Tavis Smiley Revisits New Orleans


Center for American Progress Action/Flickr

"I'm concerned personally with the Katrina fatigue that I think many Americans are feeling," says Tavis Smiley, the talk show host. "It has been five years. As Americans, we have really, really short memories."

His solution? A follow-up to his 2007 documentary with Jonathan Demme about the struggle of participants in Katrina's exodus to return to New Orleans, airing tonight on PBS at 8pm. New Orleans: Been in the Storm Too Long revisits the participants in that first special. The result is an hour of television that vies between intense emotionalism and a hard-headed focus on self-reliance, especially in the absence of an effective institutional response, at every level, to the destruction of a great American city.

It's a balance perfectly illustrated by two anecdotes in the show. In the first, the employees fighting to save the school where they work explain how flooding ruined almost everything in their building—but left a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. untouched. The message is almost, but not quite, overwhelming. Disasters may leave miracles in their wake, but that doesn't obviate the need to put your boots on and get to work.

Illustrations of Louisiana residents who have rebuilt themselves are emotional and inspiring, of course. But Smiley agrees that they also act as an effective pitch to the outside world, making the case that New Orleans residents are a good bet for investment, and that they would do well if given outside resources, whether from business or from government. And he thinks if people who live outside of Louisiana can "expand their inventory of ideas," they might be able to use the city's reconstruction as an opportunity to explore new developments in urban planning and business.

"[New Orleans is] like the six million dollar man. We can rebuild him stronger, faster," says Smiley. "There's a lot to be learned from that if we use this city as a model. There's a lot of opportunity here. I just hope we can find the courage and the commitment and the vision."

Getting people excited about that vision might help alleviate Katrina fatigue, but it's clear from the documentary that it's also going to require some difficult reckonings. A second key moment in the special comes in an interview with Mitch Landrieu, the new Mayor of New Orleans, who offers a blunt assessment of a more recent calamity. Other states, he says, were unwilling to risk offshore oil drilling. But Louisiana weighed the risks to the state's environment and economy should a drilling disaster happen, and decided the risks were worth the increase in jobs. One of the messages of Smiley's documentary is that while New Orleans' unique culture is worth preserving, Louisiana cannot simply reset the clock.

And he says there rest of us can't either, particularly when it comes to energy consumption.

The BP oil spill, Smiley says, "is too much for us. I hope that this will shake our souls to the very core. If this doesn't wake us up, I don't what will. I'm as guilty as anybody else. I have become much more conscious and much more aware that I need to use the platforms I have to keep raising these issues."

It seems unlikely that this documentary will be Smiley's last foray on the subject. That's probably a good thing. Been in the Storm Too Long doesn't lack for ideas, but an hour isn't enough time to explore the emotional resonance of return, post-Katrina investment in New Orleans, and shifts in the Louisiana economy, subjects that taken together might make for a rich miniseries. Smiley says the subject matter hasn't turned him into an advocacy journalist—he says that's always been his mission—but it's convinced him to do more with the platform that he has. And New Orleans' future is a match for what he says is his essential mission statement.

"I believe those of us who are in this media business, in this broadcast arena, do our best when we one, get [audiences] information that helps them live better lives," he says, "and two, challenge them to hold the assumptions they hold."