Roundtable: The First Post-Katrina Mardi Gras

Topics include: New Orleans justice system under strain, the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras; and Tyler Perry's new movie, Madea's Family Reunion. Guests: George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; E.R. Shipp, distinguished professor in journalism at Hofstra University School of Communication; and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, professor of globalization and education at New York University.

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ED GORDON, host:

Now, onto our roundtable. Shortages in staff and funding may allow thousands of criminals to go free in New Orleans, and the Mardi Gras, as we just heard, is going on in the Big Easy. We're going to talk about that and much, much more. Joining us now from our New York bureau is Marcelo Suarez Orozco. He's professor of globalization and education. He's also co-director of immigration studies at New York University. E.R. Shipp joins us. She's a professor of journalism at Hofstra University. She joins us from the campus studios there. And George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, joins us from Maryland.

All right, folks. We want to talk a little bit about New Orleans, a little bit more about New Orleans. We just heard from Farai, who's just returned, and she's going to be bringing us stories all week, but Marcelo, when you hear those stories plus a story that was just released where we may find that the court system may be forced to start releasing upwards to 4,000 prisoners--and these are from the small to the large, from what's noted in one account I read: from potheads to murder suspects--if monies can't be found to continue to house them. The local public defenders office is in a lot of trouble. This is a city, we should note, while on the comeback--that still faces tremendous, tremendous, uphill struggle.

Professor MARCELO SUAREZ OROZCO (Globalization and Education, New York University): Indeed, Ed. It has all the markings of a state that is unable to discharge the most basic functions we expect of a state in terms of protecting its citizens, in terms of providing the basic supports for the conduction of social life. This constitutes a major social trauma. We heard it in the voice of those interviewed in the earlier segment. The death, the separations, the devastation, and really, what we hear here is the relevance and the importance of family, of the resiliency in the voice of those affected most directly, but really, a complete failure of the state to provide the infrastructure to make life predictable, safe and to really get on with the work of rebuilding the city.

GORDON: E.R. Shipp, we want to be careful. Too often, when we watch, for instance, the news accounts of Mardi Gras and a sense of trying to get back to normalcy--while we want that to happen, not only for the city and its residents but for America to a great degree, with one of its great cities on its knees to some, to coin a phrase--we also want to be careful in knowing that those pictures can fool you. As Farai said, once you get out of the business district, there's a lot of pain and suffering still going.

Professor E.R. SHIPP (Journalism, Hofstra University School of Communication): Yes, that's what we've been hearing a lot of, even this week, as correspondents return to the story. I've actually been pleasantly surprised that so many have returned to New Orleans and to the Gulf Region in general, to see what has happened in the last six months.

But before we move on from the criminal justice issue, I wanted to point out that that shows, yet again, a failure of planning. We are now six months out from Katrina, so somewhere along the way, it should have occurred to officials that they had a problem. You've got defendants--in some cases, they're just merely suspects who maybe haven't even been arraigned yet--who are entitled to speedy trial. We have a phrase here that comes out of constitutional law: Justice delayed is justice denied. They should have found a way to, by now, bring in extra lawyers. If their public defenders system can't handle the load, they could have brought in private lawyers to help out. They could have moved some of these suspects to neighboring counties that are in better shape. So this just, once again, shows that somebody down there...

GORDON: How do we do that, E.R., if there is no money in the till? Because all of those things are going to take money.

Prof. SHIPP: Well, not necessarily, in some ways. If you put out a call to private law firms, this is an emergency, lawyers are obligated to do good work for the community, pro bono, public help. You can get some of them to volunteer to take on some of these cases. If they use their wits, they can find aggressive ways to probably plea bargain most of these--particularly, as you said, the pothead-type cases. There are options that don't require New Orleans to shell out that much money, and the notion of taking some of these people to neighboring counties that are in better shape--well, that's something the state can help with, and it doesn't seem to me it costs that much money in any other surrounding counties' budget.

GORDON: Well, I don't. I bet there'll be some argument there in terms of just manpower and the like, but I think you're right in the sense of the pro bono work and maybe thinking, as we clichely say, outside of the box.

George Curry, when you think about the release of 4,000 suspects--and that's one of those headline grabbing things--but here's a reality: 42 lawyers, six investigators, six office workers and a $2.2 million annual budget before the storm is now down to six attorneys, one investigator, one office worker and, many people are saying, almost no money.

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Editor-in-Chief, National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): Yeah, and the problem with transferring them to surrounding areas--a lot of them are already overcrowded. I mean, so that's the problem you have. I agree that lawyers are officers of the court, and they can perform some of these functions, but you're talking about an office here that got 75 percent of its funding from traffic court fines. Well, you haven't had--not only haven't had traffic court, you haven't had traffic in New Orleans--so it's a serious money issue that has to be addressed.

The issue here, certainly, is for the--everybody's presumed innocent. So therefore, they are entitled to some kind of legal representation, even if they can't afford it. And that really is putting a burden on the prosecution's side because if you can't provide--if the state can't and city can't provide the lawyers for the people who can't afford them, you're going to have to let them go.

GORDON: Marcelo, do we have to--America, when I say we--have to look at this situation and understand that even though Katrina essentially destroyed a city almost overnight, the rebuilding of New Orleans will not happen overnight?

Prof. OROZCO: Systems are very fragile, Ed, and this is really a paradigm of the, how, the ease with which a beautifully functioning model can be destroyed very, very, fast--and how difficult it is, all of the issues that we've been discussing to really build in a synchronic way, in a functional way, to bring back a functioning, working city. Cities are fragile systems and they need a tremendous amount of planning or thought, ingenuity, imagination and this is the challenge we face now.

GORDON: All right. We'll turn our attention to something that clearly is not as serious on one level as the rebuilding of New Orleans, but it's interesting to note because it speaks to Hollywood and the changes and lack thereof. We see that Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion which is a comic drama, the genre that many of us see on stage across the country now. Black stage plays are very lucrative in the entertainment business--but Tyler Perry showed with his first movie, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, that made close to $100 million, is now the number one movie in the country.

Thirty million dollars opening box office, that's a huge, huge box office--particularly for a non-adventure movie, George Curry. When you take a look at this--Tyler Perry and Reuben Cannon and others who produced this--really took a page out of an entrepreneur's book that said Hollywood would not have made this movie on its own. They decided to essentially, with the first movie, go make it, convince Lion's Gate that there's money to be made and now everybody is trying to find the next Tyler Perry. Do you think that this is going to now show an upswing in the ability of black producers and directors to make black movies or do you think that this will remain the anomaly?

GEORGE CURRY (Editor-in-Chief, National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): I think it probably will remain the anomaly. We saw the black coaches be successful in the NFL and we thought a lot of them would be hired and we didn't see, only one who was kind of recycled, Art Shell. So, I don't think the success really mean necessarily that people will come back and try to duplicate it.

Now, they will be concerned about the money. What is so amazing about this, is that this movie raked in twice the second place movie, which was Eight Below. I mean, it's not even close and there's a lot of money to be made and I'm sure people will be trying to find ways of making it, but I just don't know any significant way it's really going to expand black participation.

GORDON: E.R. Shipp, this is one of those instances where people have been trying to, people in the entertainment business, blacks in the entertainment business have been trying to tell Hollywood for a long time--there's a huge market that's underserved out there. You're not serving it, whether it be television; whether it be movies; whether it be radio. Certainly the music industry does its share of making sure that African-Americans are, in fact, fed their entertainment pie, but the other genres do not. Your thought here about busting down the door?

Ms. E.R. SHIPP (Journalism Professor, Hofstra University School of Communication): Well, Tyler Perry is a unique kind of character. I had never even heard of him, by the way, I must confess, until about a year or so ago and I started going to see some of his shows in New York City. And they are funny up to a certain point; but they seem to always tell the same story. But people who are church people, people who are very much family oriented find they like taking their families to events, whether stage plays or now movies, that have a moral to the story and indeed in this case, it's sort of a Christin moral to the story.

There's similar kinds of shows touring the country that have done so for many, many years, but they're kind of underground as far as mainstream. There's concern. Now mainstream will be paying attention because of what's going on with Tyler Perry, so we may see something like Your Arms too Short to Box with God or some equivalent turned into something that Hollywood can make money off.

GORDON: Marcelo, we should note that Tyler Perry is not without his critics. Many people suggest that these movies and plays are very, very stereotypical. I'm curious, when you look at something like this that is stereotypical, that hits a gold mine, does that undermine the ability to try to move away from stereotypes because Hollywood will certainly attach the idea that, well that's what blacks want to see or that's what, in the case of Latino or Asians if a movie is stereotypical and it makes a lot of money, they'll say, well that's what they really want to see and they'll close down the other avenues.

Mr. MARCELO SUAREZ-OROZCO (Professor of Globalization and Education, New York University): Sure, there's a problem. In other words, the more successful the film is, the more there is momentum or an impulse to try to replicate, especially the box office, if it does well in the box office.

Ms. SHIPP: But, they have to understand that it's only a certain type of black audience that this kind of film will attract. There's still an audience for the kinds of film that did not do as well at the box office as they should have, such as Antoine Fisher. So Hollywood can now presume that I, for example, will be going to see Tyler Perry's movie, I...

GORDON: But, George Curry, Hollywood doesn't work that way. Hollywood will not say, and presume there's another audience. They'll look at that bottom line and say, well this is what black folks want to see.

Mr. CURRY: Yes, I don't think they care about us, E.R., people like you and I--I think they care about the people who are more likely to go to movies--which probably wouldn't include the two or us, who would go if we had more to see. But, they're saying who's more likely to go, and that's that audience--and they're probably just going to go after the same formula. I don't see them expanding beyond that necessarily.

GORDON: And, Marcello, I want to you to finish up your point though: the idea that while it's great on one end, it does become a double-edge sword.

Mr. SUAREZ-OROZCO: Yes, I think that you have to be cautious in the kinds of cultural representations that these movies are based on because, of course, these movies have a life of their own. So while Hollywood is interested in making money, there are ongoing questions about stereotype, about, that we need to keep in mind, as the power of Hollywood in framing our attitudes, our world view, our way of thinking about relationships--is of ever greater importance. So there is a kind of a cautionary issue here that we need to think about.

Ms. SHIPP: Maybe the question is what will Tyler Perry do next? He's established Madea, he's now become filthy rich--he was homeless just a few years ago. So he must have some other story he wants to tell and now that he has the ears of Hollywood, let's see what he does now.

GORDON: Yes, well sometimes though we put a little bit too much pressure on folks like that. It he wants to continue that story--one might say that, you know, you found that gold mine and you question whether or not you have an obligation to do so, but it will be interesting to see. I saw Tyler Perry and Reuben Cannon, one of the producers, this weekend and perhaps at a later time will tell the story how both of them quite frankly worked around the edge to make this happen.

I thank you all for joining us for this abbreviated version of our ROUNDTABLE. Thanks so much.

Ms. SHIPP: Thanks.

Mr. SUAREZ-OROZCO: Thank you.

GORDON: Next up on NEWS AND NOTES, and Israeli violinist who's putting a classical spin on hip-hop music. Plus, we'll also hear about the pleasure of pleasure.

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