‘Getting Back to Abnormal’ Is How Things Are Done in New Orleans

Masquerade is a means of survival in post-Hurricane Katrine New Orleans.

“Like Yoda said, ‘You will be. You will be.’”

— John Slade, WBOK Radio Host

“It’s not the most transparent city in the world.” Seated in his New Orleans law office, his bowtie patterned and his suit very-wide-lapelled, Buddy Lemann offers an assessment that’s hard to dispute. “The truth of the matter is, we like the masquerade. We like the drama of Mardi Gras and, um, the fact that reality is cruel and that maybe the best way to deal with reality is to go into the French Quarter, have a few drinks, have a good meal, and dance, and get naked in the streets.”

Just so, the first few minutes of Getting Back to Abnormal offers a series of easy to find examples, from folks smiling in diners and dancing in streets to parades and political campaigns. Masquerade is a means of survival, of self-expression and self-performance. As renowned as it is for its music, food, and street theatrics, New Orleans — and Louisiana more broadly — is just as famous for its political corruptions, and “masquerade” might be as good a descriptor as any when it comes to the many ways that officials go about heir business. As much as the recent verdict in Ray Nagin’s case might suggest an end to an era, it might just as well be looking forward to the persistence of old habits.

This story is old, proposes Getting Back to Abnormal, which premieres on PBS on 14 July, but it’s also not so simple as it might appear. As is the case pretty much everywhere else in the US, politicians and corporations continue to exploit citizens’ fears and misapprehensions; the exploitation in New Orleans finds a familiar focus through race and class anxieties. In this “chocolate city”, such anxieties seem ever-present, for all sorts of populations. This film — put together by Louis Alvarez, Andy Kolker, Peter Odabashian, and Paul Stekler — offers up many perspective as they’re arranged around the 2010 election, when, after 22 consecutive years of black mayors, the city voted in Mitch Landrieu.

Landrieu shows up briefly here (“I know everybody wants to make this election about race,” he offers over his shoulder, as the camera follows him canvassing door to door, “But it really is about common ground”), but as a supporting player in the story of Stacy Head. Elected to the City Council in the first post-Katrina election in 2006, then the first white person to represent District B in 31 years. Her pursuit of “government inefficiency”, in particular, in the Sanitation Department, was controversial to the point of spurring a recall drive in 2008. Getting Back to Abnormal indicates a range of reactions to her efforts, and in particular to her manner (“She has had some bad press and she probably deserved some of it,” says one woman on the street, “She has a very caustic personality — most anybody will tell you that — and I think that’s gotten her into a lot of trouble. But, when push comes to shove, I think she has done the right thing”).

The film uses Head’s campaign in 2010 as a way to look at race politics in the city (since its completion, she was elected to an at-large seat on the council in 2012). Her case may be at once exceptional and representative. Some residents resent her affect and her apparent misunderstanding of how “things are done” in New Orleans. “I think Stacy Head is the point guard for the shadow government,” says radio host Paul Beaulieu, “I look at the rest of the Council. They got conservatives and they’ve got absolute disrespectful white folks.”

If Head doesn’t see herself as disrespectful, she does recognize that she can be annoying, and more importantly, that her gruff manner can be perceived as misunderstanding the history into which she’s stepping. “It is hard to remember in everything you do and in everything you say that, oh someone’s gonna take this differently,” she says during a quieter moment, “Because they have a totally different perspective because they were made to ride in the back of the bus or they couldn’t drink from the same fountain.” It sounds right, what she’s saying, but still, you can see, in her subtle impatience, how she can be annoying, even offensive.

The documentary does a terrific job of traversing this line, again and again, in showing how Head signifies differently for different people. Barbara Lacen-Keller, an enormously effective campaigner, acknowledges what Head gets wrong (“If she just be a little more calmer and think before she speaks, that’s all I ask”) and also why her 60% black constituents might resent her (“How dare you come bring your white ass in here and tell us what to do? … You don’t want black people making no money. You keep your foot on their neck”). And still, Lacen-Keller is committed to getting Head elected.

Asked to describe the “strategy”, she and Head share a sensibility. “Present a soft, likeable image and, then,” says Head, “We’re thinking about buying up large chunks of time where we have, you know, spirituals sung about how wonderful Stacy is.” Head chimes in, “Ain’t that right.” And Head finishes, as if she needs to explain, “I’m joking about it, of course.”

Head’s self-awareness probably helps get her elected, but Lacen-Keller definitely does. Repeatedly, you see her on the street, pointing the camera behind her (“I’m having a documentary done about me!”), knocking on voters’ doors, cajoling Saints fans, hugging standing with protestors at Columbia Parc (where contractors are moving poor black residents out, to make room for newly contracted builders).

Everywhere, Lacen-Keller insists that her neighbors vote. She’s tireless, buoyant, propulsive, filling every frame she’s in. As much as Getting Back to Abnormal might be about New Orleans’ recovering from the storm, moving past Ray Nagin, or even — in District B — coming to terms with Stacy Head, it is more compellingly about how politics can work at a very particular street level. Lacen-Keller embraces the masquerade, and so makes it feel real enough.

RATING 8 / 10