Election Day, March 1986, and we’re filming on a cold, late afternoon in the bleak and mostly deserted Desire housing projects of New Orleans. Mayoral hopeful Bill Jefferson is looking for hands to shake, and I ask my cameraman to follow close behind him, make him look like Moses parting the waters of the few curious spectators. Around a corner, some teenagers are playing basketball on a pitted rectangle of blacktop. Jefferson takes a shot, an awkward air ball, then removes his sports jacket and swooshes the next one through a net that’s torn and hanging by a couple of threads. “What a shot,” someone yells. Then he walks off into the distance, and we leave to film other places before the light fades and the polls close.
Driving out of the projects, we see an old man walking down the street, pulling up campaign signs and stakes, one by one. He wants the wood. We pull ahead of him, quickly get the camera on a tripod, just in time to frame him. Picking up one sign. Then another. Then a third. Then moving out of frame. Suddenly, off camera, he pulls a sign off its stake, one of Jefferson’s, and tosses it into the air behind him so that it, and Jeff’s image, falls softly back into the picture.
It was the kind of magic moment that you wish for in filming documentaries. It also reminds me of my own excitement back then as a transplant in New Orleans, a place whose history, music, culture—whose everything—seemed begging to be recorded, in my young filmmaker’s eyes.
Back then, our small documentary community revolved around the New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC), the Contemporary Arts Center’s screening program, and the work generated by feature film productions like Pretty Baby, Down by Law, and Cat People. Glen Pitre had just finished the early Sundance favorite Belizaire the Cajun, and photographer Michael P. Smith was introducing filmmakers to the local culture of second lines and Mardi Gras Indians that would later appear in his amazing book, Spirit World. And I was making the transition from teaching politics at Tulane University to working in film, having just met two young, established New Orleans filmmakers, Louis Alvarez and Andy Kolker, who had finished their first feature, The Ends of the Earth (1982), about Plaquemines Parish political boss Leander Perez.
Three decades later, long after we had left the city, Andy, Louis, and I (along with our fellow producer, Peter Odabashian) came back to the city we had started in and never forgotten, making a new film, Getting Back to Abnormal, about race and politics and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. As its national PBS broadcast draws near (July 14 on the network’s POV series), I started to look back at the treasure trove of past New Orleans documentaries that includes our work among many others.
THE EARLY DOCUMENTARIES, 1978 – 1986
New Orleans is no stranger to being depicted on film. Images of Mardi Gras, jazz musicians, and parades are familiar to most Americans. The city has also functioned as a palette for many a screenwriter’s fantasy. And while Marlon Brando may have bellowed for Stella on a Hollywood set for the movie version of A Streetcar Named Desire, some films used actual locations in New Orleans. That’s really Elvis on a French Quarter balcony in King Creole, singing to a passing street vendor. From Panic in the Streets to the Mardi Gras acid-trip scene in Easy Rider to Cat People, Down by Law, and David Simon’s HBO series Treme, New Orleans frequently appears on screen.
While some New Orleans documentary work predates the 1970s—most prominently The Children Were Watching (1961), about school desegregation, made by American documentary pioneer Robert Drew—the start of an indigenous documentary community stems from the 1971 founding of NOVAC, an activist video organization that started out making videos like How to Get a Grievance Hearing, Must You Pay the Rent, and Police Brutality—Part 1 (they never did make Part 2). In the mid-1970s, NOVAC’s young videomakers, Alvarez and Kolker, along with Stevenson Palfi, Burwell Ware, and Eddie Kurtz, began making work about broader cultural subjects. This Cat Can Play Anything (1977), a gem made by Kolker, Kurtz, and Palfi, starred Preservation Hall banjo jazzman Manny Sayles. Ware’s short Cheap and Greasy (1977) featured the now-closed Hummingbird Grill on St. Charles Avenue. And then there’s Alvarez and Kolker’s Being Poor in New Orleans local TV series, particularly “The Clarks” (1979), a portrait of a family living in the since-demolished St. Thomas housing project.
New Orleans is no stranger to being depicted on film. Images of Mardi Gras, jazz musicians, and parades are familiar to most Americans. It has also been a palette for many a screenwriter’s fantasy.
The first feature-length documentaries in New Orleans focused on iconic elements of the city: music, festivals, and the distinctive cultures of Uptown elites as well as the working class, both black and white. The best of these films remain among the more memorable three decades later.
Palfi’s Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together (1982) brought three generations of New Orleans pianists—Isidore “Tuts” Washington, Henry “Professor Longhair” Byrd, and Allen Toussaint—together to play. It’s a remarkable preservation piece, the virtuosos on three pianos practicing for a public performance. But Professor Longhair died of a heart attack before the performance could take place, and Palfi instead captured his funeral, brass bands playing in the street and Toussaint singing inside, over the casket. The film concludes back at the practice, the three pianists playing a joyful blues, each taking solos and looking delighted.
Yes Ma’am (1982) was made by Gary Goldman, who had moved back to his hometown to work on Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby. He proceeded to burn every bridge he could, peeling back the covers of the lives of black domestics and their white employers, especially the unconsciously honest children of privilege. One particularly memorable story was of a little girl, told she couldn’t sleep downstairs with her maid, covering herself in mud and running into her house screaming, “I’m black, I’m black.” The film is like Driving Miss Daisy and The Help meeting the Uptown New Orleans society stories of Ellen Gilchrist. Pulling no punches, it aired on PBS nationally but never screened in New Orleans until 2011.
The late Les Blank’s seminal Always for Pleasure (1978) remains the touchstone for filming music and people dancing in the streets of New Orleans. Blank, already a well-known documentarian of American roots music, was on his way to make a film in Colombia, when he stopped in New Orleans for a folklore conference. He met Michael Smith, who invited him to a second-line parade. Blank was transfixed and decided to stay. What he produced is a feast of festivals and second lines, a hall-of-fame lineup of musicians and the distinctive voices of New Orleanians. I’ve never forgotten a smiling black woman, enjoying Carnival day but knowing the difference between partying and reality in her city: “If you want to be white today, you can be white today. Superman. Batman. Robin Hood. You can be whatever you want to be today. But, now, tomorrow? You got to be a nigger tomorrow.” So one makes do with the joy one can find. As the text on screen tells us: “When you’re dead, you’re gone. Long live the living!”
While Alvarez and Kolker’s first feature, The Ends of the Earth, isn’t a “New Orleans” film, the action was just down the highway in the alluvial lands of Plaquemines Parish. It’s a visit to a vanished world of Orange Queen contests, nutria hunters, French-speaking Creoles, and the marshes before they began to rapidly vanish from coastal erosion. What starts as a portrait of the parish leads to the story of archsegregationist Judge Leander Perez and the doomed efforts of his feuding sons, Chalin and Leander Jr., to stay in power in the parish’s first unrigged parish election in half a century. Three years later, Alvarez and Kolker finished Yeah You Rite! (1985), a half-hour documentary on New Orleans dialects in which Yat meets Uptown meets urban black accents. And even if typecast by accent, as one man put it: “I don’t want to go through the process of making my tongue do the stuff you have to do to talk right. Why put forth the effort? Everybody knows me—ain’t that right?”
Other notable documentaries from the 1980s include the work of John Beyer at WYES, the New Orleans PBS affiliate: The Men of LSU (1982) about college football; Pete! (1980), a profile of jazz musician Pete Fountain; and Hot Stuff: The Restaurants of New Orleans (1980). All of these films are narrated with a wicked, sarcastic sense of humor and employ music as only a music lover would. Eddie Kurtz was making his irreverent Real New Orleans series. Karen Snyder’s View from the Stoop (1982) was about the New Orleans habit of sitting on the front steps, “looking for the breeze and finding a cool spot.“ Neil Alexander followed a high school band in Get Down Street Sound (1984).
Stretching the bounds of what constituted conflict of interest, I made that film that captured Jefferson on election day, Among Brothers: Politics in New Orleans (1986), about the race between two African American contenders to succeed the city’s first black mayor, Dutch Morial, even though I was also Jefferson’s pollster and was analyzing the election nightly on local news. Only in New Orleans.
THE HISTORIES AND THE STORM, 1986 – 2008
It’s an unseasonably hot October day, and we’ve driven a ways out into the swamps downriver from New Orleans, looking for the dedication of a forlorn piece of newly paved highway. It’s our last chance in the 1987 election campaign to interview Gov. Edwin Edwards, who is running for re-election. Having survived two grand jury indictments, his hijinks have finally caught up to him in the form of reform candidate Buddy Roemer. With no news crews around to film the listless ribbon cutting, we have the governor all to ourselves. He’s dispirited at the prospect of losing, but our final question suddenly lights the old Edwin magic. “Who’s the greatest politician you’ve seen in your lifetime?” we ask. With a twinkle in his eye, he answers, “Every time I shave and look in the mirror, I see him.”
It wasn’t our intent to make a Louisiana political history film. Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics (1992) came about because the 1987 gubernatorial election that Alvarez, Kolker, and I had tried to document had little drama. Edwards even dropped out after making the runoff. That potential storytelling failure, though, became an unplanned opportunity when we dug into our own collection of archival footage to focus on the state’s unique political culture and history. Besides a cast of colorful rogues, we featured sequences about political advertising on the old Schwegmann’s grocery store’s shopping bags and unusual attack ads like one for district attorney that featured a supposedly soft-on-crime candidate’s face superimposed onto a dripping Mr. Softee ice cream cone. There’s also footage of a younger, more upbeat Edwin Edwards, saying the only way he could lose an election was to be “caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.”
The most interesting New Orleans films from the mid‑1980s up through Hurricane Katrina were histories, with Ken Burns’ Huey Long (1985) the first of national note. Before making multi-hour series about the Civil War and World War II that took longer to make than the conflicts they covered took to fight, Burns came down to Louisiana. His film is about power, ethics, and an unforgettable character in the larger-than-life “dictator” of Louisiana. Any film with Robert Penn Warren reading from his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King’s Men is something very special. Plus there’s the late Betty Carter, the wife of the crusading newspaper editor Hodding Carter, posed in front of the gorgeous patterned upholstery of a high-backed chair in her Uptown New Orleans home, matter-of-factly commenting, “I can’t remember any Saturday night that I went anywhere, that we didn’t talk about killing Huey Long.”
There are plenty of other histories to choose from. Rick Smith’s heartfelt biographical documentary of Huey’s colorful—if not crazy—brother, Gov. Earl Long, featured wonderful archival footage in Uncle Earl (1986), especially around the time of Earl’s being committed to a mental institution and his subsequent escape. Treme writer Lolis Eric Elie and Dawn Logsdon interwove a history of black New Orleans with the rebuilding of Elie’s flood-damaged house in Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans (2008). Rebecca Snedeker took us on her very personal inside look at the history of Mardi Gras society in By Invitation Only (2006). A series of films were made at WYES about the various ethnic groups who populate New Orleans—Irish, Italians, Germans, and Jews—along with Peggy Scott Laborde’s many programs that take local viewers down memory lane.
In the wake of Katrina, it seemed like every documentary filmmaker in America headed towards New Orleans.
Two national PBS productions, Burns’ multipart Jazz series (2001) and the American Experience production of “New Orleans” (2007), also tackled the city’s history. New Orleans (2007) is set in the context of Hurricane Katrina and addresses the question of what America would be without the city. Sequences that chart the city’s history are interwoven with contemporary portraits of people making do after Katrina: Creole restaurateur Leah Chase cooking, workers repairing tombs in an above-ground cemetery, the first post-storm Carnival season, along with interviews with historians, writers, and artists. One memorable irony pointed out in this documentary is that years after being arrested on a streetcar and losing the historic Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that made “separate but equal” the law of the land, the light-skinned Homer Plessy successfully registered as “white” in order to vote.
Jazz, after a montage of fabulous archival film and photos, goes back to where the music began, New Orleans, with its mix of peoples and cultures, where “there was a whole lot of integrating going on.” African roots, Caribbean sounds, the religious songs of the slaves, the “mania” of Creoles of color for horns, minstrels, and ragtime make a “roux” mixed with dancing and Delta blues. And so they begat jazz. Plus, there’s the ever-present Wynton Marsalis mimicking horn melodies vocally and demonstrating how one can even transform “The Stars and Stripes Forever” into jazz.
Then there’s Storyville: The Naked Dance (1997), which covers much of the same ground while allowing viewers to feel the heat and the funk of the city. Maia Harris and Anne Craig’s film is about America’s most famous legal red-light district and includes a lot of photographic (and graphic) nudity, including the famous portraits of prostitutes by E.J. Bellocq. The narrator, a fictional older prostitute, looks back at the history and lives of the people who made up the district, making madam Lulu White, jazzmen Buddy Bolden and Jelly Roll Morton, and regular working girls come to life. Then there are the storytellers, Al Rose, whose Storyville history was the basis of Malle’s Pretty Baby, and the musician-writer Danny Barker, both passed on now. When Barker does his voices of what he calls the “do-wrong people,” such as vegetable peddler Meatball Charley—“I got bananas today, ladies. I got apples. I got oranges. I got sweet potatoes, and I’ve got onions. And I’ve got some other things, everything a lonesome woman needs”—you can close your eyes and think you really are in living history.
KATRINA, 2005 – 2011
In the wake of Katrina, it seemed like every documentary filmmaker in America headed towards New Orleans. Spike Lee made his big-budget HBO films, Jonathan Demme came to the Lower 9th Ward for I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful (2011), and early cinema verite icon Ed Pincus made his last film, The Axe in the Attic (2007). PBS’s Frontline weighed in (The Old Man and the Storm, 2009), and there were films about the Vietnamese community mobilizing against a post-storm dump (A Village Called Versailles, 2009), a lovely film about pets lost and sometimes found after Katrina (Mine, 2009), and the reunion put on by a Creole jazzman (Michelle Benoit and Glen Pitre’s American Creole: New Orleans Reunion, 2006), among many others.
The makers of the Oscar-nominated Trouble the Water (2008) literally walked into their star, evacuee Kimberly Roberts, outside a refugee center in Lafayette. She asked if they’d be interested in her home movies of the storm. She’d narrated them, even filming as the waters climbed up her stairs, forcing her to escape through the roof. The footage is amazing, and this tour de force only gets better as it follows her and her husband on their two-year journey after the storm.
It was in this context—since everyone else had seemingly made a film about New Orleans—that we thought, why not go back ourselves, to see how the city had recreated itself after the storm?
NEW ORLEANS TODAY, 2009 – 2014
It’s a few nights before Mardi Gras, February 2011, one of those winter evenings when a northern cold front meets warm air up from the Gulf, and the city gets really foggy and damp. We’re waiting outside a small Mid-City shotgun with Barbara Lacen-Keller, community activist and aide to Councilwoman Stacy Head, who is holding VIP tickets to tonight’s Zulu Ball. She wants us to meet her dates. Suddenly, two shapes begin to appear in the fog. Tall, in long gowns and high heels. They’re also guys. Lacen-Keller introduces us to Miss Serenity and Miss Legacy, grinning at our expressions as we shoot. Then they’re down the porch, stepping into a waiting limo, Lacen-Keller waving at us with a prediction of the ball to come: “Guess what. I don’t have a man tonight, but I will have one when I leave.”
After the tidal wave of Katrina coverage, we came back to make Getting Back to Abnormal, in part because it seemed to us that many of those “Katrina” films, made by filmmakers who had never lived in New Orleans, had settled for simplistic narratives that didn’t reflect a city that defied easy definition. The city we knew. It’s a place of contradictions, where the culture of Mardi Gras and street parades is also a culture of corruption and inefficiency, of bad schools and high crime, where the city and its inhabitants—both powerful and not—have often been complicit in their own misfortune. Underlying everything, of course, was race. The challenge was to find a tapestry of stories that also didn’t ignore the humor that’s part of the city’s DNA, giving the viewer a real sense of what it is like to live in New Orleans. We found a main narrative with the 2010 re-election campaign of Councilwoman Head, a take-no-prisoners white reformer, and her irrepressible and unlikely companion-in-arms, Lacen-Keller, a respected black community organizer who gave new meaning to the word “outspoken.”
We also discovered something else during our three years filming. There’s a vibrant community of young filmmakers, some of them natives who’d survived Katrina, others who’d come to the city, not just to document the aftermath of the storm, but to stay. And just like us, 30 years before, they’re curious about everything in New Orleans.
Two film examples are Luisa Dantas’ Land of Opportunity (2010) and Lily Keber’s Bayou Maharajah (2013). Dantas, a Brazilian-American and a graduate of Columbia’s film school, came right after the disaster to document recovery efforts led by ACORN. She commuted from Los Angeles for a while and then moved permanently in 2006. Keber had previously visited the city, and after graduating from the University of Georgia, she decided to move New Orleans, where she worked on community media projects and bartended at Vaughan’s Lounge in Bywater. Both Dantas and Keber met Tim Watson, an editor on Storyville and By Invitation Only, and eventually moved into edit rooms in his converted Bywater warehouse.
Bayou Maharajah is a glorious biographic homage to pianist James Booker, a truly crazy genius, dead now 30 years and mostly unknown, except to a select few. The music is sublime, the stories are funny, and Booker is an unforgettable character. Near its end, when the film features Booker playing one long song in its entirety, it’s like hearing a supreme being on the keyboards. Maybe better.
Land of Opportunity charts the lives of New Orleanians, displaced and otherwise, as the city tries to rebuild itself. The film is there when the first street lights are turned back on in the 9th Ward and stays with its characters as they figure out what’s next. Perhaps its most important long-term achievement, though, is the project’s evolution into an award-winning, interactive, web-based platform, where people can park their footage, and others can come and use what’s there.
These days there’s a rush of new documentaries tackling the reality of a city that has been changed by the tragedy of Katrina but retains much of what made it unique. There are new films about youth and gun violence (Shell Shocked, 2013), Mardi Gras Indians after the storm (Bury the Hatchet, 2011), the transformation of New Orleans’ schools (Rebirth, 2013), a history of gay New Orleans (The Sons of Tennessee Williams, 2010), even a new effort to resurrect the late Stevenson Palfi’s Alan Toussaint tapes, with more projects on the way. And there’s a buzz of activity at Pitre and Benoit’s converted Bywater fire station, where the makers of Beasts of the Southern Wild and others work, among other spots.
For us old New Orleans documentary vets, just thinking about the youngsters roaming the same streets where we started filming so long ago reminds us what we saw when the city was new to us. They are the latest in a long line a filmmakers to ponder how they can document a Mardi Gras parade, or a second line, or the Quarter, and make it somehow look different. Or, maybe more importantly, they will discover what’s changing in New Orleans, film it, and make the familiar new. Not all those filmmakers will succeed. But some of them will make films where you feel the pain and the joy of the city that frustrates us and that we love. And that’s just wonderful.
Paul Stekler lives in Austin, where he teaches documentary filmmaking at the University of Texas. And since he couldn’t cover every worthy film, a complete listing of New Orleans documentary films appears below.
NEW ORLEANS DOCUMENTARIES
Documentary producer Paul Stekler recommends the following films as examples of the best documentaries about New Orleans. Click on the title for related weblinks, some of which include the entire film.
Modern New Orleans (1940) One of a series of travelogues made for MGM by narrator James A. Fitzpatrick in the 1940s, this segment of “Travel Talks, The Voice of the Globe” features the Huey Long Bridge, Charity Hospital, the Port of New Orleans, and street scenes of New Orleans.
The Children Were Watching (1961) This early documentary about the famous integration of Ninth Ward grade schools by Ruby Bridges and three other six-year-old girls was made by Robert Drew, one of the fathers of American cinema verité.
Stranded in Canton (1973) Renowned color photographer William Eggleston shot this crazy, often incoherent footage of bohemians living the hip life—often out of control—at bars and parties in New Orleans and Memphis.
Ain’t Nobody’s Business (1978) A video about rape victims produced by the New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC).
Black Indians of New Orleans (1976) This early documentary, produced by Maurice Martinez, interprets the history of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians and their status in the mid-1970s. The film includes rare footage of the Indians’ practices.
Cheap and Greasy (1977) This short film by Burwell Ware, with support from NOVAC, features the Hummingbird Grill, a once famous diner on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans.
Being Poor In New Orleans series: Beginning in 1977, Andrew Kolker and Louis Alvarez produced a series of half-hour documentaries about poverty in New Orleans, which included:
- Changing The Channel: The Renovation Question (1977) One of the first films to examine gentrification and displacement of the poor.
- Talking Crime (1978) A documentary about white fear and black-on-black crime
- The Clarks (1979) A portrait of the family living in New Orleans’ St. Thomas housing project.
Degas in New Orleans (1977) This documentary by Gary Goldman, narrated by French director Louis Malle, traces Impressionist artist Edgar Degas’ sojourn to New Orleans from Paris in 1872-73, where he visited relatives and painted portraits of his family and scenes of the city.
This Cat Can Play Anything (1978) Papa John Creach makes a musical appearance in Portrait of Preservation Hall with his friend banjo jazzman Manny Sayles. The film was a collaboration among Stevenson Palfi, Eddie Kurtz, and Andrew Kolker.
Always for Pleasure (1978) Filmmaker Les Blank captures New Orleans’ festivals, parades, music, and the voices of real New Orleanians. All documentary films about New Orleans start here.
Up From the Cradle of Jazz (1980) The film by writer/journalist Jason Berry traces the development of New Orleans jazz by focusing on two musical families: the Lasties and the Nevilles.
John Beyer’s WYES films (1980s) Filmmaker John Beyer produced a number of documentaries for WYES, New Orleans’ PBS affiliate.
- Hot Stuff: The Restaurants of New Orleans (1980) A survey of the city’s culinary scene.
- Pete! (1980) A biographical sketch of jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain.
- The Men of LSU (1982) A documentary about the passionate football fans of LSU Tigers football.
- The Chief: Louie Prima (1986) A biographical sketch of the renowned singer.
The Ends of the Earth (1982) The saga of the Perez family of Plaquemines Parish includes die-hard segregationist Judge Perez’s fifty-year reign and his sons’ doomed attempts to keep control after their father’s death. Louis Alvarez and Andy Kolker crafted a portrait of a lost world in the swamps downriver from New Orleans.
Yes Ma’am (1982) Uptown maids and their service “families” are exposed in this film by documentarian Gary Goldman. Yes Ma’am aired nationally on PBS.
Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together (1982) Professor Longhair, Tuts Washington and a young Alan Toussaint prepare to play three pianos together until Longhair’s untimely death. This time capsule of both three great musicians and the city back then, was made by filmmaker Stevenson Palfi.
View from the Stoop (1982) Karen Snyder, in affiliation with New Orleans Video Access Center, provides an affectionate look at the then-disappearing art of New Orleans stoop sitting, an outdoor living room of sorts where neighbors socialized and enjoyed the pre-air conditioned world.
A House Divided (1984) Burrell Ware produced this civil rights history of New Orleans, in collaboration with Xavier University’s Drexel Center.
Get Down Street Sound (1984) Neil Alexander takes viewers behind the scenes with a New Orleans high school marching band.
To the Best of Our Abilities (1984) Returning to Benjamin Franklin High School three decades after it opened to educate gifted students, filmmaker Fred Schultz explores the success or failure of this experiment in education.
Yeah, You Rite! (1984) Louis Alvarez and Andy Kolker made this wonderful short film about the way people in New Orleans talk, an effort that relates to their longer film American Tongues (1988). David Simon also used this film to help his actors with their accents in the HBO series Treme.
In that Number! (1985) Jerry Brock, founder of WWOZ, New Orleans’ community radio station, explores the relationship between New Orleans jazz and brass bands and the city’s cultural and social traditions.
Huey Long (1985) Ken Burns’ biography of the Kingfish, Huey P. Long, the most famous Louisiana governor of them all.
Which Governs Best (1986) Eddie Kurtz examines of the role government plays in the lives of three families from different socio-economic groups.
Parts 1 and 2 password: Kurtz
Real New Orleans series (1980s) This series of humorous videos was written by and starred the late Eddie Kurtz.
Uncle Earl (1986) Rick Smith and the Louisiana Public Broadcasting Network produced this biography of the colorful and sometimes crazy-seeming governor and brother of Huey P. Long. It premiered on the 25th anniversary of Long’s death.
La Pharmacie Francais (1986) Robin Katchan’s documentary about the Historical Pharmacy Museum in New Orleans includes the early history of pharmacies in Louisiana.
Among Brothers: Black Politics in New Orleans (1987) Two African-American candidates for mayor, Sidney Barthelemy and William Jefferson, fight it out for control of city hall in 1986, one of the first elections in a major American city where the main contenders were both black. Paul Stekler’s film was nationally broadcast by PBS.
The Creole Controversy (1987) Karen Snyder, with New Orleans Public Television WYES, explores the history and misconceptions surrounding the Creole identity and the use of the term “creole.”
Men of the Ring: Boxing Legends of New Orleans (1989) Kathleen Mulvihill and New Orleans television station WLAE produced this history of professional boxing in New Orleans, from the 19th century until it faded from prominence in the 1960s.
Mystery of the Purple Rose (1989) Noted documentarian Peggy Scott Laborde produced this story of black Creole violinist A.J. Piron, a popular New Orleans musician from the 1910s through the 1930s.
Red Beans and Ricely Yours: Satchmo in New Orleans (1990) The social and musical influences of New Orleans on musician Louis Armstrong and the development of jazz come to life in this documentary by Peggy Scott Laborde, made with WYES television.
Backlash: Race and the American Dream (1991) The campaign of former Nazi David Duke for Louisiana Senate is the focus of this film by Bess Carrick, also about white backlash two decades after the civil rights movement.
Island of Saints and Souls (1991) Neil Alexander provides an exploration of the development, rituals, and holidays related to Catholicism in New Orleans.
Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics (1991) The colorful, unique and sometimes corrupt political culture of Louisiana (and New Orleans) is revealed in this Columbia-DuPont Journalism Award winning film that aired on POV. Louis Alvarez, Andy Kolker and Paul Stekler produced one of the most entertaining documentaries to come out of Louisiana.
John McCrady’s Southern Scene (1992) Matthew Martinez’s documentary features the life and times of New Orleans artist John McCrady, who received national acclaim in the 1930s and 40s and operated an art school in the city for 40 years.
Greetings from Out There (1993) Filmmaker Ellen Spiro’s road trip that captures the people, places and politics of gay America in the South, including New Orleans, where we meet Rita, a retired military officer turned drag queen. The film was broadcast nationally on PBS.
He Must Have Something (1994) The Kennedy assassination and New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison’s cover-up scenarios and subsequent prosecution of local businessman Clay Shaw revisited. Film by Steven Tyler.
Streetcar Stories (1995) Historian Michael Mizell-Nelson’s history of New Orleans’ beloved streetcars, from their founding, to their demise, to sole-surviving St. Charles line, and then their resurgence. Bonus inclusion: a history of the po-boy sandwich.
New Orleans Jazz Funerals from the Inside (1995) David Jones explores jazz funerals through archival footage, interviews, and Milton Batiste’s narration in the city that birthed them.
Journey for Justice: The A.P. Tureaud Story (1996) This hour-long film by Rachel Emanuel illuminates the life of the late New Orleans civil rights attorney.
New Orleans Voodoo from the Inside (1996) This examination of the history of voodoo in the city, including the enduring story of Marie Laveau, was made by filmmaker David Jones.
Storyville: The Naked Dance (1997) New Orleans’ famous district of legalized prostitution, narrated in the first-person voice of a young working girl, is documented in this stylized historical documentary, complete with photos rarely seen on PBS. The filmmakers were Anne Craig and Maia Harris.
Kate Chopin: A Re-Awakening (1998) Tika Laudun made this film version of author Kate Chopin’s famous short story.
He’s the Prettiest: A Salute to Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana’s 50 Years of Mardi Gras Indian Suiting (1998) The title says it all, in this film by Will Horton, about the Mardi Gras Indian who made the greatest impression on his culture.
Pushcarts and Plantations: Jewish Life in New Orleans (1998) Brian Cohen documents the history of Jews in New Orleans.
Degas in New Orleans: A Creole Sojourn (1999) This film is David Jone’s interpretation of the young artist’s time in America at the home of relatives in New Orleans.
Ruthie, The Duck Girl (1999) Rick Delaup captured the original French Quarter street character during her last years.
WYES films on ethnic New Orleans history – Terri Landry
- Irish in New Orleans (1999)
- Italian New Orleans (2001)
- German New Orleans (2004)
- Jewish New Orleans (2006)
Jazz (2000) Ken Burns’ multi-part series on America’s music starts where it all began, in New Orleans – with the help of the city’s own Wynton Marsalis.
Fatal Flood (2001) Chana Gazit’s documentary traces the disaster of the great Mississippi River flood of 1927.
The Danny Barker Show (2001) The acclaimed jazz master Danny Barker comes to life in this documentary by Matthew Martinez and WYES public television.
All on a Mardi Gras Day (2003) New Orleans’ Black Mardi Gras is explored from the slavery era onward, putting the celebrations into the context of African diaspora. Filmmaker Royce Osborn collaborated with WYES public television.
Louisiana – A History (2003) This six-part series by Louisiana Public Broadcasting tells the colorful story of Louisiana for the citizens and students of our state.
Shalom Y’all (2003) Brian Bain examines Jewish New Orleans at the start of this personal documentary on a journey around the South.
The Quorum: Blacks, Creoles, and Whites Arrested for Socializing at a Coffee House (2004) Opened in 1963 to persons from all racial backgrounds, The Quorum became a frequent target of segregationist harassment in New Orleans, with a police raid finally taking 73 people to jail, accusing them of such activities as “playing guitars out of tune.” The film was made by Maurice Martinez.
Desire (2005) Over a decade, Julie Gustafson filmed a number of young girls in New Orleans, documenting their evolving ideas about race and sexuality during their teen years.
New Orleans is Sinking (2005) The acclaimed CBS television production of post-Katrina New Orleans looks at the city’s rebuilding process and progress.
William Eggleston in the Real World (2005) Michael Almereyda’s documentary film reveals the life of groundbreaking color photographer William Eggleston.
Hurricane Katrina: The Storm that Drowned a City (2005) PBS’s NOVA science series examines Hurricane Katrina and the causes of federal levee failures in New Orleans.
The Storm (2005) PBS’s Frontline investigative series focuses on the many human failures that led to the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) Spike Lee’s epic documentary of Hurricane Katrina, the flood, and the aftermath, produced for HBO.
C’est Levee (2006) This short documentary was made by Ellen Reynolds, about New Orleans during the first Mardi Gras after Katrina, and as seen through Eddie Kurtz’s eyes, as a member of the venerable Krewe de Vieux.
American Creole: New Orleans Reunion (2006) Louisiana veteran filmmakers Glen Pitre and Michelle Benoit focus on Don Vappie, the bandleader of the acclaimed Creole Jazz Serenaders, and his efforts to gather his displaced family for a reunion after the diaspora of Hurricane Katrina.
Hurricane on the Bayou (2006) Both a documentary of Hurricane Katrina’s effects and a call to restore Louisiana’s wetlands, rebuild New Orleans, and honor the culture of the city, this film from Glen Pitre and Greg MacGillivray was shot in IMAX format.
The Axe in the Attic (2007) This film, the last made by Ed Pincus, one of the country’s earliest indie documentary icons, with Lucia Small, features interviews with New Orleans exiles displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
Tootie’s Last Suit (2007) Lisa Katzman’s documentary explores the complex relationships, rituals, history, and music of New Orleans’ vibrant Mardi Gras Indian culture, while telling the story of Allison “Tootie” Montana, former Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Hunters.
Too White to be Black, Too Black to be White: The New Orleans Creole (2007) Maurice Martinez’s documentary shows that if the “melting pot” theory ever existed in America, it happened in New Orleans. This film profiles the racially mixed group of Americans who proudly identify themselves as “Creoles.”
Reborn: New Orleans Schools (2007) Filmmaker Drea Cooper chronicles the first official school year in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and the charter school movement’s effort to transform education for the city’s African American public school children.
Along Lake Pontchartrain (2007) New Orleans documentarian Peggy Scott Laborde and WYES public television take a look at the rich history along Lake Pontchartrain, including the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park, dining at seafood restaurants in New Orleans; West End, camping in the Little Woods, and more.
New Orleans (2007) Public Broadcasting’s The American Experience’s big history of New Orleans by Steven Ives, told from the post-Hurricane Katrina perspective of a city in the process of rebuilding.
By Invitation Only (2008) Filmmaker Rebecca Snedecker reveals Mardi Gras society in this documentary about a daughter born into a prominent Carnival family, but questioning all that such status and ritual means.
Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans (2008) Dawn Logsdon and Lolis Eric Elie tell a personal history of their historic Creole neighborhood just off the French Quarter, an important center of African American life that is rebuilding in the wake of the federal levee failures during Hurricane Katrina.
Trouble the Water (2008) Tia Lessin and Carl Deal made this Academy Award nominated story of a Lower 9th Ward woman’s journey following Hurricane Katrina.
Member of the Club (2008) The hidden world of New Orleans’ black debutante society is revealed through the eyes of an African American teenager and her matriarchal family. The film was made by Phoebe Ferguson, the great, great granddaughter of Judge John Howard Ferguson of the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case of 1896.
Mine (2009) Geralyn Pezanoski’s documentary of pets abandoned and lost (and sometimes found) in the wake of the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina, aired on PBS’s Independent Lens series.
A Village Called Versailles (2009) The Vietnamese community of New Orleans East rebuilds and fights a landfill after the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in this film by Leo Chiang, which aired on PBS’s Independent Lens series.
The Old Man and the Storm (2009) This PBS Frontline documentary by June Cross follows one man’s attempts to rebuild his house and his life in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Yes Men Fix the World (2009) Andy Bichbaum, Mike Bonanno and Kurt Engfehr’s screwball true story about two gonzo political activists who, posing as top executives of giant corporations, lie their way into big business conferences and pull off the world’s most outrageous pranks — including faking corporate support to rebuild the housing projects of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise (2010) This is the sequel to When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Spike Lee’s original HBO film about the experiences of New Orleanians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Land of Opportunity (2010) The film documents the lives of New Orleanians, displaced and otherwise, as the city rebuilds itself after the 2005 levee failures. The website for Luisa Dantas’ film has also evolved into an important interactive site related to Hurricane Katrina.
Race (2010) Filmmaker Katherine Cecil revisits the New Orleans mayoral race between Mayor Ray Nagin and contender Mitch Landrieu, the first mayoral contest following Hurricane Katrina.
Walker Percy (2010) This documentary by Win Riley, a biography of the author of the novel The Moviegoer, won the 2010 Documentary Film of the Year from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
The Big Uneasy (2010) Humorist and New Orleans resident Harry Shearer gets the inside story of the Hurricane Katrina disaster from the people who were there.
The Sons of Tennessee Williams (2010) Filmmaker Tim Wolff charts the evolution of the gay Mardi Gras celebrations in the mid-20th century, illuminating the ways in which its emergence was a seminal factor in the cause of gay liberation in the South.
New Orleans Restaurants with a Past (2010) This nostalgic look at restaurants past and present, not only the French Quarter’s Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s, and Brennan’s, but places like the Hummingbird Grill, the Morning Call, and Sid-Mar’s on the Lakefront, was made by WYES television and Peggy Scott Laborde.
New Orleans in the 50s (2011) Another in a series of documentaries by WYES television and Peggy Scott Laborde, the film takes a look back at a decade that featured the development of the lakefront and Pontchartrain Park, the career of Mayor Chep Morrison, and the early days of local television.
Bury the Hatchet (2011) Filmmaker Aaron Walker explores the history of Mardi Gras Indian groups, and how they fared after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures.
Mr. Cao Goes to Washington (2011) Leo Chiang’s film about one-term Vietnamese Republican Congressman Joseph Cao from New Orleans and his attempt to be reelected in 2010.
I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful (2011) This character study of one woman rebuilding in the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, charting a five-year crusade, was made by Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme, and aired on the PBS series POV.
Tchoupitoulas (2013) Bill and Turner Ross made this experimental film through one night in the Quarter through the eyes of a few young kids from Algiers, Louisiana.
Bayou Maharajah (2013) The short, crazy life of James Booker, the piano prince of New Orleans, is told in this wonderful film by Lily Keber. The music is sublime and Booker is as unforgettable in this film as he was in life. The film won the 2013 Humanities Award for Documentary Film from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
Rebel (2013) Maria Agui Carter’s film tells the story, drawn from a long disputed memoir, of Cuban-born Loreta Velazquex, a woman who grew up in New Orleans and fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War disguised as a man. http://rebeldocumentary.com
T-Galop (2013) Connie Castille made this documentary about equestrianship in Louisiana, from Creole cowboys and Cajun jockeys to Cotton Knights and revelers in Acadiana’s courir de Mardi Gras.
Tradition is a Temple: The Modern Masters of New Orleans (2013) Filmmaker Darren Hoffman profiles contemporary New Orleans musicians who discuss their childhood introductions to the city’s rich music scene, including music in churches, local traditions such as second line parades and jazz funerals, and the role of jazzman Danny Barker in keeping traditional jazz alive in the 1970s and ‘80s.
A Warehouse on Tchoupitoulas (2013) On January 30, 1970, the Warehouse music club in New Orleans opened its doors to thousands of fans to see The Flock, Fleetwood Mac and The Grateful Dead. In the ensuing twelve years, some of the best musicians in the world would grace the stage. A remarkable era of music comes alive in this documentary by Jessy Cale Williamson.
Shell Shocked (2013) This documentary by John Ritchie takes on youth and gun violence. The film explores how a dysfunctional environment contributes to gun violence, and what can be done to address the problem.
Rebirth: New Orleans (2013) John Merrow’s film paints a nuanced portrait of schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The documentary is the culmination of six years filming the lives of students, teachers, parents, education leaders, activists and critics.
The Whole Nitty Gritty City (2013) Broadcast by CBS’s 48 Hours, Richard Barber’s un-narrated film follows three New Orleans high school band directors, preparing their students to play and march in Mardi Gras parades — all in the context of surviving in a city with one of the highest murder rates in the country.
Getting Back to Abnormal (2014) Louis Alvarez, Andy Kolker, Peter Odabashian and Paul Stekler document election time in New Orleans: Corruption. Racism. Dancing in the streets. And one in-your-face politician, attempting reelection in 2012.