Saturday, October 20, 2012

Home Makers: The Lower Ninth Ward, Daniel Wolff's The Fight for Home and Jonathan Demme's I'm Carolyn Parker

             When I think of Daniel Wolff’s new book, The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back, one moment stands out. Ninth Ward resident Carolyn Parker is struggling to get in a car after knee surgery.  The moment’s written so concisely, I can’t paraphrase it—

Carolyn, grinning, starts the slow process of getting into the car.  “This is a big butt,” she announces.  “It’s not that easy.”  And when she’s finally made it: “See! That’s how it is.  I’m like a puzzle” (229).

                With that “puzzle” line, she’s said something that goes to the core of why this book’s companion piece, the Jonathan Demme documentary I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, The Mad and the Beautiful, is all about her. Ms. Parker isn’t particularly odd or mysterious at all, but she is a wonderful mix of contradictions. 

At the opening of Demme’s movie, neighbors talk about Ms. Parker calling the police on them, laughing as they talk, showing their love for her. When she confronts the New Orleans mayor and Chamber of Commerce over the fate of the Lower Ninth Ward, she commands the room. Though she spends five long years struggling to truly get moved back into her home (fighting her aging body, opportunistic workmen, thieves and the entire city in the process), she most often does all of these things with a sparkle in her eye and an ornery sense of humor.  She gooses her brother and flirts with the mailman.  She’s the best kind of puzzle, and it’s a gift the way both Wolff and Demme help us to get to know her.

                Both the filmmaker and the author of these life-after-Katrina documents try to stay out of the way of the story.  They do very little narration.  Demme provides brief transitional reports between visits to the Ninth Ward--to sum up new living conditions, offer appropriate context, and deliver essential narrative not caught on film.  Rather than ignore the elephant camera in the living room, Demme asks questions when he has to (not often) from behind the camera, and even winds up in front of it enjoying one of Carolyn Parker’s famous dinners.  In this way, he allows the Parkers and others to interact, as naturally as possible, with the process.  At one point, Ms. Parker warns a cameraman walking backward, “Watch your step!”

Wolff manages to avoid first person from beginning to end, allowing the Ninth Ward residents to simply explain things directly to the reader, turning the reader into a visitor who only implicitly asks questions and watches and listens very carefully.  Wolff, more than Demme, provides journalistic context regarding relevant national and local governmental decisions, celebrity efforts to lend a hand to the Ninth Ward and parallels to the nationwide mortgage crisis. Demme’s movie engages us in the life of a family struggling to rebuild a home; Wolff’s book makes us ask fundamental questions regarding community and how our fight for home parallels that in the Lower Ninth Ward.

To help us make those connections, The Fight for Home shows a cross-section of America fighting side by side. Ex nightclub owner Pastor Mel leads a group of ex-cons and addicts in the work. With a strong faith in God as his guiding light, he wrestles with contradictory feelings about Katrina—he wants to see a blessing in disguise and keeps running up against deeper injustices. The book also follows various residents and volunteers touched by Common Ground, an organization formed by a former Black Panther and largely fueled by the energy of college age volunteers.  Though the organization is beset by factionalism and outright betrayal, it’s also responsible for some of the book’s most memorable stories, including the warm relationship that forms between Suncere, one of Common Ground’s older black activists, and Mike, a white resident whose racial fears whither as a vanished society gets replaced by a new kind of community.

Another character in the book who becomes a star of the movie is Carolyn Parker’s daughter, Kyrah, a young woman whose first semester at Syracuse University comes to an abrupt end when the levees break.  On film, this former homecoming queen shines as both her mother’s equally high-spirited daughter and as bit of a foil for Carolyn.  Sometimes in the background as her mother speaks, sometimes in split screen next to her, Kyrah grins and laughs in both (a relatable every-child) embarrassment and genuine good humor as Carolyn jokes and flirts and revels in her dreams. At times, particularly when she’s interviewed alone, the losses Kyrah’s suffered (including the death of her beloved father) resonate in moments of reflection, showing a mature determination to use her life to right social wrongs—that, too, a quality very much like her mother.

As colorful in word and action as Carolyn Parker’s purple, teal and yellow home, both book and movie reveal a rich spectrum of humanity shining through the harshest adversity.  Author Wolff and director Demme quilt a tapestry that tells a story both terrible and beautiful. Together, they search for what it is that keeps the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward fighting for their homes.  What they find, taken together, adds up to a rich vision of what community could and should mean. The Fight for Home leads every reader to reconsider the very meaning of home in his or her own life, while I’m Carolyn Parker raises the bar on both the concept of the good neighbor and the American hero.

Thanks to my MWF ENGL 121 students for your enthusiasm and insight!