Like The Agronomist, director Jonathan Demme’s 2003 docu-profile of Haitian political activist Jean Dominique, I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful considers its subject’s story as its own self-sufficient context. Over the course of five years after the levees broke in New Orleans in 2005, Demme’s film follows the charming and irrepressibly resilient Carolyn Parker, the irate New Orleanian famous for saying she’d only leave her home in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward “over my dead body.”
In both The Agronomist and here, Demme looks at real people defined by their civic-mindedness and explores their politics biographically. Parker’s post–Hurricane Katrina life is thus defined by her children, her relationship with her church community, and her house. That impulse to foreground Parker’s story and almost only use secondary interview material to support or embellish her claims is both refreshing and maddening. In doing this, Demme reduces a sprawling event to experiential details. Granted, Demme is a humanist and a thoughtful filmmaker. His naturally lit extreme close-ups evoke a sense of intimacy that suggests that the perspective of a singular, extraordinary person like Parker contains a wealth of wisdom. But it’s also frustrating to watch Parker only talk about whatever she immediately thinks to say.
Demme’s respect for Parker and keen eye for anecdotal detail commend him. Still, because he has little journalistic instinct, Demme only presses Parker and her daughter Kyrah so much for reasons why they’ve stayed in the blighted ward or about how her time in a FEMA-donated trailer home. His sketch is most vague when he explains in voiceover that Parker’s St. David Catholic Church is being restored instead of St. Maurice. The latter church hosted the former’s congregants immediately after Katrina. But though Parker is apparently grateful to be able to keep Sunday services part of her weekly routine, she also says that she will always remember St. Maurice as a church that did not make her feel welcome because she’s black. So when Demme shows Parker triumphantly returning to St. David, one can’t help but wonder why saving one church over another should be treated by the director as a relatively unqualified sign of progress.
Demme makes a point of concluding I’m Carolyn Parker with a scene of Parker and her son talking about how easy it is to choose to move on. Parker argues that accepting change is in fact easier said than done, a trite but true sentiment that Demme’s film makes all the more apparent.