The dramatic natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina was shown to most Americans via their TV sets. Trouble the Water, however, shows a ground-level view of the catastrophe as it was filmed real-time by a New Orleans married couple. They filmed their pre-Katrina neighborhood, all throughout the hurricane’s landfall, their escape from the city, and the aftermath of the flooding. While sometimes amateurish and shaky-handed, the footage is truly impressive and shocking. Kimberly and Scott Roberts serve as focal characters in the story—two poor African-Americans trying to come to terms with the Katrina and its long-term effect on their family and community.
While not as intellectual or magisterial (or long) as Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, we are given more compelling characters and personal stories to follow. The Roberts’ amateur footage is combined with the director’s as they follow the displaced family in exile and then back to their old neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. We meet an intoxicated older man who she encourages to get indoors; he moves along, but later his body is discovered, trapped in an abandoned house after the waters recede. The family is forced to travel far distances and stay with relatives, while attempting to coax the federal bureaucracy into financially supporting their return to their home.
One comment shows the clear racialized and classed differences in the repair efforts in New Orleans; while walking through his neighborhood Scott remarks “the hood is always the last place” government helps out. This cynical and realist analysis can be contrasted against a city spokesperson and booster: she gushes enthusiastically on camera about all the wonderful things happening in post-Katrina New Orleans—all of which pertain to tourism. Then, she shows the film crew a fairly cheesy promotional video her department made before Katrina, and she dances along to the music. Her segment shows the huge gulf of awareness and conscience between the city’s bureaucrats and coordinator class, and New Orleans’ sizable population of truly disadvantaged residents. Instead of redirecting city resources and using its power to help the Roberts and others transition back into their communities, the French Quarter is cleaned-up.
Ironically, I first saw Trouble the Water in an audience that included a former National Guardsman who was sent to New Orleans after Katrina. He said their assigned missions there were very disorganized and that they lacked resources to do their job—but still said they had far more resources than poor citizens did. He even compared New Orleans’ devastation to being in Somalia, the principal difference he said was that New Orleans “was a cesspool” at the time. Not exactly a stellar endorsement of the federal government’s response.
One of the things that stuck out most clearly was the Roberts’ attitudes about and relations with those in power. While expressing strong and sophisticated criticism throughout, they were usually deferential to authority. They were very polite when face-to-face with National Guardsman who were occupying their city; upon walking away from the Guard, they became very critical. They clearly accepted the respect that American society demands of soldiers, even while they saw the institutional flaws of the military and their ill-equipped mission. Elsewhere, they make comparisons of New Orleans to Iraq (which the US was actively occupying at the time), arguing that the Guard should be in the US not overseas. Then, despite all the incredibly bad and unfortunate things that have befallen them—as one might expect for poor people of color in a racist, capitalist society—Kimberly still has faith that god will make a better life for her. While her optimism first appears inspiring, one can’t help but wonder where the evidence is that her prayers and faith are rewarded? It ends up as a illustrative, although surely unintended, depiction of religious cognitive dissonance. It’s the American Dream mythology, wrapped in Messianic faith.
Trouble the Water ends up as a representative depiction of the many hardships, heartbreak, and Greek-caliber tragedy that people of the Mississippi Delta faced during and after Hurricane Katrina. It also convincingly shows how and why the social tragedy occurred to New Orleans’ poor, Black residents, and presents many examples of the US government’s bureaucratic indifference to that tragedy.
Topics: race/ethnicity, urban sociology, environment, political