I’m Carolyn Parker: Venice Film Review

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina turns into the portrait of an extraordinary woman in Jonathan Demme’s engaging made-for-TV documentary.

Setting out to make a documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, filmmaker Jonathan Demme gets happily side-tracked into the engaging character study of an incredible woman who survived the flood to reconstruct her beloved home in New Orleans’ poverty-stricken Lower Ninth Ward. Filmed over a five-year period, I’m Carolyn Parker (which is also going under the rather puzzling title of I’m Carolyn Parker: the Good, the Mad and the Beautiful) is a classic piece of Americana made for television, where it will enter an enlightening piece in the historical record.

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An African-American who has been a life-long resident of the Lower Ninth, Carolyn is standing in the doorway of her very damaged wooden frame home when Demme’s camera finds her about six months after the hurricane. Her humor is evident when she offers to “switch on the light” for him and flicks a non-existent switch with a chuckle. She shows the flood and vandalism damage her possessions have gone through, and smilingly insists she will rebuild.

I’m Carolyn Parker is the opening statement of this articulate, combative lady who, in repertory footage, is seen confronting Mayor Ray Nagin and a committee of assembled experts with words they cannot forget: she promises to allow her house to be pulled down over her dead body.

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Much more personal than Spike Lee’s epic study When the Levees Broke, neither particularly political or passionate, the film is a record of one woman’s spirit, a celebration of her courage and determination in the face of financial and personal devastation.

Demme returned every month or so to film the house’s rebuilding, which stretched out to the end of 2010 as she and her daughter Kyrah spent some three years in a FEMA trailer. In the course of his visits, she describes the poverty and racial discrimination she lived through, dramatic events, nearly fatal knee surgery, but also her strong faith and sense of family community. While she talks about her career as a cook and chef, the camera steals an unforgettable recipe as she injects pickle juice into a chicken she’s about to cook.

The film’s happy ending is more than deserved.


Venue: Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 4, 2011.
Production companies: Clinica Estetico, Right 2 Return, Jacob Burns Film Center
Director: Jonathan Demme
Screenwriter: Jonathan Demme
Executive producers: Glenn Allen, Rocco Caruso, Abdul Franklin, Simon Kilmurry
Producers: Jonathan Demme, Stephen Apkon, Lindsay Jaeger, Daniel Wolff
Director of photography: Jonathan Demme
Music: Zafer Tawil
Editor: Ido Haar
93 minutes