Writer-filmmaker Daniel Wolff

As another hurricane threatens New Orleans, the best-selling author-filmmaker discusses how the plight of the city’s residents is a test of national character and details his latest text, The Fight for Home, about the Big Easy after Katrina.

Daniel Wolff is an accomplished talent as an author, poet and filmmaker. His writing has appeared in numerous diverse publications, ranging from Vogue to Education Weekly, and his non-fiction books include How Lincoln Learned to Read and an award-winning and best-selling biography of crooner Sam Cooke. He's also received credits on such documentaries as The Agronomist, about slain Haitian civil rights leader Jean Dominique, and several projects on post-Katrina New Orleans, including I'm Carolyn Parker—the catalyst for his look at the lives of everyday American heroes in his text, The Fight for Home.


Tavis: Daniel Wolff is a noted author and filmmaker who served as co-producer on Jonathan Demme’s post-Katrina documentary “Right to Return,” which I’m proud to say made its debut right here on this program a few years back.

His latest book once again focuses on the plight of New Orleans as we commemorate the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The book is called “The Fight for Home: How Parts of New Orleans Came Back.” Daniel Wolff, good to have you on this program.

Daniel Wolff: Great to have you.

Tavis: You been good?

Wolff: I’ve been very good. You know you’re credited on the “I’m Carolyn Parker” movie. Did you see that?

Tavis: I have not seen the credit yet.

Wolff: Oh, yeah, the credit says “Godfather: Tavis Smiley.”

Tavis: Oh, that’s too kind. (Laughs)

Wolff: No, no, no, you’ve been a big help. You’ve been great.

Tavis: You guys are too kind. You’ve been to New Orleans recently?

Wolff: Yeah, just coming from there to here.

Tavis: Yeah?

Wolff: Yeah. It’s still tough.

Tavis: Yeah.

Wolff: It’s still tough. You and I were there together. The neighborhoods – one of the hard things, Tavis, is the neighborhoods that came back and got at least some new houses in it, it’s a year or two later, it’s starting to look rough again. Even the new houses. So it’s a real issue. It’s a continuing issue.

Tavis: I’m glad you wrote the text and we’ll go inside of it in just a second, but how do we sustain a real conversation about a renaissance American city and what it says about us as a nation, that we haven’t put it back online as it should have been? How do you sustain a conversation about that when time just passes by?

Wolff: Well, people talk about Katrina fatigue, right?

Tavis: Right.

Wolff: I’m convinced that that’s as unlikely as Civil War fatigue or civil rights fatigue. It’s too big an issue. It’s still there. People know it, just going around with this book and making the movies with Jonathan, they want to know about New Orleans. They care about it. They want to know what happened.

I think they know that it’s a test. It’s a test of the national character, what happens in New Orleans. You and I know that when they talked about the levees they talked about preexisting conditions, right? The levees weren’t up to snuff, and so the flood waters took them.

I think that issues in New Orleans now are from preexisting conditions too. A bunch of people didn’t have a good place to live, they didn’t have healthcare, they didn’t have good police protection. The issue in New Orleans is the issue in Detroit and Oakland and Baltimore and Philadelphia, and what you and Dr. West have been doing hits directly on that.

It’s the issue of poverty and the issue of whether we’re going to treat everybody decently or not.

Tavis: So if New Orleans was or is a test of our national character and we could have made it a model city for how to deal with preexisting or manmade conditions in an urban center, why didn’t we do that? Why haven’t we done that?

Wolff: We got a lack of will, and I’m afraid that there’s – how do I put this diplomatically? There’s a lack of concern, let’s put it that way, for poor people. Poor people of any color, I think. We’re just not following through on that.

The last time we had this many people unemployed was the Great Depression, and we sat down and said we’ve got to redefine our priorities here. That’s what the New Deal was trying to be about.

We aren’t doing that now. We’re going, well, maybe if we bail out the banks everything’s going to work out fine. It’s not going to work out fine, and New Orleans is the test case for it. New Orleans, the people there, the people chronicled in this book are amazing and courageous, and they’re taking a stand, but they’re doing it without the government, mostly. They’re almost doing it in defiance of the government.

Tavis: You’ve got to unpack that for me. I think I know what you mean by that. Doing it without the government I get; doing in almost defiance of the government, you mean by that what, Daniel?

Wolff: Three or four different people that I talk to in this book, people you know – Pastor Mel, Carolyn, Malik – in different times during the six years that Jonathan and I have been going down there and talking to them said with a kind of sadness, “I’m not sure they want us back.”

So that it wasn’t like it was happenstance or a disaster or something, it was a bunch of things that looked like the government and the powers that be didn’t want certain people back in New Orleans. It’s one thing if there’s no place to live. It’s another if the police can’t protect you. It’s another if there’s no good healthcare.

Then for a lot of people, the crowning blow was that a bunch of the churches said, well, we’ve got to close down your neighborhood church. The general message – including the schools. I should add that one in. But the general message is you just aren’t our top priority. In fact, you aren’t on our list. I’m afraid it’s true in too many cities in the country.

Tavis: There was great debate about the role, or lack thereof, and the nature of the role played by the former mayor of the city. Now he’s not new anymore, but Mitch Landrieu is the mayor there now. How have the politics or at least the political debate, the political winds – have they changed with a mayor now who was elected post-Katrina?

Wolff: I think the racial make-up of the city’s changed a bunch. People who said they don’t want us back tended to be African American, and that’s the population that decreased, as you well know. So Mitch has more white people, more like a majority of white people, it’s not quite yet, but to vote him in.

He’s trying to bring everybody together, I think. For me, when I said “in defiance of the government,” one of the amazing things to me about New Orleans is people aren’t looking in their mirror anymore. They’re not even looking to their councilman.

I’ll get back to the story about the local councilman and Holy Cross, but they’re doing it themselves, and it was one of the lessons of this to them, was you just can’t wait on the government.

It doesn’t matter what Ray Nagin or Mitch Landrieu or any of them say. You’ve just got to do it yourself. That’s both a good thing, I think – it’s like a pioneer spirit – and a sad thing, because we’ve got to govern ourselves. We’ve got to trust our government at some point. I don’t think people in New Orleans, a lot of them do now.

Tavis: Now would be a good place for that story about the councilman.

Wolff: So this (laughter) neighborhood that you went to, Carolyn Parker’s neighborhood, there are all these people trying – Carolyn camped in her home for six months and then lived in a FEMA trailer for three years. They’re all trying to get back.

The blight in the neighborhood is across the street. It’s this old elementary school. It stays boarded up and the roof’s falling in and everything, and while all these individuals are trying to get along, that’s just staying there.

So it turns out about a month ago that the reason it’s just staying there is that it’s owned by the councilman who’s supposed to be representing them. He has a not-for-profit. The money – he’s just been indicted – the money he got from FEMA to rebuild the building went into his campaign. So the person they elected to represent them and who is their neighbor in a sense –

Tavis: Bilked them.

Wolff: Right, exactly – is tearing down the neighborhood. Those old buildings are where people are doing drugs, and there was a woman raped nearby, somebody came out of one of those buildings. Every time you leave one, it’s a disaster. This is their councilman. I mean, you wonder they don’t trust the government too much right now.

Tavis: The documentary about her struggle that Jonathan Demme and Daniel have done, “I’m Carolyn Parker,” premieres here on POV. What would you try to get through about these storylines of these various individuals in New Orleans in the book specifically that’s different than the –

Wolff: Than the film?

Tavis: Than the film, yeah.

Wolff: The book puts it in a larger context because it’s easier for books to do that, in a way, than movies.

Tavis: Sure.

Wolff: The movie is much more intimate. You get to have dinner with Carolyn Parker in the movie.

The book, you get to see her more in the neighborhood. I think mostly what I wanted to get across were there, were these people who took a stand and in a lot of ways have won – they’ve gotten back in their neighborhood. Now there’s still trouble, and it’s going to be a long fight, but they just refused to leave.

I wanted to document this and Jonathan wanted to document the fact that wherever you are in the country, when they say they don’t want you to come back, when they say they don’t want you, it’s possible just to sit down and go, “I’m not leaving. This is my home. This is where I stand and this is where I fight.” I think that’s important to keep reminding people, that there’s that possibility.

Tavis: I’m wondering whether or not there’s anything in New Orleans that the city is doing better at than prior to the storm. I ask that because if we have the will, what the storm allows us to do on the other side of it is to start over again, or to build better, to recreate better than was there before.

Education comes to mind as one particular area, but is there any area, education or otherwise, where you can sense or see that they’re taking this opportunity a bit more seriously now with a fresh start, if you will.

Wolff: I think the environmental side, which is a key one, I think they’re actually doing a better job. I was amazed that there’s this canal called Mr. Go, Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, that helped take the flood waters into the city. It was a boondoggle and a bad idea.

They said, “We’d better close that,” and all the businesses said, “We’re going to lose jobs.” The people went ahead and voted to close this and Congress had it closed within a year. Now I think they could have done a better job and they’re still working on it, but that was a clear thing about priorities.

It said environmentally, you can’t keep losing your marshland; you can’t keep digging these canals. I think New Orleans, ahead of the country in a lot of ways, is beginning to understand that that’s got to be a top priority. It’s not like oh, and by the way, we ought to preserve the environment.

It’s we’re not going to make it without the environment. New Orleans is so extreme, right there on the edge of the river, but I think they’re really doing that. Education, I think, is more an open book. Eighty percent of the kids in New Orleans are now in charter schools. So the experiment that’s going on around the country is more extreme there.

It’s true of a lot of things. The flood gave this opportunity to start over, and I think the jury’s still out on the charter schools, frankly. I think there’s a lot of negative and some positive that goes with it.

Tavis: Daniel Wolff has written a wonderful book, and it’s called “The Fight for Home: How Parts of New Orleans Came Back.” As I mentioned earlier in this conversation, on September 20th here on PBS you will see the premiere of the Jonathan Demme, the Academy Award-winning Jonathan Demme –

Wolff: That’s the man.

Tavis: – directed documentary, along with his partner, Daniel Wolff. The piece is called “I’m Carolyn Parker,” and Ms. Parker is a character. I say that in the kindest way. She’s a wonderful character. You’ll want to see this on POV on September 20th.

For now, though, Daniel, thanks for the book. Good to have you on the program.

Wolff: Thanks for having me. It was great.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 16, 2013 at 3:41 pm