Author’s Note: At Smith College last semester, my classmates and I had free reign over our final projects for the last American Studies seminar required for the major. Being in love with New Orleans and interested in longform journalism, I naturally gravitated towards something combining the two. Fortunately for me, around the time we were choosing our project topics happened to be the same time Lower Ninth Ward residents filed a lawsuit against Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation (MIR). Although I wished I could be in the city to report about the incident firsthand, I did my best to glean a detailed sense of what was going on through the plethora of articles (news and academic) written in the fall, when the suit was filed, and through the years Brad Pitt has been connected to New Orleans. The result, which will be published on ViaNolaVie in six parts, is an admittedly strange mix of longform journalism, academic analysis, and personal narrative. I’d love to hear what you think; email me at Nora.Daniels@gmail.com.
During the course of writing this essay, I often found myself returning to a pair of images I placed next to each other in a Word document. One is of Brad Pitt on a movie set with Leonardo DiCaprio, less than two months after MIR was sued. The other is of a middle-aged black woman named Lil Jose Marie Tompkins who was interviewed and photographed in September for an article about the decline of the MIR houses. Tompkins is leaning towards the camera, her hands clasped together through the white ironwork she stands behind, her face dismayed as she looks away from the lens. She recently had her rotting porches repaired by MIR crews, the article reads, and still sees the organization as one that stepped in when and where no one else did. “I refuse to blame Brad Pitt,” Tompkins said. “He’s not a builder. He’s an actor. All he knew was that he wanted to do good. This man tried to do good.’”
Aside from their proximity on my computer screen, I couldn’t help but view these photos as if they were from completely different worlds. They certainly tell completely different stories. Pitt wasn’t posing for the photo—it was taken at a distance, maybe by paparazzi or a fan—and he’s in seventies-era costume; he is literally in another time and place. In the photo of Tompkins, you can see the pattern on the curtain covering her front door, and the way the skin between her eyebrows knots together as she looks away from the camera. You can see the scars on her arm; they could be from old mosquito bites, or burns from the stove, or some other minor injury we all suffer at some point in the day-to-day business of living.
I don’t know how much it mattered, then or now, to the people of the Lower Ninth Ward that Bill and Hillary Clinton, two of neoliberalism’s most well-known accolades, were supporters of the organization that aimed to help them rebuild their neighborhood. My fascination with and adoration of New Orleans culture cannot make up for the fact that I was not among those who lost everything in a manmade disaster. Nor can my dedication to justice and the moral stakes of future progressive politics replace the fact that I am a middle-class, white student at an elite institution writing about an incident involving many people with backgrounds very different than mine. I know that no matter how many I’ve pored over in the course of my research, all the articles, books, photos, and interviews I’ve read can never fully stand in for the oft-neglected nuance that makes up every moment that involves relations between human beings.
But given how they’d been treated before then, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to guess that it didn’t matter as much to people from the Lower Ninth Ward that the Clintons were involved with Brad Pitt as much it mattered that someone with connections and money and big promises was stepping up at all. The people who had been abandoned by their city across the country, people who watched a rising tide of river water take over everything they owned, people whose land, passed down through generations, was decided by some rich business-politicians from D.C. to be not theirs anymore, but a “public green space,” those people probably weren’t preoccupied with the havoc wrought by neoliberalism in politics, as I have been throughout this essay. Most probably weren’t studying Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism or Milton Friedman’s theory of liberation through the market, either. This isn’t to say that residents did not know about those ideas, only that it’s hard to imagine turning down an offer of well-funded, earnest help— whether it be Democrat, Republican, Green Party, neoliberal, socialist, black, or white—when your life have just been upended, the government has forgotten about you, people are debating whether you deserve basic services, and there’s few other options to choose from (let alone any with as much clout and promise the one offered by Brad Pitt).
“Mr. Pitt cannot simply be lumped together with other defendants and held liable for alleged conduct in which he is not even alleged to have participated,” the court documents filed by Brad Pitt’s lawyers in November read. The “petition contains no allegations that Mr. Pitt committed any act or omission, other than in his capacity as a Director, which allegedly caused plaintiffs emotional distress, much less a physical injury.”
That Brad Pitt wants to remove his name from the project he founded on his name, now that it’s clear how much it failed, deserves a response similar to the ones New Orleanians had for the government in Spike Lee’s 2006 Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Fred Johnson, a cultural activist from the Black Men of Labor benevolent society and resident of the Tremé neighborhood had this to say about the government stagnant response after the storm:
It’s straight bullshit. We have people sitting out here for nine months. I think these politicians forget who they work for. They work for the people. They think it’s about themselves. There’s no reason in the world we should have this. Louisiana is still ass-backwards and we still have people who are scattered to the wind, who don’t know or understand what’s next, or where to even find it at. So it’s a lot of bullshit, man! And it’s time for the politicians to quit the bullshit and understand who they work for. I don’t care who you are, I don’t care what color you are. You could be orange! You gotta remember who you work for. You’re working on the backs of poor people who work everyday, pay their taxes, and everybody ain’t lookin’ for welfare—people are workin’ and sometimes workin’ two or three jobs! And these people runnin’ around they don’t know if a dog has four assholes!
Brad Pitt may not have been elected, but was he not working for the people? Did he not proclaim his mission to “make things right for the people of New Orleans?” And further, where would the Lower Ninth Ward be now if Brad Pitt, instead of stepping in to do the government’s job—working for the people—had asked the same question as Johnson? What would have happened if, instead of showcasing what he could do in the Lower Ninth Ward, Pitt had used his voice to amplify what the government wasn’t doing there, like Spike Lee did with his documentary?
Perhaps part of the fault lies in the old story that our government is and always will be inadequate, corrupt, and lazy, our politicians slick and dishonest, and there’s nothing we can do about it. That story we tell each other that says we must always make up for our terrible leaders ourselves, and that’s just the way it is.
In The Marginalized Majority, Roychoudhuri calls the political options available to Democrats “anemic narratives.” The stories, ideas, and leadership of one specific demographic—white men—have prevailed as common sense and solid governing, she writes, despite the fact that that demographic makes up only thirty-one percent of the population.
Despite the fact that narratives like these no longer apply to the majority of us, the same stories continue to be told by our leaders. Almost 42% of Americans did not vote in the 2016 election, not even for Hillary Clinton, whose norm-driven message and vast experience was in stark relief to what she was up against, but whose “establishment” history of elitism and neoliberalism—her weak narratives—undoubtedly influenced some voters. (Just days after the election, Naomi Klein posited that it was the Clintons’ close ties with neoliberalism that got Trump elected.)
When we reacted, when we flooded the streets of Washington a day after Trump’s inauguration to express how badly these narratives have failed us, Roychoudhuri asks, was Clinton listening? Was anyone in a position of political leadership listening? As we rallied together, bound by our identity as other, who was there to hear how our personal experiences —as women, as people of color, as undocumented, as queer, as poor—were our politics?
Still, in New Orleans in the Lower Ninth Ward, the walls crumble, the migraines get worse, and the calls for repairs go unanswered. The poor, the black, the unemployed, the on- welfare, the old, the sick, the disenfranchised, the women, the non-college educated, the Republican, the Democrat, the progressive, the conservative, the minority, the marginalized, the majority: they may have a roof over their heads now, but who knows just how long until that roof caves in. Where are Brad Pitt and the Clintons now?
University of Pennsylvania political science professor and New Orleans native Adolph L. Reed Jr. wrote extensively on politics, class, race, and reconstruction after the storm. In a piece in The Nation published less than two months after the levees breached, he wrote:
I know that some progressives believe this incident will mark a turning point in American politics. […] I suspect, however, that this belief is only another version of the cargo cult that has pervaded the American left in different ways for a century: the wish for some magical intervention or technical fix that will substitute for organizing a broad population base around a clearly articulated, alternative vision that responds to people’s pressing concerns.
Magical interventions, anemic narratives, neoliberalism, reactive responses instead of proactive policy, the classifying of injustice not as injustice but as “opportunity”—call it what you will. All responses—Republican, Democrat, progressive, conservative—to Katrina and the injustice that happened afterwards were, first and foremost, responses. They were stories told by the people starring in them, stories whose telling was dependent on tragedy and injustice, that offered rhetorical Band-Aids instead of hands-on work. “We’re history’s actors,” the Bush administration’s Karl Rove said, “and you, all of you, will be left to use study what we do.” These familiar storylines had been passed down through history by the ones powerful enough to write it, and they related to what was really going on, up close—the scars—accordingly. Meaning, not at all.
The list of injustices that made New Orleans a “microcosm of the world’s problems” for Brad Pitt—marginalization, mistreatment of poor people by big government and big business—isn’t the world’s as much as it is America’s. So, too, is the struggle to gather power in leadership that represents us, the now majority of the population who see their government prioritize neoliberal agendas, not the issues that would benefit our everyday lives, a quintessentially American task. So, too, is the demand for justice for those who have been told through historical narratives that they lack power compared to their leaders an American dream. “It’s been said that racism is so American,” Beyoncé said as she presented the SI Muhammed Ali Legacy Award to Colin Kapernick in 2017, “that when we protest racism some assume we’re protesting America.”
Why is it important to allot some of our attention to a couple rotting porches, a few moldy walls, some people from way down South who had to move after the foundation to their houses started disintegrating? How can we, when our Commander in Chief is facing criminal investigation, and climate change is killing us, and children are being kept in cages, and our personal lives are a tangled mess, with, in the case of Brad Pitt, divorce and custody battles, and in the case of mine, losing insurance, financial debt, and lack of job security, and in the case of everyone else’s, births, deaths, sickness, health, losses, gains, taxes, sex, work, love, hate?
“It is the marginalized among us who can most accurately testify to that distance between American promises—of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and American reality,” Roychoudhuri writes.
Giving a shit about the personal experiences of marginalized Americans is not something the Left simply needs to pay lip service to in the interests of being politically correct. Nor is it something we should give ourselves a pat on the back for paying attention to. It is at the very core of our ability to envision a reality in which true egalitarianism exists, and it is the most direct and effective way to build that reality.
We should—we can—because there’s no other options, now, except us.
This is the last installment of a five-part series. Click to read the full series:“It’s the Symptom, not the Cause, Brad” series on ViaNolaVie.
Author’s Note: As I mentioned in my note at the beginning of this article, I did not do any on-the-ground reporting for this story. Being in school in Massachusetts, I relied on 35 pieces of writing–from national and local magazines, websites, and books–for quotes, descriptions, and the other details necessary to create a piece of longform journalism. I am grateful to the reporters, writers, and academics whose work was vital to make this piece what I wanted it to be. The links embedded throughout my piece should serve as in-text citations for their work, and a full bibliographic entry (with page numbers, as necessary) of each source is listed below.
Feireiss, Kristin, ed. and Brad Pitt. Architecture in Times of Need: Make It Right Rebuilding New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward (New York: Prestel, 2009).
Klein, Naomi. “It was the Democrats embrace of neoliberalism that won it for Trump,” The Guardian, November 9, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/09/rise-of-the-davos-class-sealed-americas-fate
Lee, Spike. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, directed by Spike Lee (New York City: HBO, 2006), Swank Digital Campus via Five College Libraries, Part 4, 1:37:00.
Naumann, Ryan and Gary Trock. “Brad Pitt Denies Wrongdoing in Legal Battle Over Faulty New Orleans Homes,” The Blast, November 20, 2018, https://theblast.com/brad-pitt-make-it-right-new-orleans-homes-denies-responsibility/.
Nicholson, Tom. “Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio Look Unrecognisable In New ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood Pics,” Esquire.com, October 10, 2018, https://www.esquire.com/uk/latest-news/a23705200/brad-pitt-and-leo-dicaprio-look-unrecognisable-in-new-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-pics/. Photo: GCSHE/MEGA.
Reed Jr., Adolph. “Class-ifying the Hurricane,” The Nation, September 15, 2005, https://www.thenation.com/article/class-ifying-hurricane/.
Reckdahl, Katy, “Closer look at ‘Make It Right’ homes at center of lawsuit against Brad Pitt foundation.” The Advocate, September 13, 2008. https://www.theadvocate.com/ new_orleans/news/article_258e70e8-b5e4-11e8-95d0-030296bbc61f.html.
Rivlin, Gary. “Why the Lower Ninth Ward Looks like the Hurricane Just Hit,” The Nation, August 13, 2015.
Roychoudhuri, Onnesha, The Marginalized Majority: Claiming Our Power in a Post-Truth America. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2018, xxxiv; xxxiv, xxix; xxviii; xxii; 129.
Variety, “Beyoncé surprises Colin Kapernick to present SI Muhammed Ali Legacy Award,” NBC News, December 6, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/beyonc-surprises-colin-kaepernick-present-si-muhammad-ali-legacy-award-n826986.