Project Description

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“The show’s rich archival resources, on-camera commentators and verité-style portraits of its residents highlights New Orleans’ particular brand of humor, fatalism and wry rebelliousness, while raising critical questions about what lies ahead.” –New York Post 

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New Orleans – the utterly original American city that lies at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi and at the beating heart of the great American experiment. Walled in on almost all sides by water, pressed together by the demands and dangers of geography, the crowded streets of New Orleans have always been a laboratory where the social forces that characterize American life play out in dramatic and, at times, disastrous fashion. With the documentary film New Orleans, Insignia Films and American Experience tell the story of this unique and beloved city, exploring both its distinctive history and culture, and illuminating its central place on the American landscape.

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The history of New Orleans is, first and foremost, the story of race in America. There, a full century before Louisiana became part of the United States, slaves and free blacks, Africans and people of the Carribean diaspora, whites from France, Spain and the American heartland all comingled, creating a culture of assimilation and tolerance on the one hand, and vicious racial hatred on the other. At the same time, the challenges of diversity have been consistently and constantly amplified by the peculiar accident of geography that is New Orleans. Perched on the narrow natural levee of the Mississippi, a ribbon of high ground no more than two miles at its widest point, the city has had to wage a perpetual war against the implacable force of water – a war that has produced one of the most improbable and precarious cityscapes in the country, and one of the most revealing. Thanks partly to the pressures of the environment, which have both shaped and answered the city’s most insistent social problems, the dynamics of race in America have been writ large in the streets of New Orleans.

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The city’s unparalleled density and diversity has also created one of the most vibrant and authentic metropolitan cultures in the country, one that has always set the New Orleans apart, not only from other Americancities but from the rest of the world. From the political and racial dramas that have long animated Carnival and its socially-exclusive Krewes, to the cheek-by-jowl, outdoor lifestyle that gaverise to the ubiquitous street parades and then to jazz, to the human gumbo that spawned the city’s signature dish – each ingredient at once blended with, and yet distinct from, the rest – the cultural life of New Orleans has served as a muse for some of the country’s most famous creative minds (among them Tennessee Williams and Louis Armstrong), and has come to embody much of what is best about America.

Over the course of two compelling hours, New Orleans traces the history of this remarkable city through revealing first-hand interviews with New Orleans natives and scholars, and a rich trove of archival material (much of it miraculously spared from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina). Vividly bringing the film up to the current moment is a series of verité-style portraits of people now living in or returning to the city, including famed restauranteur Leah Chase, “The Queen of Creole Cuisine” and the members of the irreverent “Krewe Du Vieux,” the first Mardi Gras organization to parade after Katrina. Also featured, both on camera and on the film’s soundtrack, is New Orleans’ current cultural ambassador, renowned jazz musician Irvin Mayfield. Jeffrey Wright narrates. New Orleans premiered on February 12th, 2007 on American Experience.