Bicentennial documentary chronicles highs, lows in 200 years of statehood
By judy bergeron
August 22, 2012
For several months, Tika Laudun and Al Godoy’s challenge was squeezing 200 years of state history into a 60-minute program.
The result of the Louisiana Public Broadcasting producers’ efforts is “Louisiana: 200 Years of Statehood,” which premieres this week. The program is LPB’s contribution to the ongoing observance of the state’s 200th anniversary.
“The goal was to be a celebratory piece, but not to whitewash history,” Laudun said Monday.
Having worked on LPB’s 2003 award-winning series, “Louisiana: A History,” the team already had experience fitting four centuries of Louisiana into six hours of programming.
“We approached it in a thematic matter,” Laudun said of “Statehood.” “So the basic themes were statehood, military and defense, politics, art and culture, commerce and industry, and disaster and recovery.
“The things that were tough, we dealt with; the things that were fun, we had fun with; the things that were controversial, we presented them as they were,” Laudun said.
Opening with lush footage of the state’s landscape, native son Harry Connick Jr. lends his Southern voice as narrator. The show is a blend of historic and present-day footage and interviews with historians, all succinctly divided into the aforementioned themes.
“The tough part is the things that you leave out. There are so many stories and so many places and so many people that you want to do,” Laudun said.
The producer said LPB turned to scholars and advisers for guidance in whittling down the vast amount of material. Among those giving their expertise, and in many cases their interviews, were historians Lawrence N. Powell, Raphael Cassimere Jr., Michael Kurtz, Mark Fernandez, Nick Spitzer and Charles Chamberlain of the Louisiana State Museum.
“It’s like being tutored by the finest minds out there,” Laudun said.
Within the military and defense portion of “Statehood,” for example, the interviewees stress Louisiana’s long role in national defense, backing it up with footage including the largest military field exercise in U.S. history, which took place in the fall of 1940 at Fort Polk and in DeRidder. Also featured are two men who figured prominently in U.S efforts during World War II: Claire Chennault and his Flying Tigers, and Andrew Jackson Higgins, designer of the boats used in the D-Day invasion.
No look at the state’s colorful political history would be complete without including the Long legacy, and the show was able to secure rights to clips owned by UCLA of Huey Long in action, pounding his fists, preaching to the poor about what he could do for them, and singing “Every Man a King.” In more modern history, viewers will see the 1991 gubernatorial campaigns of multiterm Gov. Edwin Edwards and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
“We couldn’t leave it out. It was a big turning point in history here,” Laudun said.
The state’s rich art and culture also are explored, focusing not only on its great cuisine, musicians and artists, but also its writers.
“It’s the most intriguing place I’ve ever been,” author and sometimes resident James Lee Burke says in the program. “And I think for an artist a place like Louisiana is an enormous gift ... the history of the state is always visible. You can still touch the past with the end of your hand.”
The latter portion of the program covers the state’s commerce and industry, emphasizing the crops coming from the fertile Mississippi River delta, the oil and gas business, and its broadening film industry.
The disaster and recovery segment’s obvious focuses are coastal erosion, the BP oil spill and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
How Louisiana pulled together after the devastating storm and subsequent flooding reinforces what Laudun said she observed throughout her research into Louisiana’s 200 years as a state.
“It always surprises me, maybe surprise isn’t the word I’d use, maybe it just amazes me the incredible resilience of people. And you know, when we move into the more modern times, how these tragic events occur, and people rise to the occasion, they help each other, they save each other, they fix each other,” she said.
As for the program as a whole, Laudun said she hopes it bring the audience a sense of being there.
“To see what it was like to walk on the Earth in the same places that those people who made history were, and to get a sense of what it must have been like.
“To give viewers a sense of what’s all around us, what’s been around us, and what will hopefully be better for us in the future.
“It’s just rich.”