Biopics tend to celebrate the famous. We like the familiar and directors like to explore the range of an artist or historical figure’s influence and the arc of their extraordinary accomplishments. Non-famous people, however, tend to have their accomplishments relegated to a five-minute segment on the evening news, usually stuffed in between the latest local murder and the five-day weather forecast. Jonathan Demme’s new documentary I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful celebrates a woman who isn’t famous but whose personality and accomplishment are worth more than five minutes of your time.
Only a few months after Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans and particularly the poor, crime-ridden neighborhood of the Old Ninth Ward, Carolyn Parker was one of the first residents to return home. Her house still stood after the flooding, and Carolyn was determined to restore her home and her church. Demme met Carolyn before she made headlines when she told off Mayor Ray Nagin and the city’s restoration community after they failed to mention the Old Ninth Ward. Carolyn’s reputation as worthwhile documentary subject preceded her, and Demme continued to check in with Parker from June 2006 through December 2010. Over the course of the film, we see not only her struggle to rebuild her home, but hear stories about her life.
Carolyn is a no-nonsense, fearless woman who feels pride living in the Old Ninth despite its poor reputation. She has raised three successful children although one lives in Texas and can’t be bothered to visit. Her daughter Kyrah Julian is as impressive as her mother. After Katrina, she gave up her full scholarship to Syracuse University and came home to support her mother. Story-wise, the two women complement each other with Kyrah speaking about the tougher parts of their life like her father’s death, and Carolyn regaling us with stories about her time as a cook, her experiences with segregation, her family history, and her near-death experience after she underwent knee-replacement surgery. Speaking directly to Demme, both are warm and personable, but Parker’s public speaking is marvelous. She draws the attention of every single person in a room, she never uses filler words, and her oratory is superb. Whenever she speaks, Demme sets the camera down and lets it roll and you understand why she commands the respect of everyone she meets.
There’s no quit in Carolyn and we never pity her as the efforts to rebuild her home slowly churn forward. We know that this is a woman who will have things her way and she never comes off as selfish since she also spends time making sure her church, St. David, which was also damaged but not destroyed in the Hurricane continues to stand, isn’t shut down and its parishioners forced to move to another house of worship. The film would be diminished if it looked like she was ignoring the devastation outside her home and it’s a smart move by Demme to include the subplot about her church.
I’m Carolyn Parker is a bit of a hagiography and it’s meant to be. We don’t need to see the dark side of a retired single mother who lives in the Old Ninth Ward. It’s not a complex character study and it’s not designed as a means to tell the larger story of the bureaucratic headaches of rebuilding New Orleans. The movie is about admirable women and a reminder of strength and wisdom coming from those outside of the public sphere. Next time I think about complaining about my cable being out for an afternoon, I’ll remember Carolyn Parker, whose house was out for a few years.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my TIFF 2011 reviews so far: