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If Trouble the Water is playing in your town, please go see it. This documentary about Hurricane Katrina will blow you away on so many levels. It delivers an urgent and immediate view of what Hurricane Katrina was like for actual poor black people living in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, but it also serves as a devastating indictment of the Bush Administration’s lack of response to Katrina and, subsequently, of an entire history of racism and economic discrimination in America. But the movie is more than just a disaster narrative. It’s also an incredible tale of survival and strength.
A large chunk of the video footage used in the film is provided by Kimberly Rogers, a Ninth Ward resident who used her home video camera to document the hurricane and its aftermath. Through Kim’s eye we get a matter-of-fact glimpse at the hurricane itself and the hurricane that is her life and the life of poor black people in New Orleans, but we also get an incredible tale of survival and inner-strength. When you are born fighting for every fraction of your own survival, a devastating hurricane is just another bump in the road that can be overcome with perseverance and determination. Well, at least it was for Kimberly Rogers, but unfortunately not for many of her neighbors and family. The movie walks this edge beautifully – the line between outrage/horror and inspirational strength.
We all know about the United States government’s neglect of the poor black hurricane survivors in New Orleans. We have read about it. We have protested it. We have seen the media coverage of it. But as much as you think you know, you know nothing until you see this first-hand account of the experience. Almost avant-garde in its fractured handheld movie camera approach, Kim Rogers’ footage is immediate and incredibly real. Kim’s shaking camerawork is as urgent, chaotic and violent as the storm that hit the Ninth Ward, and it shakes up the washed-over media portrayal of the casualties of Katrina. Before the hurricane hits, we meet the people in Kim’s neighborhood – her uncle walking through the streets in sunglasses, the men at the liquor store, a young girl on a bike, two old women both called Momma. As the hurricane hits we see the lights go out, glimpses of the water rising, a stop sign reaching askew from the surface of the flood, a dog chained in a yard.
After the hurricane, Kim films a friend rescuing people with a punching bag. He struggles through armpit-high water pulling people from the flood on the punching bag. Kim finds her uncle’s dead body in a house. Learns her grandmother died when authorities failed to evacuate the hospital and instead left all the patients to drown. She takes her camera through an unfathomably vast sea of displaced people lining the freeways, a flood of people — old people sitting in wheelchairs or lying on makeshift cots, mothers with babies, children playing amongst the ruins. The old sit parked on the freeway waiting for death itself to take them away since no one else is helping them get out of there. Kim shows us this, nods in acceptance of the reality and moves on. She finds the photograph of her mother which barely survived the Hurricane. We learn that her mother died of AIDS when Kim was thirteen. We meet her brother who was left to die in prison where authorities kept the inmates locked in their cells and abandoned the facility during the hurricane. Kim shows us all these things with a matter-of-fact acceptance. This is how life is when you are poor and black and live in New Orleans. There is no Michael Moore didacticism. No self-pity. Kim is simply documenting the circumstances in which she is living, another chapter in the hurricane that has been her life.
As onlookers, we are outraged and sickened. This movie tells you everything you need to know about the crimes of the Bush Administration whose lack of response to the Ninth Ward victims of Hurricane Katrina is just one step removed from genocide – “Just let the poor black people die.” Hurricane Katrina, as seen in this incredible film, becomes the literalization of the destruction that has been wrought upon this community of black people since the inception of slavery in this country. The movie is not only a condemnation of the Bush Administration, but it reminds us that we live in a country that was founded on slavery and continues to ignore and hide its racist core. Given the location is New Orleans, Louisiana, you can bet that every single one of the black faces we see in this movie – Kimberly Rogers, her husband Scott, the two mommas, Jimmy, the little girl on her bike, the grandmother left for dead in the hospital – is a descendant of slavery. We are reminded through the grim face of reality that this government has never been by and for the people. It has been by and for the privileged white people and their economic interests. And the movie tells us this so powerfully because it avoids speaking the words for us. It shows us a plain and clear picture of events that happened and the real people who were affected by them, but it does not interject with tidy self-righteous indignation. It allows us to put the pieces together ourselves. And when we put them together, the truth sits in our gut like a festering bomb.
But to make the movie just an angry condemnation of racism and criminal government neglect would be, in a way, to cave into the system that wants to beat down the poor and the disenfranchised. So yes, on one level this is a story of horrific trespasses and victimization, but more than anything it is a story of determination, will and survival. It is not just Kim’s struggle, it is the black struggle. It is the battle for a most basic survival in a system that leaves very few options for success. When the National Guard fails you, you can survive with a punching bag. While movie certainly reaches beyond the specificity of Kim and Hurricane Katrina, it would not exist without Kim – her voice, her powerful presence, and her video camera. When the movie ends, it is amazing how it reverberates like the very bass beats that back-up Kim’s astoundingly powerful rap vocals. We feel the crimes of our government. We feel the injustice and horror of what happened with Hurricane Katrina. We acknowledge the racist core of this country, but mostly we see that, against all odds and even in the worst of possible circumstances, sometimes human determination and faith can even kick the ass of the biggest government, especially when you’ve lived knowing that government doesn’t give two shits about you. For example, if you’re black and you’re poor. Indeed, toward the end of the movie, Kim’s husband Scott, who is standing in the middle of his still devastated neighborhood, says, “Katrina’s still going on.” Indeed, Katrina’s been going on for well over three hundred now. I wonder if it’s ever going to stop.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her partner, daughter, and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn and Berkeley Review. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.