SXSW Review: Getting Back to Abnormal

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Getting Back to Abnormal

In New Orleans, we have some of the blackest white people and some of the whitest black people you're ever going to meet.
-- Ninth Ward resident Henry Irvin, Getting Back to Abnormal

Whether narrative or documentary, films about New Orleans often present the city as a collection of Big Easy clichés, as if life in the city revolves around po-boys, Bourbon Street, second-line parades and political corruption.* Fortunately, the superb documentary Getting Back to Abnormal looks beyond the clichés and far deeper into New Orleans culture. Focusing on a New Orleans City Council race but encompassing a much broader look at politics, race and culture in the city, the movie is a fascinating study of how New Orleans has changed after Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing floods.

The film's central story is the heated 2010 city council race between Councilmember Stacy Head, a self-proclaimed corruption fighter known for her abrasive, politically incorrect style, and Corey Watson, a minister and civic leader. Head is the first white official to represent the majority black District B in more than 30 years. Watson is black, and his challenge to Head raises the issue of how racial politics will factor into the race, given that New Orleans' black population decreased drastically after Katrina.

The City Council race also introduces us to Getting Back to Abnormal's most captivating character: Barbara Lacen-Keller, Head's extraverted and outspoken staff member. A longtime activist and enthusiastic campaigner for her boss, Lacen-Keller makes the brazen Head seem shy by comparison.

Interwoven with the campaign story is the plight of housing-rights activist Stephanie Mingo and her fellow public housing residents, who were displaced during Katrina from the St. Bernard public housing project, which was later demolished. Mingo was offered an apartment in Columbia Parc, a new mixed-income development built on the St. Bernard site. But she refused, objecting to the small number of residences offered to low-income residents, along with the new development's strict rules.

Getting Back to Abnormal also touches on Brad Pitt's Make It Right foundation, which is building green homes, all designed by well known architects, in the devastated and largely empty Ninth Ward. There is also a poignant segment about the 50-year reunion of three women who as young girls integrated the New Orleans Public schools, and the federal marshals who kept them from harm.

Providing unabashed commentary on these issues is a parade of quintessentially New Orleans notables, from black radio shock jock Paul Beaulieu to attorney Buddy Lemann, who sums up the city's culture as "reality is cruel and we in New Orleans prefer to have a few drinks and go get naked in the streets."

Produced and directed by veteran documentarians Louis Alvarez, Andy Kolker, Peter Odabashian and Austinite Paul Stekler, Getting Back to Abnormal is essentially about racial politics, but it doesn't ignore the culture (and yes, some of the clichés) that makes New Orleans one of the few truly unique places In America. It expertly blends an analytical approach to the city's politics with a celebratory approach to its culture, making it clear that the two are forever intertwined and inseparable.

The film also effectively refutes the common myth of New Orleans' "racial gumbo," instead showing us a city of racial tribes. Perhaps not warring tribes, but tribes pursuing and protecting their own interests; far less racial harmony and goodwill exists than the city's tourism industry would have us believe. Interviews with frustrated public housing residents are particularly stark reminders of the racial divide, as are the hostile "No Racism -- No Head" posters plastered all over Stacy Head's district.

While not as intriguing as her loyal staffer Lacen-Keller (few people are), Head is nonetheless a powerful symbol of the changing political climate in New Orleans, especially when she argues that her race matters less than her desire to help her constituents. (According to the film, whether she's helpful is debatable.) To its credit, Getting Back to Abnormal presents the controversial councilmember as seemingly sincere if politically inept and lacking in charm, and it takes an admirably balanced approach toward a politician who is easily mocked. (Let's not deny the comparisons with, ahem, Sarah Palin. There is a physical resemblance, but what really matters is that Palin and Head both speak before thinking and rely on brashness to compensate for a poor grasp of political issues.**)

A journalistically solid, brilliantly crafted and affectionate portrait of New Orleans, Getting Back to Abnormal has much to say about the politics of race. It's a tense film about a tense subject. But like the best political documentaries -- Stekler and his longtime colleagues are masters of this genre -- the film is refreshingly nonpartisan, challenging assumptions about the city while being careful not to draw neat and tidy conclusions. This is entirely appropriate, for there is nothing neat and tidy about New Orleans or its politics.

Austin/Texas connections: Paul Steckler is an Austin filmmaker and chair of The University of Texas Radio-Television-Film Department. Lawyer Tracie Washington, interviewed in the film, is a former resident of Austin (where she was an attorney for Cap Metro).

*Note from editor and New Orleans-area native Jette: Well, except for Bourbon Street, it kind of does.

**Jette busting in again to note that Head's politics are far more left-wing than Palin's, although you can't really tell that from the doc.

Getting Back to Abnormal screens again at SXSW on Wednesday, March 13 at 9:30 pm at the Rollins Theatre.

Getting Back to Abnormal

This clearly was one of my favorite films at SXSW. A well made documentary by seasoned and intelligent documentarians.