Trouble the Water was released in 2008. I don’t know what I was doing when it came out, but I know I wasn’t paying attention.
In fact, when Katrina hit, I knew it was bad, but the only thing I really took from it was Kanye’s infamous line, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Of course, that’s real ignorance on my part, but I wasn’t living in the US then, and so the full gravity of the situation alluded me. Now, almost ten years on, I’m finally paying attention. And my God was Kanye right.
Bit late to the party, I know. It’s all done and dusted now though, so who cares about a documentary that came out so long ago, right? Well, kinda wrong. Not only are disaster relief efforts back in the news after hurricanes Harvey and Irma battered the south again, but when you see the deep, systemic, racial and socioeconomic divide laid bare in this film, you realise, nothing has changed in America.
The majority of the footage used in the documentary was filmed on a video camera that the film’s protagonist, Kimberly Rivers Roberts, bought for $20 the week before Hurricane Katrina hit. Roberts and her husband, Scott Roberts, lived in the Upper 9th Ward, a predominately African American neighbourhood which was severely flooded by Katrina due to multiple levee breaks. It was also one of the poorest neighbourhoods in New Orleans. By chance, two weeks after the storm, Roberts met filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal at a Red Cross shelter in central Louisiana and told them about her footage.
And her footage is insane. She walks through her neighbourhood a few days before Katrina hits, asking people out on their stoops if they are going to evacuate. Like her, most of them have no mode of transportation nor the financial means to flee. So they wait it out. Her and something like 15 others, including a bunch of kids and elderly women, wait out the storm in her attic, which ends up flooding. Her roof is almost underwater. They call 911, and the operators tell her no one is coming to rescue her. “So, I’m just going to die?” she asks, and no one responds. Finally, a neighbour who swims to them in wild shoulder high waters, using an old punching bag as a rescue float, saves them.
Cut to a couple days after the storm, and New Orleans is an absolute mess. Nearly 2,000 people are dead, and hundreds of thousands more are homeless. Everyone is hungry, thirsty, and lost. None of them have received help. Most of them are black. Rogers captures the enormity of the situation, where thousands of people are camped outside the Superdome in New Orleans’ CBD, most with nothing but the clothes on their back. Families line the highway, thumbs out, pleading for a ride to take them anywhere but the hell they are in. None of them are white.
Fast forward TWO WEEKS LATER, and Rogers returns to the 9th Ward with her husband and a camera crew. Every block is uninhabitable. Most houses have still not been searched for victims. It’s like a third world country. She has to search them herself, finding the body of her friend decomposing in a house and calling the coast guard to come and get him. There is still no running water. When the coast guard finally arrives, a friend of Rogers says to them, “I pray y’all don’t have to go back to Iraq. It’s not our war—this the war right here.” I’m not even religious and I was shouting Amen.
As a white person, I am oft ashamed of the colour of my skin. My ancestors and I have a lot to be embarrassed about—our sense of entitlement, our lack of respect, remorse, or compassion, cabanossi, Katy Perry etc. This film just amplifies the fact. Right now, in America, people are voting to make their country great again. But all you need to do is watch a film like this to remember that for most, it was never that great to begin with.