The tantalizing title of a new documentary about post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, which airs Monday on PBS, is “Getting Back to Abnormal.” It could just as well be called “The Education of Stacy Head.” The filmmakers take us back to 2010 and the sharp-tongued, and white, New Orleans city councilwoman’s re-election campaign in a majority-black district against a charismatic African-American pastor. Needless to say, race is an issue.
The takeaway from the nuanced, and often funny film, though, is just how far Head has come. (I have a brief cameo. Don’t blink). A popular but polarizing figure then, Head is now an at-large council member who won a notably low-temperature victory earlier this year, with strong support across racial lines. Sure, Head’s blunt style and zero-tolerance attitude still get her into occasional trouble. But she’s become a calmer presence and a savvier politician, and we see the roots of her transformation on the screen.
We see her at a City Council meeting holding a hand-drawn placard to show the “ludicrousy” of the city’s high trash pickup costs. The object of Head’s wrath was Veronica White, Ray Nagin’s sanitation director, who responds to Head’s charges of dishonesty by accusing her of trying to “paint a picture as if everyone in this department is thieves and crooks, when you’re the one.” And we see her addressing the camera, in full soul-searching mode.
“I wish I could bite my tongue more. I do. And I work on that; I struggle with that. Because one of my negatives is that because I’m so direct, some people don’t hear what I need them to hear and what they need to hear,” she says. The thing is, “The typical politician talk drives me batty. So the council meetings sometimes, I want to put a pen to my jugular.”
Equally enlightening is a look at some of Head’s role models. There’s her mother, who, it turns out, is as feisty and impolitic as her daughter can be. But the real revelation is trusted aide Barbara Lacen-Keller, who goes to bat for Head in the community and helps guide her through the tricky terrain.
The filmmakers admit they intentionally started off by showing Head’s controversial public face.
“When you first meet her in the movie, you’re a little baffled,” filmmaker Louis Alvarez said. “Where is she coming from? What does she believe in? Is she a racist? People are saying she’s a racist. We wanted them to kind of wonder and figure it out for themselves.” But they soon segue into a tale of an unlikely partnership between Head and Lacen-Keller, two quirky and equally defiant characters. Lacen-Keller, a veteran African-American activist, roams the Central City streets hugging people, urging them to exercise their franchise — “let it become a habit because that is your voice, baby” — and explaining what she sees in Head. “She get a little wired up, but that don’t mean her heart ain’t in the right place,” she tells one woman.
In a recent interview, Lacen-Keller said she knew the first time she sat down with Head in 2006 that she’d be an improvement over incumbent Renee Gill Pratt, who has since been convicted of political corruption. “It’s not so much that Stacy beat Renee. Renee beat herself because Renee did not do anything, and the people didn’t forget that. Because here Stacy was, brand new, never been in politics, didn’t have a clue. This young, white girl — I mean, be real, that’s what they were saying. A white girl, not even from New Orleans,” Lacen-Keller said of that first race. “I needed to make sure people know, hey, this is a person that we need to work with. I think she’s going to get some things done.”
Still, Lacen-Keller remained fully aware the relationship was closely watched. She even turned down a job offer for more money because “I never would have been able to convince people I left for better. They’d have said, ‘I told you so, look they ran Ms. Barbara away.’ ”
But all evidence points to fewer people saying such things, perhaps because Head has toned herself down and probably even more because she’s built a track record. These days, it’s common to hear people pine for more urban revivals like the one Head shepherded on Freret Street or tell tales of her helping contractors navigate the DBE process. It may also help that her sometime foil is not Ray Nagin but Mitch Landrieu, even though she says the two agree 90 percent of the time. And she continues to try to learn from her mistakes.
Another of the film’s high-voltage moments was when she blew a kiss into the audience before the council voted to demolish four public housing complexes. Head said she aimed the gesture at one protester who’d picketed her home the night before. She says now that she was tired and “brought it on myself.”
The confrontation with White is different story. “Sometimes you have to point out the absurdity of the situation in almost an absurd way,” Head explained. On that one, Head says, she has “no regrets.”