Saturday, January 9, 2010


Very exciting: I was browsing The New Yorker online and came across the headline "Scratch and Crow." I got a chill: That's the name of one of my old friend Helen Hill's films. And as the story revealed, it's now in the Library of Congress' National Film Archive.

Two other things you should know about Helen:

1. She was so sweet; when you were around her, she just kind of bathed you in calm -- as a person who's coo-coo in the brain, I particularly appreciated this, but who wouldn't?

2. She was murdered in New Orleans 3 years ago this week. It's not clear exactly what happened, but the story that most people seem to have settled on is that early in the morning, Helen opened her back door to let her pet pig Rosie out, and just then, someone escaping from another crime burst in and shot her.

At the time, we all talked about why this had happened to Helen and what it meant. Maybe she just got caught in the crossfire, like a baby catching a bullet in a drive-by. Or maybe it was because people are more likely to be murdered in New Orleans than in any other city in the U.S. Living in New Orleans certainly didn't help her chances, that's for sure.

Helen's murder got national attention. And then people started to say that if she wasn't white, a talented filmmaker with a degree from Harvard, her killing would've been stuck on page 3 of the Metro section. Almost certainly true.

Right after Helen was killed, I had held out hope that some big change would take place. After all, thousands of people marched up to City Hall and demanded action. Yet nothing has really happened. Young black men continued to be gunned down. In 2008, 179 people murdered. No. 1 in the country. In 2009, at least 171. Again, probably No. 1.

As the fresh pain of Helen's death receded, I would sometimes walk around New Orleans and think about what it meant to live in a place that put such a small value on people's lives. You would think that on the list of a city's priorities, this would be at the top. But New Orleans has decided the highest murder rate is an acceptable enough attribute for a city.

For a while in New Orleans, it was popular to put up a sign in your window that said "Thou Shalt Not Kill." Then those were replaced with the slogan "Enough!" The last I saw, even those signs were fading away, as if people had just sort of sighed and given up.

I know I did. I did my best, but finally I couldn't take it anymore. For these and other reasons, I moved away.

New Orleans has another chance in 2010. It will have a new mayor. Maybe it will have a Super Bowl champion. I wish I could say there was hope that at the end of the year, a hundred and seventy or so fresh corpses won't be settling in in the pretty above-ground tombs that New Orleans takes such pride in and which tourists the world over visit. I think we all know better.