Doing God’s Will in New Orleans
by Jay S. Jacobs
Sometimes life can be going so well and suddenly almost everything you have ever known is completely torn apart.
Take Wendell Pierce. He had long toiled to become a respected actor, appearing in films such as Waiting to Exhale, Sleepers, Get on the Bus, Ray, Bulworth and The Fighting Temptations. He had finally found his dream role – playing Det. William “Bunk” Moreland on the acclaimed HBO series The Wire – a role for which he was twice nominated for NAACP Image Awards. (He ended up eventually winning the Award for his 2007 HBO movie Life Support with Queen Latifah.)
The New Orleans native was getting ready to film the fourth season of The Wire when Hurricane Katrina hit. Suddenly his home and those of his family were completely destroyed. Not only that, his city – in some ways his world – had been turned upside down. Then, when help was needed the most, much of the badly needed aid was slowed or stopped by bureaucracy, greed and incompetence.
However, Pierce is not willing to just sit back and be all talk while others fix the problem; he is putting his beliefs in action. He has founded the Ponchartrain Park Community Development Corporation, which is in the forefront of rebuilding his vibrant, historic neighborhood. (Go to http://www.pontchartrainparkcdc.org to learn more and make donations.)
Pierce is also keeping the memory of New Orleans and Katrina alive with two of his most current projects, both for HBO. First, he recently appeared in Spike Lee’s two-part documentary If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise – which looks at life in New Orleans five years on from the devastation. It is a continuation of Lee’s celebrated 2006 documentary series When the Levees Broke – which Pierce also appeared in – and the new film goes back to see what changes have occurred in the city since the tragedy, for good or for bad.
Pierce is also playing an important role in the latest acclaimed series by David Simon – who also created The Wire. The New Orleans-filmed and based Treme (named after a local neighborhood) takes a hard look at the survivors of Katrina in the months and years after surviving the storm. Pierce plays Antoine Batiste, a jazz musician who is trying to revive his career amongst all the wreckage surrounding him.
Pierce was kind enough to call us recently, right as If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise was released on DVD and just over a week before the second season debut of Treme. He gave us a harrowing perspective of the tragedy, as well as offering some hope that if people band together selflessly, we can eventually recover from even the most harrowing tragedies.
I believe you were probably living in Baltimore while working on The Wire when Katrina hit. As a native of New Orleans, how did you hear about everything that was going on at home and how did it affect you and your family?
Well, I was actually here. I came in that Saturday for a vacation before I went to Baltimore to shoot the next season. I evacuated with my parents on that Sunday. We were in the hurricane still, in a little town called Vacherie, Louisiana. We were without power and everything, so we just relied on transistor radios and candles. We heard over the radio that the levees had broken and people were trapped at the Convention Center. There is a story that never got out, which is that people actually tried to get back into the city and do like a Dunkirk run to rescue the people [referring to a cataclysmic World War II battle in Dunkirk, France, in which civilians banded together to save trapped soldiers], and FEMA stopped it. So, I was actually here. My family lost everything.
What was the experience like when you first personally experienced the devastation caused by Katrina to your home and your community?
It was overwhelming. To see the entire city destroyed, it was like after a nuclear blast. It’s so overwhelming to try to get people to understand how everything in your world is affected. Not just your home. Say, God forbid, your house burns down or someone burglarizes you. Your neighbors are there to come take care of you. They take you in and make sure you are okay. But this… everyplace you knew was just destroyed. There is an episode of The Twilight Zone, where the guy is reading in a bank vault where they have a nuclear blast and he comes up and everything is destroyed. That’s what it was like.
I spoke with Spike in 2006 when When the Levees Broke came out and he said that the people were failed by the government – not just Bush, but Nagin and Blanco and FEMA and everyone else. Five years later, what do you feel has gotten better and what do you feel has not improved enough?
Well, the one thing, the poetic truth of this is the fact that in spite of them, the spirit of the people – and the one thing I’ve learned is the resilience of the human spirit – the people themselves have come up with innovative ways of getting back. Of coming together. Of creating economic engines for the city and their neighborhoods and all. All the ingenuity and all of the innovations come from the people themselves, from the grass roots up. Like the effort that I’m doing in Pontchartrain Park. We did our own development corporation and we’re building geothermal and solar homes. The failure is still happening at the government level. We have constant political attacks from the governor [Bobby Jindal], who has three billion dollars of the money and is holding it up and making sure it is not spent. There has been a war on the poor where they just tear down all of public housing. Imagine, a city that was destroyed, the only thing the government has done since Katrina – you would think there would be major government construction programs – but no, the only thing they have done on scale is to tear down. They tore down the public housing, just to get rid of the poor. Because there are those who don’t have our best interests at heart.
Do you feel the change in administration has made any difference in the Federal response? The people interviewed in the film seemed to have mixed feelings about how much better Obama has been than Bush.
You see what people don’t understand is the federal response is great now. But the still, the money goes through the state. So if the money goes through the state, it’s not going to be seen in the city. To give you a perfect example: 750 million dollars is allocated so that we can meet the new basic flood elevation. But that money can’t be used for new construction. Now, what sense does that make? Money allocated so people can build homes at the new basic flood elevation, but the state puts on the prohibition that you can’t use it for new construction. So all people can do is raise their homes – that have been destroyed – up to some new basic flood elevation. They even put the restriction on where you can’t use the money for any renovation. You can only use it to lift the homes. So there’s a $100,000 grant that you can get to lift a house that’s just a shell. People are lifting houses that are just a shell and then saying, “I’ve got to figure out another way to get the money to renovate.” So it’s really that Bobby Jindal is the greatest evil that has set upon us right now. He is closing schools. He’s closing Charity Hospital. He has torn down public housing. That battle with the government is still going on. And the unfortunate thing is: there is a thing called The Stafford Act. No matter how great the federal response is now, the money goes to the state, because the Stafford Act says that any federal assistance goes to the state government – you know, because they know better what to do. So that’s where you get this whole problem. Bobby Jindal is our problem now. The other thing is, you have this hope and optimism in the city, with the new government – with the Mitch Landrieu [who became mayor in 2010] administration – but we are looking at this through rose-colored glasses. Nothing has changed. Yeah, there’s hope. Yeah, he runs city government a little more efficiently. And of course we have to give him time, to allow things to change. But, you know, we have to be truthful. To thine own self be true. Crime is up. School reformation… we have school reform now that you have all these charter schools, but can you just as a neighborhood kid go to your neighborhood school? No, because it’s not open admissions. They are cherry picking the kids. I tell people today, the kid who sits across from his school, in his neighborhood, and you don’t pick him to go to his own school – he will pick you to rob in about five years. So, it’s all the same issues, man. The governor is failing us. But it’s people who are still working hard and being innovative.
Spike also said at the time that it felt like people had already forgotten what happened in New Orleans – and five years later it is just worse. How do you think it is possible that such a tragedy, which got people so passionate about helping, could eventually sort of fade away from the public consciousness?
Two things. The media moves on. They are looking for the next big story. But, secondly, and most importantly – Martin Luther King said it the best, we are a ten day nation. He used to tell his staff that all the time. He said, “We have the consciousness of the world and this nation for about ten days.” After that, it’s human nature that they will move on and think of something else. While we’re all looking at the tragedy right now in Japan, people have even forgotten Haiti.
In If God Is Willing, you discuss going to Haiti after the earthquakes. How did you get involved in that mission and what was the experience like?
I haven’t had a chance to go yet. There is a good friend and colleague – Jamie Hector, who was on The Wire. He played Marlo and is from Haiti. And I have a friend who is from Haiti, who is working down there and we sent help and all. But I personally haven’t had a chance to go down yet, between shooting and still working on this rebuilding of New Orleans.
Of course New Orleans also got hit with the man-made tragedy of the BP oil spill last year. How devastating was that for the city which was trying to bring itself back?
I think that’s on a larger scale affected the whole area. It’s affected the seafood industry. Tourism is still going well here in the city. It’s affected our restaurants in the city. In the hinterlands, just outside the city, it’s really hit them even harder, because so much of their industry is based on oil and seafood and fishing – commercial and recreational fishing. It’s hit those communities harder. I am in the minority here, because I am for a moratorium on the drilling. I’m a part of the green technology economy. That’s what I believe. I am actually part of a group that has started the Louisiana Sustainability Fund. It’s a 250 million dollar private equity fund that is focused on clean tech companies in energy. Energy storage companies and water purification companies. You can do good and be profitable at the same time. That’s what we’re doing with the Louisiana Sustainability Fund. But so many people are so desperate to get the drilling started again, or to make sure that we keep drilling in the Gulf, because so much of the economy is based on that in Louisiana. What I’m saying is, keep that sort of infrastructure, just flip it to industries and technologies that are not going to destroy the ecosystem and destroy the very thing that we can’t replace – which is the Gulf, which is the ecosystem of the Gulf, the seafood of the Gulf. We have dolphins washing up dead now. You think all of that oil just went away? Even if you broke it up so microbes can eat it, at a certain point you can’t just… if you eat a couple of bowls of pasta, eventually you’re going to be full. You can’t just keep eating and eating. So the risk/reward isn’t worth it. I would think that on the year anniversary of this happening that people would understand that and be focusing more on green technology. That’s why we’re putting our money where our mouth is, where a group of men and women who has Louisiana connections started this Louisiana Sustainability Fund. It’s going to bring the jobs that we need.
At the end, you described yourself as an actor and the President of the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corporation. Do you feel that your fame can help you spread the word on your more altruistic pursuits?
Yeah. First of all, that was the thing that kind of got the word out there. CNN wouldn’t have done a documentary on Pontchartrain Park and our efforts if it hadn’t been for my involvement. I knew that. Recognition and celebrity is a tangible thing. I never really explored whatever little celebrity I had. I thought if I can’t use that now, for such a great effort, then when can I use it? What happened is, it’s affecting hundreds and hundreds of people. Then it sets up a template that can be used and become infectious as people understand what we are doing. I’m testifying and giving keynote speeches all over because of the work that I’m doing. I was on Meet the Press and CNN did the documentary because of the recognition. But it’s not for me; it’s actually a celebration of what the people are doing. I’m not doing this alone. It’s how we’ve come together. I just give a voice to the voices. Give a platform to so many people who don’t have that platform. So, I’m appreciative of celebrity because of that.
You also were in the part about the Saints winning the Super Bowl. How do you feel that the success of a sports team can bring a city together?
Well, it’s an emotional, cathartic moment. It was like one of the greatest cathartic moments. It was the shedding of the a forty year burden. That has a major impact. But it’s short-lived. It’s like having a great big party. It’s short-lived when it comes to end of emotion. As a businessman, I appreciate the economic impact of having a championship sports team. That was the thing that the Saints never got over those forty years. To actually win is not just a championship, it has a major economic impact, because people buy your merchandise all over the world and you are recognized and people come because of that. It’s reflected also in Treme, what we’re doing, because on Sunday nights, people come around the city and have this cathartic moment of watching Treme and seeing how that happens. I think it’s the same thing that happened with God Willing. People got together and everyone stopped for a moment to say “let’s relive what’s happening and understand that this is something that is meaningful and happening in our lives now.” So the impact of a sports team can be important. Emotionally, and financially, when it comes to the economic impact. But that can’t be all of it. There is still a lot of work to be done and we can’t just pretend that everything went away because we won the Super Bowl.
You are now working in New Orleans again for the HBO series Treme. What is it like to get the opportunity to act in your hometown?
It’s more than a job – this will be a marked time in my life. Years from now, kids will be able to say to me, “Mr. Pierce, in New Orleans’ darkest hours, after the disaster, what did you do?” I can take them to a home in Pontchartain Park. We can sit down and watch this work that I did as an actor trying to talk about the lives of people in New Orleans. It’s art imitating life and life imitating art, so it’s a very special thing.
As an actor, it would probably be better for your career to live in New York or Los Angeles. What is it about New Orleans that keeps you there?
Well, I actually do live in New York and Los Angeles. I consider myself tri-coastal. I was in LA a couple of weeks ago and I’m going to be in New York next week. I go back and forth between the cities. But there is always home. New Orleans is home. I’m here now more and working out of here more because it’s a call to action, man. All hands on deck. The city needs the help. Once she gets her footing, then I’ll go back to being bi-coastal.
Well, speaking of Treme, the second season is going to be starting soon. What can we expect in the new season?
It’s a year later. I distinctly remember what that moment meant for us here in New Orleans – realizing that we’re in this for the long haul. The realization after all the media went away and all the attention was starting to go away and you’re left with devastation and your life in the state that it’s in. You realize, wow, it’s going to take every fiber of my body to get back up. That’s when the realization is sinking in. That’s what the season is like this year – the realization that your life has been changed and you’ve got a lot of work to do to get it back.
Will the oil spill be dramatized in future episodes?
Well, we’re doing it chronologically. This is 2006, going into 2007. So there is a four-year lag on the show. It’s interesting, because looking back, it gives people a little perspective. You’re looking back at a time that is always four years behind you. It helps people to realize how far they’ve come and also how far we still have to go. That also happens with God Willing. In God Willing, it’s that realization. You sit down and you say “okay.” But as you look at God Willing and all of this, the most important thing is to learn the lesson of what the people are saying. The resilience of the human spirit. It’s not just some disaster story. The documentation is not of the tragedy, but the perseverance of human spirit. Example after example after example after example of the characters of the people that you meet in God Willing. Celebrating in that moment where we’re second lining at the end, you are looking at a collection of people who are expressing and demonstrating the resilience of the human spirit that has not been seen in a generation.
Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc from the documentaries ended up playing your girlfriend on Treme.
Obviously, she hadn’t been a professional actress before, what was she like to work with?
She’s great. Phyllis is great. She’s an actor now. She’s definitely an actor now. I love working with her and she is a talent. She’s a talent already. That’s what is recognized from the first [film, When the Levees Broke]… from all of the documentaries. We just took that talent and brought that authenticity of who she is to Treme and then she just learned and expanded as an actress. It’s wonderful working with her. I love working with her. She is a wonderful woman.
Treme is your second series with David Simon (who also created The Wire). What is it about working with him that you enjoy?
David has spoiled me, really, because the work that he does finds the extraordinary in the ordinary. It’s almost cinema verite. It is an ease and a focus on authenticity that connects the actors to the material in a deeper way. It also is not any sort of formula that you will ever see on television. He breaks the convention of formulaic television. It’s really a study of human nature… a study of human nature in particularly interesting situations and extraordinary places and extraordinary times. But the ordinary in those times. That can be celebrated and a source of inspiration and a source of knowledge and learning. That’s the thing I really appreciate. He celebrates the human nature, just the small acts of human nature of how people live their lives every day. I appreciate that, because I know that eventually things will come to an end and I’m going to have to go back to material that will be very difficult to do, because it’s going to be so much less rich. His worlds are so rich.
The Wire could arguably be said to be on the short list of the best television dramas ever.
What was the experience like and how cool was it to be on such an artistically stimulating series?
What was so great was that it’s about the work that you do and the people that you meet. What an extraordinary cast. An extraordinary crew. What extraordinary writers. Knowing that out of the shine of New York and LA, outside of the loop of professional television and Hollywood, in little houses and bars and stations and warehouses in Baltimore – like New Orleans, populated with these little homes and street scenes and places around – that you create something that is lasting. That’s all you’ve always wanted as an artist. I feel like I’ve been blessed to no end. I know that these are defining moments of my career.
I have to admit, the first time I remember seeing you was in the short lived sitcom The Weber Show.
(laughs) Oh, yes.
Most of what you have done since then has been very serious. Would you like to do more comedy again?
Well, I find the comedy in these shows. There was a run of sitcoms that I did there for a while, that I told my agents, “No, I’m getting in a rut. People are seeing me just one way. I need to do something else.” That’s when I actually went out on an audition for a little show called The Wire. That’s when I realized that I am enjoying being in shows that are about a little more in-depth look at life. There will be enough comedy to come. These opportunities are the rare ones, so I’m going to ride this horse as long as I can.
New Orleans is a city with such a vital musical tradition. You play a musician in Treme and you also host the radio series “Jazz at Lincoln Center.” Had things happened differently in your life, would you have liked to have made a living as a musician?
Let me tell you, that is a dream of mine. I hung out with musicians growing up. We went to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a performing arts high school here. I knew Wynton and Branford Marsalis and Donald Harrison and Terence Blanchard and Harry Connick, Jr. and all of those cats, man. And their mentor, Ellis Marsalis. I just grew up around so much music and musicians that that’s a secret love of mine. But what’s so great about being an actor is I had a lot of interest in a whole bunch of different things, and that’s the thing that allows you to explore. As an actor you get to do all of these different things and get to be all of these different people that you may have been if you had taken another path.
Several people in If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise suggested that New Orleans has through history been sort of cursed with bad luck. What are your feelings on that subject?
I think there is no bad luck. What happens is there is a thin veil between prosperity and destruction. There is a thin veil between people acting with great good will and people acting in the most heinous and evil ways. What we see, we forget about that negative side. Forget about that tragedy. We forget and we assume that sometimes what happened to us… the rarity is a city that isn’t devastated at some point in its history. But that we don’t see the ugly side of human nature. We don’t see the failures of government at all. Those are a given. That will come, no matter where you live, Jay.
I’m in Philadelphia.
Well, did you ever go to West Philly back in the day?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Also, my mother’s family is from New Orleans. In fact, my great uncle was a fairly well known artist in the 30s and 40s who mostly sketched areas of New Orleans. His name was J. Carl Hancock.
Okay, yeah. He was a contemporary of a guy named Paul Ninas, who is a favorite of mine. So, what happens is, man, it just shows you that New Orleans was of great importance for a very long time. That there was the Battle of New Orleans; that there’s been floods and destruction. The fact is, and bad choices made because of the ignorance of human nature. The attacks on the poor and the racial animosity that slavery can bring about, that’s a legacy that’s passed on. That people are going to have to deal with. You walk around the street where all of the sudden you see a white guy with the same name as you and you go hey, just up the river about 20 minutes from here, your people owned me. You look at the legacy of it just here in the geography. Our greatest, grandest avenue is St. Charles Avenue. Right behind it is one of the poorest sections of the city – literally two blocks behind it. One of the poorest sections of the city. A lot of crime. It’s the residual of that. These were the huge plantation owners homes on the grand avenue, and behind them is where they kept their enslaved people. These are the descendants of them, just one generation ago. My mother’s grandfather was a slave. My mother is still alive. She can say, “I remember my grandfather.” That’s just one degree of separation from me. So, it’s not cursed by anything. We reap what we sow. It’s how you respond to the tragedy that will define you most in your life. That’s for the individual and a city.
Spike actually did the nearly impossible in the series in making even Brownie (former FEMA chief Michael Brown) seem to be almost a sympathetic character.
(laughs) I know.
Watching the documentaries back, what surprised you the most to learn?
Like I said before, you look at that and you realize that there are those who don’t have your best interests at heart. There are those who have a different agenda than actually helping the city. What you have to focus on is those who have the greatest of human nature, who help and want to change the situation and share your agenda of moving forward. Of being proactive. Of bringing something of a higher quality back. Of trying to do things to be preventative of something happening again. You seek that out in the human spirit that people display. That’s the key. Don’t get lost in the one track of the one individual and how they play the agenda. The thing that you learned from that is that it all goes back to Bush when it comes to Brownie. The lesson we can learn from his situation is don’t just carry the water. You carry the water, [then] tell the truth.
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Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 22, 2011.