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!”