Among the 1,001 distressing stories to come out of Hurricane Katrina, the closing of one parish might seem relatively minor. But in “Shake the Devil Off,” docu helmer Peter Entell turns the case into a broad indictment of the heavy-handed decision-making by outsiders that continues to plague New Orleans. Though Entell’s refusal to present the other side makes for a distinctly unbalanced view, pic skillfully builds its case of righteous indignation until it successfully spills from screen to audience. Limited rephouse play is possible, though PBS is a likelier venue.
St. Augustine Church, built by freed slaves, forms the heart of the city’s Treme district. During the hurricane and its tragic aftermath, residents and parishioners looked to both the church and its priest, the Rev.Jerome LeDoux, for stability and comfort. However, in February 2006, the local archdiocese, led by Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes, decided to transfer LeDoux and unite St. Augustine with the neighboring parish.
Unsurprisingly, the decision was deeply unpopular with the locals, many of whom view the historic parish and its pastor as a constant element in their devastated lives. LeDoux, an energetic man in his mid-70s with a shock of white hair and a warmly resonant voice, refused to criticize the move, but his disagreement was clear.
Multiracial parishioners rallied to the cause, petitioning the diocesan council, but their appeals were ignored until word leaked out and everyone from local students to Al Sharpton made clear the archdiocese had better prepare for continuous acts of civil disobedience. By docu’s end, St. Augustine has been saved, but a final title makes it clear the Catholic Church was simply buying time before cleaning up business.
Though there’s no overt editorializing, the filmmaker sees race as the major factor in the Church’s decision: Apparently all but one member of the archdiocese’s panel was Caucasian, and the Rev. Michael Jacques — the painfully white-bread, seemingly arrogant priest slated to replace the charismatic, dashiki-sporting LeDoux — surely should have realized the conflict of interest inherent in writing up the parish plan. Whatever the reasons behind the consolidation, docu makes clear the archbishop and his spokesmen had no idea how to work PR, allowing the resulting fracas to resemble a case of rich white folk once again marginalizing poor blacks.
Entell uses a cinema verite style, following LeDoux on his daily routine and recording the various parish actions as they play out before the camera. Trimming would tighten the story, and comparisons with Spike Lee’s magisterial “When the Levees Broke” will necessarily come up short, though docu clearly captures the pain of people ground down by adversity but unwilling to allow their last pillar to be sold out from under them.
Docu is billed as a musical, and while songs are inserted throughout, Entell doesn’t attempt to play with or especially follow the genre. Selections include both the obvious — “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” performed by the Treme Brass Band, to Michaela Harrison’s stirring rendition of “I’m Going Home.” Pic’s title is itself a gospel song, sung with gusto by the parishioners and LeDoux himself.