's the photography, rather than the narrative, that provides the strongest message. Director Stephen Ives was clearly able to find beauty everywhere he looked, and most often in this documentary he lets the visuals speak for themselves.
My only (minor) complaint is with the show's intro segment, which tells us one too many times how significant New Orleans is. Nobody needs to hard-sell this city; to look at it is to fall in love with it. I think that's why this show works so well.