Updated: Sep 7, 2018
Discovering how audiences react to the people in your films is a always an interesting process. After we first showed 'The Organizer" in public I scribbled down several small notes that I wanted to address in the window we had to make some revisions. At the top was one big note 'MORE BEULAH.'
I knew Beulah Labostrie would go over well with audiences. How could this wise, impassioned woman in her nineties, with her New Orleans accent and her strong, sad eyes not? But it wasn't until I watched with an audience that I realized her place in the film. Wade Rathke is our central figure - our guide through the intricacies of organizing for change and the rise and fall (and rise again) of the organization he founded, but Beulah stands out among the member voices we hear as the soul and conscience of the communities that were at the heart of it.
I first met Beulah on my first investigative trip to New Orleans in 2011 and we interviewed her a couple more times on subsequent journeys. She was born in 1921 to a family whose history in New Orleans goes back to the birth of the city. She didn't become a community activist until later in life, after she had raised her children and found herself widowed. She would've been in her mid-50s in 1977, when her door was knocked by a neighbour asking her to come to a meeting of the new ACORN chapter that was forming in her community. She was a leader in her church and was a natural fit for leadership in the organization. As she told me, the local organizer said to her 'I think you're the person I've been looking for.'
She lived in the Fair Grounds neighbourhood and her first campaign was against the grounds themselves - the large fair was leaving waste around its perimeter that, as well as being an eyesore, was attracting huge armies of rats into the neighbourhood. The Fair Grounds were big business in the city, with ties to city hall and to some businessmen who were operating in the grey areas of the law. Her friends were worried that she was 'going up against the mafia' but Beulah wasn't concerned. She demanded a meeting and gave the management hell, as she continued to do so until she won what she and her neighbours wanted. It took a couple of years but eventually the Fair built more secure fencing around the grounds that hid the garbage and prevented vermin from getting in and out. That fencing still stands today.
That's the kind of supposedly small-stakes origin story we heard a lot when interviewing ACORN members and it's those local campaigns which lead to a larger awareness of how politics and power work in our society. As she eloquently told us, these small campaigns led her to learn about all the things that affected the poor - at the levels of the city, the state and the nation. Through the next decades she became a passionate advocate for voting rights ("I had such a hard time trying to vote in my lifetime,") she was a leader in raising the minimum wage in Louisiana and on implementing banking reforms that allowed thousands of black families to become homeowners after decades of discriminatory redlining. In the aftermath of Katrina she mentored the younger generation of community leaders, giving them lessons in courage and persistence through the darkest times.
I'm hoping one day we can post the complete interview we did we Beulah so you can spend more time with her. Being able to meet and talk with people like Beulah is why I love making films. I was thrilled that she managed to attend our premiere in New Orleans last October and that she got to see our work and I got to see her one last time. She passed away on Sunday at the age of 96. She will be remembered.