February 20th, 2009
02:50 PM ET

The curious case of New Orleans

Donna Brazile
CNN Contributor

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There's an old saying down in my hometown of New Orleans about how to tell the changing of the seasons. I'm not referring to winter, spring, summer or fall, but rather to the aroma of what someone's cooking up fresh and delicious.

Shrimp, oysters, crabs, crayfish - those are our seasons. It's all a cycle, and before we enter the Lenten season, we gather together to celebrate Mardi Gras.

The parades that began earlier this month won't end until late Fat Tuesday, February 24. This Sunday most of us will come home soon after the Bacchus float rolls down Canal Street, to watch the 81st annual Oscars and root for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

"Benjamin Button" is about transformation and renewal, and one of the film's key characters is New Orleans. Filmed in some of my hometown's most cherished neighborhoods and historic sites - the Garden and Warehouse districts, the French Quarter, Uptown and the shores of Lake Pontchartrain - the diversity, spirit and special grace that imbibe the culture of New Orleans also enrich and inform the film.

While we celebrate the film's 13 Oscar nominations, we should also celebrate its contribution to the rebirth of New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast.

Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who chose Baltimore, Maryland, as its locale, the film version of "Benjamin Button" was instead set in New Orleans by Paramount Pictures. Almost four years after Katrina, one of the most destructive and powerful hurricanes to hit our nation's shores, the movie has ushered in a reawakening and refocusing on New Orleans that will help this treasured city move past the tragedy that almost destroyed it.

Like New Orleans itself, Benjamin Button was born old. Literally. While other children played, young Benjamin sat as a wizened old man in a wheelchair among the old folks who accepted him for who he was, not how he looked - unlike the widowed father who abandoned him to the care of a stranger, a black woman capable of loving Benjamin despite his grotesque appearance and infirmities.

Raised in a rest home, Benjamin grows younger as those around him age and die. He meets the love of his life while both are in their tender years, though they don't become romantically involved until their bodies and emotional maturity are compatibly developed.

As oblivious to his own good looks as he was to his initial ugliness, Benjamin has an innate appreciation for the values many young people typically take for granted - physical labor, survival despite great obstacles, loyalty.

As Hurricane Katrina wheels itself ever closer to shore, its fierce winds and drenching rain pounding at the window, Benjamin's story unfolds as his now-elderly childhood sweetheart lays dying, listening to her (their) daughter read from his diary, a journal neither had ever before read.

Just as New Orleans is loved and revered for its rich and unconventional cultural characteristics, the tragedy of Katrina has allowed a quixotic renewal - a rebirth, if you will - of New Orleans' physical structure while maintaining a reverence for its spirit, historical architecture and traditions, so beautifully captured in the film.

People from all over the country embraced the displaced natives of the Big Easy with open arms until they were able to return home, much like Benjamin's adoptive mother did. Today, New Orleans has the look of a fresh young city complemented with a deep wisdom that only can be gained through near-death experiences.

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" stands as an example of Hollywood "doing right," both artistically and with a social consciousness that expended millions of dollars and created thousands of jobs in an area that desperately needs them. This celebrated picture is a reminder to all that supporting American industry is the key to the rebirth of this incredible region.

The scars of New Orleans' recent past are fading as she welcomes the future, dressed to the nines in fancy new lingerie and prepared for a romantic encounter with the future. New Orleans is about redemption and renewal - as is the most curious case of Benjamin Button.

Filed under: Donna Brazile • Hurricane Katrina
soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Wardell katrina Survivor

    Donna you tell such an eloquent stoey of our home town, but I'm a black, black man,58 this year, a disabled veteran, retire federal employee, whose greatgrand mother and grandmother took care of folks on and off of St. Charles ave. Yes people come from all over the world to enjoy this city, but there's an evil, that still lurks,the same kind of evil I saw as a child, when people rioted because they didn't want us to ride the bus, or go to school with them. The movie you speak of did take place down here, I ve only seen excerpts of it, but what I really liked about it, was BRAD PITT, not because of his acting, but because he and his wife , both showed something everyone show appreciate and respect, their HEART. Those children. He sat down in the lower 9th ward and tried to get people to HELP. I asked myself, where are ALL the other MILLIONAIRES, he didn't have to devote that kind od time towards that effort, after all look at the movie, and by the way ,of what I did see, I thought it was fantastic, concept and all.As for MARDI GRAS, very mixed feelings, as a child I was my sister and brother's keepers, and while on St. Charles ave.,people tried to hurt us, they ran us, 9, 8, and7 year old children, trying to catch plastic junk,when I look at some mask I think of the KLAN.now even though I'm back in the city, I don't go anywhere near those activities, a young kid came down from Geogia, and lost his life in RAZZOS are something like that, supposely because of a DRESS CODE?? there has NEVER been a dress-code in the french quarters, so some of the beauty you speak of is very tarnished, but it's still NewOrleans, a 24-7 city, where you can get anything, anything you want, around the clock, if , you know where to look for it, ASK David V. Its still a lovely city, and I love BRAD PITT, and I a man, who loves women, by the way I LOVE YOU, continue to represent,may God help us, and God bless ALL of you.

    February 20, 2009 at 8:57 pm |
  2. Tammy, Berwick, LA

    It's true. We do base our lives down here on seasons of seafood and hunting, agriculture, Party Gras, and festivals. Life is more fun that way.

    FYI Annie Kate (know I'm not Donna but figured I'd answer your question since I know the answer). Raw oysters are best in months with an "r" in them. It's because the waters are cooler. Less bacteria. Best bet and flavor is to get a sack straight off the boat. You can eat cooked oysters anytime of the year. The best chicken, sausage,and oyster gumbos were always made by my PaPa at Thanksgiving and Christmas with oysters he'd pick and clean himself.

    Anyway, New Orleans will always be part of my heart. It was part of my childhood, part of my memories with my Mom and Dad, part of my memories with family and friends, and part of who I am.

    I go every chance I get. New Orleans will always be amazing. Movie or no movie to "prove" it so.

    February 20, 2009 at 7:30 pm |
  3. JAN

    GREAT!!! What about the res of poos New Orlenians? Are they having a parade also, are they able to feed their families, do they have the money to buy these sweet smeling shrimp being cooked up?

    All Hypocrisy to millionth dimension.

    February 20, 2009 at 6:43 pm |
  4. Dymphnasis

    Simply lovely.

    February 20, 2009 at 5:26 pm |
  5. Annie Kate

    Sounds like we need to look to NOLA to see what worked economically in the comeback and apply some of those lessons to the economy for the nation.

    I do have one question, Donna, what months are oyster season? Those are the months I want to be there!

    February 20, 2009 at 4:12 pm |
  6. Vicky, Ottawa

    New Orleans and the people there have earned a special place in my heart after my first visit in 2006. Your posting has prompted me to finally go and see "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", which has been on the agenda for a few months. I've learned a deep appreciation for the culture and traditions of New Orleans - learning to cook Gumbo and Jambalaya from scratch using recipes from new friends in New Orleans, and enjoying the recent gift of a King Cake. I'm glad to hear your account that the surface scars of New Orleans' recent past are fading, and hope that emotional scars are healing too. Went on the Passport 1 tour in November and there were definite signs of recovery, but some areas still in real need. Now I have to investigate what seafood season it is! (shrimp, oysters, crab, or crayfish?).

    February 20, 2009 at 4:09 pm |
  7. Brandi - bottom of the boot

    i love you donna!

    this is so eloquently written. most people here are afraid of new orleans, i run there every chance i get. it still has its own pulse, for some reason, that pulse is inside me. it draws me in.

    i feel free when i am there. i recently had the experience of working with those at the clinic on poydras. i still see that old city and the wonderful people who make it come alive. it was a great experience for me. i love every moment i have there.

    February 20, 2009 at 3:13 pm |
  8. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    So well written and so well said-–as a native of Louisiana--what is life all about-–it is about birth and rebirth.

    February 20, 2009 at 3:07 pm |