CNN will air Soledad O'Brien's documentary New Orleans Rising at 7 p.m. Aug. 21. O'Brien is in New Orleans to attend a preview screening at 6:30 p.m. tonight at SUNO (in the gymnasium at 6400 Press Drive). It chronicles efforts to rebuild Pontchartrain Park, and it focuses on actor Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme), who assumed leadership of the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corporation (PPCDC).
O'Brien and CNN deserve credit for continuing to report on the rebuilding of New Orleans. But this show has both its merits and its awkward moments. Some comparisons with the BP disaster seem forced perhaps motivated by an attempt to make the show seem more timely. But more odd is the treatment of race as an underlying issue. After questioning why neighborhood residents were left to their own devices to recover (could it be racism?), O'Brien gets an interview with former mayor Ray Nagin and asks him about the race issue, but she doesn't ask him about his administration's position or efforts regarding Pontchartrain Park. It seems like a grand omission.
New Orleans Rising is full of moving interviews with longtime Pontchartrain Park residents about their struggles to rebuild. It also highlights the neighborhood's history as a middle class African-American community that was founded during segregation in the 1950s. Some of the more high-profile residents mentioned in the film include businessman and former mayoral candidate Troy Henry and trumpeter Terence Blanchard (who created the music for the show). The Lakefront community was devastated by the flood, and though it had extremely high rates of homeownership, it has been one of the slower neighborhoods to recover. The PPCDC played a critical role in getting recovery moving, according to the documentary.
The rough cut of the documentary provided to Gambit is, unfortunately, light on facts and context. It says that Pontchartrain Park was the hardest hit neighborhood after the Ninth Ward. But it offers little info on the state of recovery, such as how many properties the PPCDC was able to secure from the city and how many residents have been able to return and rebuild. It would be useful to get some sense of how far the neighborhood has come and how far it as to go as the storm's fifth anniversary approaches.
O'Brien invites speculation on the role race may have played in the rebuilding of the community. California Rep. Maxine Waters weighs in on the subject. O'Brien asks Nagin what role race played in rebuilding the city but makes no mention of his comments on race in his 2006 re-election campaign. She also passes on the issue of whether he had some power to determine the course of rebuilding. In the interview, O'Brien asks what the city has learned about coping with disasters. (O'Brien groups them together as "natural disasters.") Nagin says nothing has been learned and responds to a comparison with the BP oil disaster. He says the core question with the two disasters is the same: "Who's in control? Who has the ultimate authority to get things done?" He apparently still does not know.
Another odd figure in the documentary is BP spokesman Darryl Willis. He's the "orange polo shirt" wearing spokesman for BP, featured in television and in print advertising. He grew up in Pontchartrain Park, and cameras capture the final bulldozing of his former home (He's spent much of the past decade living and working in Houston). He volunteered to help expedite payment of claims by BP. But given both the documentary's quick and simplistic comparisons with the levee failures and the ongoing and unresolved nature of BP's liability for damages, Willis is in an ambiguous position at best. Clearly he's distraught by the loss of his childhood home. But it's confusing to get into the issue of whether he is helping the people of south Louisiana vis-a-vis BP, or whether BP is using a local face to blunt outrage instead of letting someone like the gaffe-prone former CEO Tony Hayward be the face of the company's response.
Many of the personal stories are gripping. Insurance settlements and Road Home grants don't add up to sufficient rebuilding costs, but they surely can't replace the value of growing up in a good community. One elderly couple gutted their own home. Anther couple struggles with the decision to return to Pontchartrain Park or move on and settle elsewhere. It's hard to calculate the toll that takes on a family as the decision stretches to five years after the storm. For that reason alone, it's good that New Orleans Rising will remind the nation that New Orleans is still rebuilding from Katrina, even as the BP disaster creates new problems and distractions.