Peter Entell, Director. Shake the Devil Off
. Show and Tell Films, 2007. 99 mins.
Reviewed by Zada N. Johnson, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
In February 2006, as New Orleans
residents struggled to rebuild their lives after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, members of the city's historically African-American St. Augustine Catholic Church were dealt another crushing blow—the New Orleans Archdiocese ordered that the minimally damaged parish be closed due to low membership. Despite a public outcry to save the church, citing its prominent historic value as one of the oldest African-American Catholic parishes in the country and the cornerstone of the city's jazz music and second-line parade traditions, the archdiocese upheld its decision to close St. Augustine
and remove the church's longtime parish priest, Father Jerome LeDoux. The onslaught of public disapproval and civil disobedience that followed this decision are the subject of Swiss filmmaker Peter Entell's Shake the Devil Off
, an independent documentary that poignantly reveals one community's struggle to recover from disaster and preserve its religious heritage in post-Katrina New Orleans
As the documentary opens, it is six months after Hurricane Katrina in the historic Treme community, the oldest African-American neighborhood in the United States and home of St. Augustine Catholic Church. Located along the same stretch of high ground as the French Quarter, the Treme community and St. Augustine Church were largely spared from the severe flood damage that left other parts of the city underwater for weeks. Nevertheless, Treme still suffered displacement and extensive property damage from hurricane winds as well as loss of employment and loss of loved ones. Immediately after the storm, St. Augustine became a center of recovery efforts providing aid to displaced residents and turning the church hall into a food and clothing repository. In one particularly touching scene in the film, parish priest Father Jerome LeDoux offers his own living quarters at the church as a temporary shelter to a displaced resident while he sleeps downstairs on the floor. Despite the pivotal role Father LeDoux and St. Augustine play in the Treme's recovery, the community is shocked to learn that the New Orleans Archdiocese plans to close St. Augustine due to financial hardship and a decline in church membership. Ironically, the news comes at the same time half of St. Augustine's pre-Katrina membership has returned and the neighborhood appears to be thriving with the support of the church.
The prospect of St. Augustine closing sparks a public outcry which emphasizes the church's historical significance to the Treme community as well as its contribution to the development of New Orleans' unique cultural and musical heritage. Founded in 1842 by free people of color and built by slave labor, St. Augustine Church was one of the earliest congregations in United States history where enslaved peoples worshipped in the same place as free people of color and whites. It is believed that the unique religious environment of St. Augustine inspired such parishioners as Homer Plessy (of the Plessy vs. Ferguson civil rights law suit) and civil rights lawyer A.P. Tureaud to pursue African-American citizenship rights decades before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Additionally, St. Augustine has also played a major role in the development of traditional jazz music in New Orleans as well as the city's unique cultural practices including Mardi Gras Indian processions and brass band second-line street parades.
As the film reveals, St. Augustine's historical value is not lost on its present membership. During the community's Mardi Gras celebration, which quickly transformed into a petition signing campaign to protest the Archdiocese's decision, longtime parishioner Marion Colbert and Treme Brass Band member Lionel Batiste direct the film crew to get footage of the church's Tomb of the Unknown Slave monument as a testament of the often forgotten history of slavery in the city. The church's close link to the history of slavery in New Orleans is also illustrated in the family history of parish council president Sandra Gordon, whose enslaved great-great grandmother acquired permission from her master to be baptized at St. Augustine. As he describes the church's historical connection to nearby Congo Square, parish council member Al Harris points out the significance of St. Augustine as hallowed ground and declares that the community "will not stand still" for the church's demise.
In just weeks after the initial news, matters for St. Augustine grow increasingly dire. Not only is the attempt to appeal the Archdiocese's decision unsuccessful, but it is later learned that St. Augustine will be merged with a nearby parish and Father LeDoux will be immediately relocated to another church out of state. At this point, the overall sense of community despair is summed up in parishioner and local folk artist Ashton Ramsey's question "After the most horrific thing that has ever happened in our country, why would you want to take [St. Augustine] away from the people now?" Public outrage escalates when it is discovered that the principal writer of the pastoral plan to close the church is the same priest that has been appointed to take over pastoral duties at St. Augustine after Father LeDoux's removal. With seemingly no other course of action, St. Augustine supporters and student protestors take matters into their own hands and barricade themselves in the church rectory demanding that the church retain its status as a parish and Father LeDoux be allowed to return.
During a press conference held in front of the church, local civil rights veteran Jerome Smith calls for a reprise of "Mississippi Summer" in New Orleans to keep St. Augustine open. Soon the controversy at St. Augustine garners national media attention as well as the support of Reverend Jesse Jackson and Reverend Al Sharpton. The Archdiocese's subsequent attempt to proceed with mass at St. Augustine under the direction of the newly appointed priest, results in a bitter confrontation between protestors and clergy that ended with church officials abruptly leaving mass amid the parishioners's thunderous chorus of "We Shall Not Be Moved." Several days later, an agreement is reached between the St. Augustine parish and the Archdiocese to allow the church eighteen months to comply with membership and financial obligations. Unfortunately this agreement does not rescind Fr. LeDoux's removal from St. Augustine and he is instead replaced with a priest from Central America.
The power of Shake the Devil Off lies in Entell's skillful use of real-time footage and first hand accounts from Treme residents and parish members as the crisis surrounding the church unfolds. Entell is also able to capture the rich New Orleans musical heritage of the Treme community with performances held at St. Augustine by the Marsalis family, Glen David Andrews, Donald Harrison and the Congo Nation Mardi Gras Indians, the Treme Brass Band, Mother Tongue, Michael White, and the St. Augustine Church Choir, among many others. In addition, the documentary reveals the way that history, race, and social space inform discourses of loss and recovery in post-Katrina religious consciousness. As a religious center, St. Augustine not only represents the faith of its members but also their history, cultural heritage, and in many ways their hope for post-Katrina recovery.
Lastly, the documentary conveys a very timely reminder that the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina are still largely unresolved. As this review is being published, St. Augustine's eighteen-month grace period has expired and the parish faces an institutional review from the pastoral council that will determine its future. Although the Archdiocese has somewhat softened its position stating that it will do everything in its power to keep the church open, the possibility still remains that St. Augustine could close. In this regard, Shake the Devil Off should serve as a clarion call that the work to restore the communities that have been laid bare by Hurricane Katrina is far from done.