The new Hurricane Katrina documentary Trouble the Water is a film that should be seen by every single American. That sounds like hyperbole, but isn’t. See this movie. It’s that important.
To say that Trouble the Water is a Katrina documentary is true only if one understands Katrina not as a hurricane, but as an event whose 175 mile-an-hour winds and surging waters wiped away, in the space of a few days, not just a city but also the illusions that we as Americans hold about our country—its greatness, its wealth, its post-racism, its post-classism and where exactly its goodness resides. The film’s tagline reads: “It’s not about a hurricane. It’s about America.” It is. And it is required viewing for anyone seeking an understanding of what this country is.
Trouble the Water is built around another documentary. Though the film is directed by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, who have worked on several Michael Moore projects among other things, its core footage was taken by Kimberly “Black Kold Madina” Roberts, a charismatic rapper and (then) small-time drug dealer from New Orleans’ Ninth Ward who, since she had no way to leave the city, stuck around and used her Hi-8 camcorder to record the great storm’s landing.
Things begin gently enough. With clear skies and a light breeze blowing, Roberts strolls her neighborhood as the people who have cars pack up. She asks her neighbors how they’re feeling about the coming storm. People speculate that, perhaps, they’ll get lucky and only catch its weakly flailing arms. They laugh together. Shy little girls claim they’re not scared.
And then the storm lands. And Katrina’s violence is beyond tremendous, as we, the stomach-cramped audience, know it would be all along. What comes next is an unbelievable vision of nature’s terror. This terror also brings with it a burn-your-eyes-with-fierce-tears story of heroism and resilience in the face not only of death and total loss but also of a racist government’s callous indifference. What is done to the people in a New Orleans jail, or the children and elderly folks who were simply seeking refuge in a completely empty military barracks, makes you seethe with unforgiving anger. But you fall in love with the people you meet in this film—the true, complicated heroes.
If Katrina laid bare the basic unfairness of our society—and if, thus, the word “Katrina” is now synonymous with that unveiling—then Roberts’ music is the very incarnation of that now-naked frustration and anger, and simultaneous faith and courage. Her song “Amazing,” though written to be personal, stands for the whole of people who have been ghetto-ized, judged and forgotten, who struggle every day to survive in the most “wealthy” nation on earth.
Trouble the Water is not the story of Katrina from Bush’s helicopter, from news conferences or from any objectifying distance. It shows snippets of the spectacle only to contrast it against how real immediate reality can be. And this movie is as real as it gets.
John Edwards—philanderer that he is—nailed it: There are two Americas. With Edwards gone, notice how, for the most part, this presidential campaign season no longer seems to mention the truly poor? (Admittedly, Obama merely talking about economic unfairness has resulted in the commie card being pulled on him.)
Yes, Joe the Plumber has some woes since—tragically—he plans to make a mere $200,000. But what about Tracy the Prostitute, Larry the Minimum Wage Worker or Mike the Desperate Drug Dealer? What about them? And, thus—at the same time—what about us?
All of us.
Trouble the Water
Directed by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin
With Kimberly “Black Kold Madina” Roberts, Scott Roberts and Hurricane Katrina
93 min., NR