The ravaging of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, and the subsequent mishandling of relief efforts by scores of organizations, has had a necessarily stultifying effect on the narratives to emerge from the catastrophe. There are heroes and miracles aplenty amid the winds and floods, but the tale of Katrina can only be accurately told as a tragedy worsened by scandal and error. Attempting to subvert this obligatory formula, if ever so slightly, Jonathan Demme's ramshackle and often joyous documentary I'm Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful examines how a cluster of residents in the Crescent City's Ninth Ward (one of its poorest and least represented) survived the storm with little outside assistance. All the lugubrious hallmarks of Katrina literature are here (houses and lives are swept away in the rising waters, and FEMA's reconstructive efforts are first applied to the more fortunate), but Demme dims their dourness with his cheerfully pugnacious primary subject, the sexagenarian Carolyn Parker.
We first meet the inimitable Parker, who's resided in New Orleans since birth, on the dilapidated porch of her family home. (Though warped and partially gutted by the hurricane's strength, the double shotgun house was spared from complete annihilation.) Simply clothed and wearing curlers underneath a puffed bandana, she warmly invites Demme into her awkwardly makeshift abode, introduces her offspring, and describes with a kind of religious zeal her plans to rebuild not only her house, but the equally decimated Catholic church nearby that she's attended for years. Her lucid, if discursive, speech is highly dramatic (sternness can give way to rhythmic laughter spontaneously) and instantly likeable; like those of Louis Armstrong, her earthy, curvy features beam even when expressing lividity toward segregation and political corruption. Sensing the importance of both her story and her way of telling it, Demme returns to Parker's home every few months, shooting a grainy, standard-def diary of her post-hurricane life. And slowly, she begins to ladle out her biography—from her involvement in the civil rights movement, to her initially biracial appearance, to how she was practically dragged kicking and screaming from the Ninth Ward as Katrina's severity increased.
What we glean of Parker's life in these moments is as piquant as it is complex, which makes the careful distance Demme maintains as both interviewer and friend to his subject occasionally irksome. It's hard to believe that a character as bullheaded as Parker would never once graze controversy with her testimony, but Demme's softly guiding questions evade intuited landmines; he doesn't push her, for instance, to explore how her ability to "pass for white" as a youth might have affected her confidence. And while the footage of Parker chosen for the film appears affably raw (her most intimate revelations, such as those of her penurious childhood and self-education, are treated like jazzy digressions), the edits clearly favor her archetypal qualities. After she's threatened to "kick the butts" of any scam carpenters in town and served Demme's crew a full meal of chicken, greens, and sweet potatoes, she becomes less a lively, piquant woman than a mélange of Southern motifs.
What keeps the documentary from lapsing entirely into a generic human-interest story superficially peppered with local color is, oddly enough, the slowness with which Parker's goals are achieved. Her interpersonal prowess and adamantine determination are no match for FEMA's organizational issues, and after a certain point her singularity brushes up bitterly against a commonplace lack of resources; Demme, meanwhile, date-stamps every swatch of video, ensuring that we feel the humiliating length of time in which Parker lived out of an unsafe house. While she waits, she does all she can, and her activities in this nervous downtime form the documentary's backbone. She dreams; she receives two knee replacements and then recovers with astonishing speed despite refusing physical therapy; and she instills a sense of honor and public duty upon her children, whose professional velleities she nurtures into aspirations. The small network of love that Demme outlines with Parker at its center appears nearly strengthened by the rampant homelessness and rows of temporary FEMA trailers that crowd the still-suffering Ninth Ward. We know that thousands of others are not as lucky or as optimistic as Parker, but celebrating her resilience is one way of making it contagious.