In 1927 there was a great flood in Louisiana; the National Guard came to rescue the white landowners, but left the black sharecroppers to tend to the crops. Immortalized in Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” some fleeing landowners sang “Bye, Bye Blackbird” to the doomed farmers. In the end, the “blackbirds” won; nearly 700,000 people were homeless, and they left for the cities, mainly Chicago. This gave birth to the Chicago blues, and the influx of new voters dumped Republican Hoover and his empty promises. The Party of Lincoln was abandoned for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. History repeating. It’s a bit more complicated, as Hoover got both elected and rejected due to how he handled the refugee camps for the displaced. The Wikipedia article makes for interesting reading.
Trouble the Water is the record of a family weathering Katrina, video camera in tow. 24-year old Kimberly Roberts and her husband Scott don’t have gas money to evacuate, so they hole up in their 9th Ward home as the storm hits. We get to see the terror of opening your front door to see a raging ocean where your yard once was. They survive, and we see them survey the wreckage of their neighborhood, the remains of those less fortunate, and the utter lack of any government response. The Indonesian tsunami a few years earlier- we had people on the ground faster for that.
They reenact their survival tales, and interview their neighbors. Kimberly reports on the scene like guerrilla news anchor, signing off with her rapper name, Black Kold Madina. It’s easy to roll your eyes, but this is what we didn’t see. Instead of pointing at a man in water up to his neck, holding a single loaf of bread and crying “looter,” like our talking heads did, this is embedded reporting from inside the hell hole. Jean Valjean would get torched these days, wouldn’t he? Their footage is interspersed with news bites, 911 calls, and factoids. But the real meat of the film is just following Kimberly and Scott through the wreckage of what was once their lives.
What’s most distressing is the interview with the soldiers who guarded empty base housing. They talk of protecting “government interests,” and how “civilians don’t know how to survive.” Quotes were cherry-picked I’m sure, but they are damning enough. When even a few soldiers are more concerned with protecting the government than saving fellow Americans, the leadership of their superiors is morally bankrupt. Maybe the best of our men were too busy overseas. On the other hand, the neighborhoods pulled together. “My enemies helped me,” one man says. They help each other navigate the bureaucratic mess FEMA imposed.
Trouble the Waters was nominated for Best Documentary last year, and lost to the cheerful Man on Wire; personally I thought Errol Morris’s excellent Standard Operating Procedure should have won, but it didn’t even get nominated. Trouble may not be a great movie, but it is worth seeing to see what our news media missed and ignored about the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the second disaster of our government’s inept response. I think it might have been better as an episode of Frontline, but it got more exposure this way. If you’re interested in seeing one couple’s story of surviving Katrina, it should not be missed.