New Orleans has been the subject of many-an-excellent non-fiction movie. So let’s watch a few. It’s a chance to discover something new about the city you love without leaving the couch you have grown so accustomed to.
Here are my Top 15 New Orleans-focused documentaries in alphabetical order!
Always for Pleasure
Les Blank is an American documentary filmmaker best known for his portraits of American musicians. That’s exactly what we get in this film centered around local celebrations for Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, Jazz Fest and second lines. Created in 1978, it’s only about an hour long and features performances by many of New Orleans’ most influential musicians, including Professor Longhair, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, the Neville Brothers, Allen Toussaint and more.
A Tuba to Cuba
This 2018 documentary is an homage to tuba player Ben Jaffe’s father, as well as a journey in search of the indigenous music that gave birth to New Orleans jazz. Jaffe is the leader of the world famous Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and he and his band arrive in post-embargo Cuba to learn about their personal and professional histories. The film has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has won several awards, including the 2018 Audience Award at the New Orleans Film Festival.
This 2016 movie by local director Lily Keber explores the life and music of piano legend James Booker. Keber’s telling is a story of human struggle, genius and frailty, and Booker is a subject worth spending some time with. Dr. John called him “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced,” so…we’re obviously going to get a character.
Big Charity: The Death of America’s Oldest Hospital
Charity Hospital had been a mainstay in New Orleans for several hundred years. Here’s the gripping history of that hospital, and the ultimately unsuccessful battle to save her in the years following Hurricane Katrina.
Rent it here on Amazon.com.
Bury the Hatchet
This Best Louisiana Feature-winner at the New Orleans Film Festival is a portrait of three Mardi Gras Indian “Big Chiefs.” Learn about their unique history as runaway slaves in Louisiana’s bayous. Find out how the tradition evolved from backstreet gangs to something beautiful and peaceful. And examine what modern struggles around harassment by police, violence, gentrification and a generational shift mean for their future.
Rent it with your library card here on Kanopy.com.
Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans
The Tremé isn’t just one of the oldest African American neighborhoods in the country. It’s one of its most important neighborhoods, as well. This 2008 documentary guides us through the “backatown” where jazz was born, where America’s first black daily newspaper was produced, and to the streets and homes of the African American activists, musicians and characters whose ideas and music continue to shape us to this day. If you don’t know the history of the Tremé, you don’t know the history of New Orleans.
Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together
If you want to see this 1982 film featuring New Orleans pianists Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair and Isidore “Tuts” Washington, it won’t be as easy at clicking on a link. To get a copy of this award-winning cultural treasure, you’ll need to order a copy. (What is this? 1982?!)
Trust me, though, it’s worth it. This video features the three legendary musicians playing together for the first time — a rehearsal in preparation for a concert. But it turned out to be the only time they’d play together, because Longhair died two days later, before the performance. The rest of the documentary gives the audience an intimate look at the jazz wake and funeral procession for one of the city’s greatest musicians.
Getting Back to Abnormal
Are you in the mood for some Louisiana politics? This popular documentary from 2013 tells the story of white Councilwoman Stacy Head’s fight to maintain her seat in a black majority district. It’s an exciting look into what happens when race, politics and culture all collide in post-Katrina New Orleans.
New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason blocked a punt against the Atlanta Falcons in 2006 — leading to our Who Dats’ first score in their first game back in the Superdome after a 21-month Hurricane Katrina-related absence. It was his most legendary moment as Saints player, but it’s his work since retiring that has made him a hero. In 2011, Gleason was diagnosed with ALS and was given two to five years to live. Nearly a decade later he’s still going. This movie incorporates his own personal video journals to his then-unborn son into a story about his mission to raise awareness about the disease. It’s an emotional powerhouse of a movie about living whatever amount of life we still have left to the fullest.
Make It Funky!
This is a poignant look on New Orleans music’s effect on some of the most famous musicians in the world. It was filmed following Hurricane Katrina and it’s a tribute to this inimitable center of the artform. The movie features live performances by Fats Domino, The Neville Brothers and more, and includes interviews with Keith Richards and Bonnie Raitt.
Rent it here on Amazon.com
When it comes to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, it feels like we’ve heard emotional accounts from every angle imaginable. Not quite. Here’s one more. The storm tore families apart, and that includes pets from their loving owners. Those pets found their way to new families all over the country, and — as New Orleanians began the process of rebuilding — many went through extraordinary lengths (including heartbreaking custody battles) to reunite with their four-legged loved ones. This is that story, and it’s going to hit you animal-lovers in all the feels.
Mr. Cao Goes to Washington
It’s not often these days that the city of New Orleans has a republican representing them in the U.S. House of Representative. But that’s exactly what Joseph Cao did. Mr. Cao was the first Vietnamese American ever elected to the U.S. Congress and this honest, award-winning telling of his complicated two years fighting for New Orleans in Washington is a fascinating and engaging watch.
Three adolescent brothers journey through nighttime New Orleans. Who do you think they’ll meet? Dancers, musicians, hustlers and revelers make for an exhilarating night, but it’s the sights and sounds that make this movie so beautiful to experience. Follow them on their journey and imagine what it will be like when you can get back out into a reinvigorated late-night NOLA!
Rent it here on Amazon.com.
Trouble the Water
This 2008 Katrina-focused documentary is a Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize-winner, as well as a local classic. Scott and Kimberly Rivers film with their home camera as they take shelter in the attic with neighbors during the worst of the hurricane. The footage is frightening, and the journey of Scott and Kimberly trying to rebuild their lives post-storm is an emotional one.
The Whole Gritty City
For many of us, marching bands are the heart and soul of Mardi Gras. This story follows three school bands as they prepare for their Carnival parades. But this is hardly a story about revelry. Instead, it’s a documentary about children struggling to reach adulthood as best they can in spite of the overwhelming obstacles of poverty and violence. Their stories are worth committing to memory.