Directed by Jonathan Demme
Jonathan Demme met Carolyn Parker in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans in August of 2006, a year after Hurricane Katrina. She had moved back into her home before anyone else on her block, living inside under conditions not many people would put up with. Damaged walls outlining the house were covered in tarp while the damage inside made it so that you could see through just about every wall still standing. All that remained was the skeleton, but that was enough for Carolyn, her daughter and her brother.
Demme stumbled across Carolyn, but he was so taken with her spirit that he continually came back to see her, always with his camera. I’m Carolyn Parker was filmed over the course of four years. During that time we watch as Carolyn moves from her house to a FEMA-donated trailer while her home undergoes repairs and before she eventually moves back in, returning to something like a normal life.
There are ups and downs, to be sure. On one visit Carolyn tells Demme about her knee troubles, and when he comes back she is recovering from a double knee replacement during which complications nearly killed her. On another occasion Demme interviews a jovial contractor who we later learn ripped off Carolyn, something briefly ‘set up’ earlier in the documentary when Carolyn’s daughter tells Demme about the unreliability of contractors in the area, at least after the hurricane.
This is a sweet story centered around a lovable hero. She’s stubborn, optimistic, kind and a little rebellious. Carolyn cares about the community (as we see and are told by others), she takes care of her ailing brother even when she’s struggling to get back on her feet post-Katrina, she calls for answers from local politicians on public tv and she isn’t afraid to speak her mind at a church which once turned her and others away because of the color of their skin.
Demme gets Carolyn to open to him about her life and her goals, though you get the sense she would tell her story to anyone willing to listen. Carolyn is full of life and a weary wisdom. Even before Katrina devastated her neighborhood, she dealt with racism, sexism and endured her husband’s murder.
She’s someone who has seen a lot and who has endured more than most of us have or ever will. She wants to make sure you understand what her and so many others have gone through (painting a detailed picture of what it’s like to lose your home), but she has no time for self-pity.
At the same time, the camera is only rolling for a few hours every few months. Demme’s recurring visits are akin to seeing an old relative. At first they are strangers to each other, but pretty quickly both she and Demme begin anticipating future visits. She says she’ll cook him and his team breakfast, and months later she does. During another visit she laments that they came a month too early because part of the house wasn’t quite finished.
So when the camera is rolling, Carolyn might be performing, to some degree, at least in the way seeing a good friend will bring something out of you. It’s heartwarming watching Carolyn and Demme interact even though Demme himself is hardly onscreen. You can sense his presence, occasionally here his voice, and you can certainly feel the the gravity that pulls him into Carolyn’s world. Her eagerness to open up to Demme demonstrates a kind of joie de vivre. It’s as if Carolyn just wants to share a part of herself. Though she’s something of an activist in the community, there is nothing for her to gain from the documentary. Her willingness to share her story with the camera is a reflection of something pure.
The four year timeframe covered in the documentary adds a Boyhood kind of feeling. You watch the house evolve, but you also see the ways in which Carolyn is aging and her daughter is growing up.
When we meet them, Carolyn’s daughter is around 19 or so years old. She talks about going to school at Syracuse and then later a local college in New Orleans. Sometime later we learn that she goes to Tulane and is involved in a number of activist groups on camera. Demme walks with her one night as she discusses how she wants to be a part of changing the world for the better.
The film, I suppose, is about how the human spirit endures, as cheesy as it is to sound. It’s a coming of age story as well as of a community rebuilding. It’s not necessarily about where Carolyn and the others will end up but what they do to move forward. The documentary ends with Carolyn, her daughter and her son (whom we briefly observe explaining how he will run the best restaurant in the world) basically shooting the shit at the dinner table. They’ve made it, is the point, and all they talk about is the same kind of stuff we talk about on a daily basis. Things are normal again.
A lot of what Carolyn works so hard for is unspoken. She only wants her home back, but her fight for normalcy, for the mundane joys of everyday life, is what allows her children to dream. If there are any socioeconomic barriers to her kids’ success, than they don’t see them, and in that manner Carolyn has succeeded.
I’m Carolyn Parker boils down to the American Dream. Carolyn’s determination to hold onto it might mean more than the Dream itself.
Up Next: Intolerable Cruelty (2003), I Shot Jesse James (1949), Hoop Dreams (1994)