She With It
Editor’s note: I’m Carolyn Parker opens this week at New York’s IFC Center, with director Jonathan Demme in person 12 and 13 September, plus live music by the band Ommie Wise!, then premieres on PBS’s POV series on Thursday, 20 September, and streaming until 13 December.
“To me, fiction can’t compete with what the New Orleanians have been through. You can’t, you know, make up a story that can really equal, I think, in human terms and emotional terms the courage, tenacity, humor of the people we were privileged to visit.”
“That’s a hell of a woman, right there, because she believe in, you know, right is right and wrong is wrong.” Dennis Lee Addison, a fisherman in New Orleans, gestures broadly as he speaks, his voice gravelly. “I come up, you know, under that lady.” The camera cuts to a house, pale green, surrounded by a small lawn and a metal fence, the sky behind it pale grey-blue. “She was the neighborhood watch program, anything for to help the community, and for us to keep down violence, she with it.”
So begins I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad and the Beautiful, a remarkable portrait of a remarkable woman. For the moment, Carolyn Parker herself remains off-screen, but that shot of her house tells you even more than the testimonials by Addison or Antoinette K-Doe (legendary proprietor of New Orleans’ Mother-In-Law Lounge) or Carolyn’s daughter Kyrah Julian. The house, still marked with post-Katrina spray-paint, still standing, tells a story of devastation and resilience, of trouble and pride. “I walked over to the house on the corner,” narrates Jonathan Demme, “The big green double shotgun, and Mrs. Carolyn Parker emerged.” She watches the camera come near and asks, “Would you like to come in?”
Inside, Carolyn leads the crew on a tour. She gestures at her brother Raymond, perched on a sofa, a plate on his lap. “He’s eating my famous fried fish,” she explains. The camera follows her into the dark, and she turns back to smile at the camera: “I’m gonna pretend I’m turning on the light,” she says, “Click!” The date on the videotape reads “JUN 06,” almost a year after Katrina, and still, the house lacks electricity, not to mention plumping and a couple of walls. She feels lucky. The floodwaters destroyed the house next door, as well as her mother’s house and much of her church, St. David’s. Carolyn had left by that time (only when “my niece jerked me by the arm,” she smiles), but on her roof, with her dog, they found “my neighbor next door, whose wife had drowned, who they thought was me.”
Carolyn’s survival this time is of a piece with her life story. As Kyrah recalls, she and her mother have had a time of it, her father murdered when she was 12, the family impoverished (she remembers a time when she and her mother had nothing to eat, only a single Hershey’s kiss to split between them), her older brothers grown and moved off, to college and Texas. But Kyrah and Carolyn don’t focus much on the crises they’ve withstood, and neither does the film. Rather, and much like Demme’s The Agronomist, it makes plain their extraordinary energies and generous spirits, their devotion to one another and to their community.
The film makes all this plain gradually. Filmed over five years, I’m Carolyn Parker is one of several pieces Demme and his crew made in the Lower Ninth Ward, some as part of PBS’ Right to Return series, and some, like I’m Carolyn Parker, expanding to feature length. It’s a whole other tragedy that such post-Katrina stories might stretch on for so long, unresolved and seemingly unending, but as Demme and his team return to visit with Carolyn, each time they find something new, even if it’s only a turkey cooking in a pot, the FEMA trailer finally available for her to inhabit, the Saints on TV, or… Carolyn’s increasingly visible activism.
“Don’t judge me for what I’m about to say,” she says, standing on her porch and recalling when she was moved to Alexandria Virginia just after the storm. She came up with Civil Rights, the NAACP, and the National Urban League, Carolyn explains, and so, “I did not appreciate sleeping next to a cotton field.” She shakes her head, “I’m sorry, there’s just something about cotton fields.” She wanted to be able to go home, to return to her church.
And so she went to a meeting at the Sheraton, she says, as the film cuts to footage of that meeting, and Carolyn Parker standing at the microphone in a room filled with reporters listening to a panel of white men in suits and Mayor Ray Nagin present their plans to “Bring New Orleans Back” in January 2006. “I came to this meeting to find out your vision for the Lower Ninth Ward,” Carolyn tells the men, “And I’m not surprised that your vision is not too clear.” The camera cuts to the men at the table, their gazes averted. “I’m here for those persons who cannot get back,” she says, “I don’t think it’s fair.” The audience in the room applauds.
The movie reveals that Carolyn’s sense of community, and her tendency to speak up, are functions of her background. When she was a child, she remembers, she was sometimes mistaken for white as she traveled with her grandmother, who worked in white neighborhoods. Her “encounters” with segregation helped to shape her, she says, whether it was because of her skin color or her language (her father, come to find out, was Mexican, and she grew up speaking Spanish). As Demme asks the occasional question from off-screen, you come to see that Carolyn has weathered devastations other than Katrina, and still, she prevails.
At least part of what’s sustained her is her house, since she and her husband bought it in 1970. “I’ll never forget it,” she says, “It was white.” It was old too. When her husband asked, “‘Why, of all the houses, why you want this house?,’ I said, ‘Because it wants me.’” For Carolyn, as for so many of her neighbors, this sense of belonging, this sense of home, matters. It matters more than government and corporate plans to “develop” the Lower Ninth Ward, or to encourage inhabitants to leave, or just not return.
The film—mostly intimate, mostly low-key, mostly observational and celebratory—also shows bits of public resistance, in Carolyn’s determination to rebuild her home and to reopen St. David’s, in the work of volunteer construction workers, helping and sometimes just taking over for contractors who stole money or otherwise exploited their would-have-been clients. Even as Demme’s film project takes up its own sort of advocacy, its greatest effect is summed up in its title. For Carolyn Parker, New Orleans, her family, and her neighborhood are all about that green house. “You have a home or a place to stay, it’s you,” she says.