New Orleans Talks Back: Documentaries in the Decade Since Hurricane Katrina

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First it’s a poem, then it’s a prayer. But as New Orleans author and actor Phyllis Montana-Leblanc repeats the clarion call of Spike Lee’s 2010 film If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, the line becomes a lament, a missive, a protest. Pounding her palm with her fist, she transforms the moment into a beautiful, enraged miniature of the documentary project to reshape the understanding of Hurricane Katrina that emerged in days after the failure of the levee system flooded 80% of the city. Along with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as is tragedy’s unfortunate wont, the disaster produced one of the most important bodies of nonfiction filmmaking in the recent American cinema. Here, New Orleans talks back.

That the citizens of the city should demand such a response is a byproduct not only of the storm, but also of the media’s coverage of the immediate aftermath. In the week that passed between the hurricane’s landfall and the stabilization of the initial crisis, the country viewed events in New Orleans primarily through the lens of TV news, and the organizations tasked with relaying developments to the wider public proved wanting. “Refugees” and “Third World” became common terms for the survivors and their inundated city, and if there were any doubt that these words suggested racial bias, the exaggerated focus on “crime” committed by “hoodlums,” “animals” and “thugs” made the meaning abundantly clear. Against images of desperate people carrying food, water, and diapers from an abandoned drugstore, against all indications that the federal government’s neglect caused first the levee breaks and then the chaos that followed, CNN NewsNight‘s Aaron Brown, one of the worst offenders, could muster only this for his correspondent in the field: “I guess the question, Adaora, is ‘How lawless is New Orleans tonight?'”

From the tabloidspectacle of suffering” on rooftops and elevated interstates, at the Superdome and the convention center, television news forged the first, flawed draft of Katrina’s history, one in which the indignities visited upon the victims were tacitly presented as the outcome of their own poor choices. “What counted here,” as Hannah Arendt wrote of the French Revolution, “was selflessness, the capacity to lose oneself in the sufferings of others, rather than active goodness… [W]ithout the presence of misfortune, pity could not exist, and it therefore has just as much vested interest in the existence of the unhappy as thirst for power has a vested interest in the existence of the weak.” In other words, the media’s coverage that week allowed the distant viewer to feel good about feeling bad for “those people down there,” without forcing us to confront the inconvenient truth that our choices, as a country, made us complicit in the destruction. “Those people,” after all, were not “refugees” from the “pure anarchy” of “Third World” “war zones.” They were, and are, Americans.

With the premiere, shortly before the first anniversary of the storm, of Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, the process of re-narrating Katrina from the perspective of the pitied began in earnest, at least for a national audience; the nine years since have witnessed the proliferation of films and television series devoted to this task. In addition to Lee’s kaleidoscopic accounts, with a combined running time of eight hours, there have been passionate treatments of government malfeasance (Big Easy to Big Empty and The Big Uneasy); examinations of Katrina’s impact on the environment (Hurricane on the Bayou) and healthcare (Big Charity); self-portraits from the eye of the storm (Trouble the Water); and several fictionalized challenges to misconceptions of the city and the region, from David Simon’s HBO drama Treme to Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. If nonfiction films revised news outlets’ initial portrait, fictional films and TV series have already begun to imagine the city’s next draft.

Yet it was When the Levees Broke that set the tone, with Terence Blanchard’s score, a mournful homage to jazz funerals, threading the film’s impressive array of resident interviews and archival images into a remarkably thorough whole. Interrogating every aspect of the insufficient preparation and disaster response, Lee repurposes the footage from that first week by setting it amid citizens’ harrowing descriptions; their stories replace the detached narration of anchors and correspondents with an understanding that “lawlessness” was not a function of those stranded but a function of the federal government. “When I grew up, the nickname of New Orleans was not ‘The Big Easy,’ one subject remembers. “People used to call it ‘The City That Care Forgot,’ and it was like nobody cared.”

Over the course of four hours, When the Levees Broke thus succeeds in refocusing our attention on the crimes that went unreported on the nightly news: the negligence of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, and the Bush administration; the violent excesses of the police, the military, and white vigilantes in what amounted to an occupied city; the murder by another name of those left without adequate shelter, sanitation, and medical care in the stifling heat of late summer. The vital mission of When the Levees Broke is to rewrite the history of Katrina in the words of those who suffered its effects most acutely, to turn “the politics of pity” into a cry for action, and by the end of the film Lee quite literally reframes the narrative. His subjects, many of them black and working-class, born and raised in New Orleans, hold up empty picture mounts and recite their names and birthplaces — living portraits that say, “I am here. I exist. I am visible.”

The similarly forthright presence of Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s 2008 film Trouble the Water is the Ninth Ward’s Kimberly Rivers Roberts, whose camcorder captures her family’s odyssey through the storm. Unable to “afford the luxury” of the city’s mandatory evacuation order — for which no public transportation was made available — Kimberly and her husband, Scott, hunker down at home and emerge, by the film’s 2007 epilogue, as stand-ins for the hundreds of thousands unmoored in the hurricane’s aftermath. If When the Levees Broke and If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise are chronicles of dissent, however, Trouble the Water is a tale of resilience. Through the lashing wind and rain, the fast-rising floodwaters, and brief stays in Alexandria, La. and Memphis, Tenn., Kimberly’s unruffled calm persists, and the small acts of kindness, kinship, and camaraderie she and Scott encounter along the way bely the (frequently false) initial reports of rape, violence, and widespread looting among those left behind. The references to “Third World” conditions on the news, Kimberly’s cousin insists, are evidence not of the survivors’ bad character but of the country’s. “This is America,” she says, rightly disgusted. “It shouldn’t be happening here… If you don’t have money, if you don’t have status, you don’t have a government.”

The sentiment resounds through nearly all the films and television series to consider the world Katrina savaged and the world it wrought, fiction and nonfiction alike. In each case — the decimation of South Louisiana’s protective wetlands in Greg MacGillivray’s Hurricane on the Bayou, for instance, or the decision to replace New Orleans’ Charity Hospital in Alexander Glustrom’s Big Charity — the shadow of commerce, of power, hangs over the proceedings; what the storm failed to sweep away, as Naomi Klein notes in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, the free hand of the market might. Proponents of the new New Orleans’ still-emerging contours may suggest that such analyses are blind to the benefits of the city’s redevelopment, but at minimum the documentaries discussed here offer a necessary check on the march of “progress” for the few at the expense of the many. As I wrote of Big Charity when it premiered at last year’s New Orleans Film Festival, “‘recovery’ has consequences, too.”

The heart of If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise is, in fact, its engagement with this second, no less insidious narrative, again promulgated by the nation’s major news organizations, that the rebuilding of New Orleans is mostly behind us. As it happens, Lee’s starting point, the Saints’ victory in Super Bowl XLIV, came in the midst of my first Carnival, eight months after moving to the city sight unseen as a 22-year-old public schoolteacher. Of that season I recall the administration playing K. Gates’ anthem “Black & Gold (Who Dat!!)” over the intercom system and tense fourth-quarter moments spent in one or another smoky dive, but my fondest memory is of piling into the bed of a pickup truck after the final play and streaming downtown through the honking, ecstatic din toward Bourbon Street. It was, in the intensity of the jubilance, suddenly something more than a mere football game, and as we jostled with revelers in the French Quarter’s narrow streets, I realized that I was home.

To live in New Orleans in the five years since has been to realize my valediction, if not my love, was sorely premature. Three months after the Saints became World Champions, the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig set off the 86-day, 5 million-barrel BP oil spill. Though the murder rate, as measured per 100,000 people, has declined by more than half from its 2006 peak, violent crime remains an intractable problem, with the 100th murder in 2015 occurring July 9. “Skyrocketing” home prices continue to narrow the space available to the working poor, particularly people of color, while the population of the Lower Ninth Ward is still less than 50% of pre-storm levels. The overall unemployment rate is 6.7%, but the unemployment rate among black men is an astounding 52%. As of July 2014, the population of the city was 79% what it was in 2000. The recovery has been remarkable in many ways, but it is clearly far from complete.

The centerpiece of the corpus of nonfiction films to follow in the storm’s devastating wake — Lee’s magisterial examination of post-Katrina New Orleans, in When the Levees Broke and If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise — pays close heed to this disconnect between celebrating the city and experiencing its complicated, tattered reality, simply by making an effort to listen. After all, it’s the furious, faintly hopeful voice of Phyllis Montana-Leblanc that defines both films: the voice not of the politician but of the citizen, not of the privileged but of the unfortunate, not of the distant observer but of the intimate, the friend. “I am mending,” she reads near the conclusion of When the Levees Broke, offering the “requiem” of the title, the token of remembrance. “I am coming back, God willing, for a long, long time. So when you see the waters, when you see the levees breaking, know what they really broke along with them.”

Amen to that.