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Television Review

A portrait of a city beset by racial strife, before and after the levees broke

Barbara Lacen-Keller, denouncing some New Orleans electoral politicking, in “Getting Back to Abnormal.”

Andrew Kolker

Barbara Lacen-Keller, denouncing some New Orleans electoral politicking, in “Getting Back to Abnormal.”

The familiar post-
Katrina narrative about New Orleans — outlined in everything from Spike Lee’s documentary “When the Levees Broke” to the HBO fictional dramatic series “Treme,” to a growing shelf of books — centers on government neglect: inadequate levees, inadequate rescue efforts at the local, state, and federal levels. The outrage was stated in its most extreme form by Kanye West: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Now comes the “POV” documentary “Getting Back to Abnormal,” airing Monday night at 10 on PBS, which offers a different, more discomfiting view of this vital, troubled city’s post-Katrina strife.

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Its focal point is the 2010 re-election campaign by Stacy Head, a white New Orleans city councilwoman representing the predominantly African-American Central City district. Head’s clashes with black business leaders and city officials, and her tactless speaking style, had made the campaign particularly racially charged, and she was a favorite piñata on African-American talk radio. As the election draws near, a truck circulates Head’s district plastered with handbills that display an X-ed out photo of the councilwoman and the words: “No Racism. No Head.”

At the same time, Head had vigorous support in the African-American community. Her black constituency saw her as a strong anti-corruption candidate who could get things done. And, in the film, her staunchest supporter and aide is an outspoken African-American woman who declares, “I wouldn’t last a minute in this office if Stacy Head was a racist. I’d have been gone. And I would have let everybody know it.”

The Head campaign, however, is merely the foreground to the film’s examination of the city’s modern history of race relations. This is a city that remembers the segregation era all too well, and the 50th anniversary commemoration of the integration of a New Orleans public school is one of the film’s set-pieces. What’s more, the city’s post-Katrina diaspora of poor blacks is a flash point for its citizens. One white real estate developer says that the exodus has been beneficial, dispersing a population that had become a “drag” on the city’s development.

That’s probably the most insensitive comment made by anyone in the film. For the most part, we hear from blacks and whites who are anxious about their city’s future, and particularly about the historic communities disrupted by Katrina.

The most vivid illustration of the city’s problems is presented by the demolition of the St. Bernard public housing project. After Katrina, the black-majority city council (which included Head) voted to demolish St. Bernard, which was replaced with a new mixed-income development. Opponents argued that the new project’s fewer low-income units effectively prevented many original residents from returning, and that the new rules regarding residency (housing can be denied to someone with a felony conviction) were unfair. We hear from angry protesters and see them wearing “Evicted” T-shirts on the day President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama visit the site.

It’s hard not to sympathize with the protesters. At the same time, when we meet the grandmother who hosted the Obamas, with her grandson on her lap, it’s easy to see her point of view too. This woman is not some out-of-town transplant, but a lifelong resident. Soft-spoken and candid, she makes no great claims for the neighborhood’s transformation. She likes it in part because there’s “less shootings” than in the old St. Bernard, where she lived — and where one son and three of her nephews were shot to death.

“Getting Back to Abnormal,” directed by Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Peter Odabashain, and Paul Stekler, is not a perfect film. Some segments, like the integration commemoration, drag on after their point has been made. And it would have been nice to see fewer shots of Head campaigning in the street with her mother and, instead, at least one scene in which she directly addresses an issue like the St. Bernard demolition. But this is a gritty, street-level look at a unique city grappling with issues common to many of America’s urban centers, from race to gentrification and immigration.

And at least one star emerges from the film: Head campaign aide Barbara Lacen-Keller. In an extended sequence, in which Lacen-Keller tearfully talks about her life, and her transformative experience working with a local white philanthropist — the first person in her life, she says, who ever took her seriously — she embodies all the drama of living life in “post-racial” America. Kanye, take note.

Jon Garelick can be reached at jon.garelick4@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.
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