[This film, directed by Jonathan Demme, aired on PBS Wednesday evening. Daniel Wolff, essayist and poet, whose work How Lincoln Learned to Read has been featured on this blog, helped produce this film. — Lew Rosenbaum]
Tavis Smiley’s ‘Been in the Storm Too Long’ focuses on life after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans
Wednesday, July 21st 2010, 4:00 AM
“Been in the Storm Too Long,” Wednesday night at 8 on PBS
Tavis Smiley does everything short of playing the theme from “Rocky” in “Been in the Storm Too Long,” this pugnacious and inspiring look at the people of New Orleans five years after Hurricane Katrina almost washed their city off the map.
Smiley portrays its residents as perpetual underdogs who compensate for a lack of resources with pure spirit.
He had finished most of this special when the BP oil well blew, piling more trauma onto the Gulf region, and he addresses the spill briefly in an early segment. The heart of the special, however, lies with the people who have refused to let Katrina chase them away.
Speaking mostly to black residents and musicians like Branford Marsalis, Smiley comes across as an unapologetic advocate and cheerleader, pulling for New Orleans to resurrect itself despite debilitating indifference from the government and insurance companies.
He cites the battle of Lower Ninth Ward residents to get their schools restored, recognizing that if returning families can expect no decent education system, rebuilt housing has far less value.
To compound the problem, New Orleans schools didn’t function that well before Katrina. So Smiley focuses on a charter school, emphasizing how hard school officials pushed to get a decent building and operating cash.
He notes that some government officials seemed to discourage rebuilding in the Lower Ninth Ward, suggesting the land be turned into parks or sold to developers.
Community resistance short-circuited those plans.
Meanwhile, in the more affluent Ponchartrain Park neighborhood, Smiley’s subjects point more to insurance companies as the obstacle to repopulation. Many residents there say they were not paid enough to rebuild and come back.
Not surprisingly, Smiley both endorses their struggle and plants himself in the middle of many segments. Yes, that’s Tavis frying up crawfish and wiggling into a massive Mardi Gras costume.
He does something riskier but effective when he ties the post-Katrina struggle to the turmoil created in 1960 when New Orleans had to integrate its schools.
A single black child, 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, was escorted into the Frantz school by U.S. marshals. All the white parents withdrew their children, leaving Ruby alone with just her teacher, Mrs. Henry, for the entire school year.
That’s not the most flattering historical side of New Orleans. Nor is the fact that many of those parents demonstrated outside the school throughout the year, holding props like a small casket with a black doll inside.
Smiley talks with Bridges, still a New Orleans resident, and she suggests things in general are better today though far from ideal.
She says that in retrospect, her mission was to raise hope and possibility, and Smiley’s special underscores the point effectively: Those remain the test and the trial for New Orleans today.
[Here is a link to Daniel Wolff’s guest blog on the Tavis Smiley Reports site; “Why I’m Dedicated to New Orleans.”]