Desert Bayou

| October 10, 2007

When Hurricane Katrina so viciously happened upon the citizens of New Orleans, it was a devastation that took America (USA) and the rest of the world by surprise. It was a surprise that left the U.S. wondering what has happened and why is it that we couldn’t stop it. Most were sitting in front of their televisions or listening to their radios possibly confused thinking that this had to be something that was happening in another country. But no, it was happening here and the visions that where being shown on the televisions in the days that followed made it all too real. Desert Bayou begins with 600 evacuees being placed on a plane. Not one individual was informed as to where they were going, most believed intentionally, but only told they were being taken to safety. It wasn’t until they were in the air and the pilot informed them that their flight time would be three in half hours to…Utah.
As you see the evacuees board the plane you are once again astonished by the disarray that infested the Louisiana Superdome where most displaced victims had to wait to be rescued. So to see these evacuees being taken away to get shelter and food, normally it would be a sigh of relief, a sigh even from the victims themselves. But once it is realized where they are headed, the documentary peaks your curiosity and a new set of obstacles awaits them.
Desert Bayou follows the lives of the families of Curtis Pleasant and Clifford Andrews. These two men along with their wives (Clifford’s girlfriend is referred to as his common law wife) tell the story of how they as African- Americans were introduced to a world known mostly for it’s Mormon belief and past controversial doctrines that at one time shun the “Negroes” of society.
We are taken into the mindset of two families, specifically Curtis and Clifford. We learn that life in New Orleans weren’t as friendly to these men as they struggle to take care of their families. We find that Curtis, twenty to thirty years ago, was arrested for burglary and was sentenced to three years as well as having a drug problem. He struggled in New Orleans and he is struggling to find a job in Utah because of this record. But he doesn’t want to give up and though he has nightmares of what he had to endure and anger with how the government officials handled the disaster, he wants to make a life for his family. His wife looks at it as a new start.
Clifford has the same ambition but he has a hard time following through. He wants the best for his family and even wants to go to Culinary Art School. He expresses how he wants his children to have an education. But like the past, he slips back to drugs and alcohol and pushes his wife to head back to Louisiana. He tells us she’s coming back but you sense he’s pleading in desperation that she does. Between the two men, Clifford seems to not have as much strength as Curtis. It’s not just the new life in Utah but the hopelessness that has followed him from New Orleans he must struggle with.
Clifford and Curtis returns to New Orleans to reunite with family and friends and though it’s a pleasant occasion, the memories remind both that they rather start over in Utah. These memories are not only of the hardship of Hurricane Katrina but of the hardship that was in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina, a hardship of poverty and racial divide. One good note for Clifford would be that his wife agrees to give him another chance. However, both families still have yet another journey ahead of them.
It could have been easy to make a documentary pitting one side against the other but that is not what takes place. Fortunately, realities are given by exposing ignorance, stereotypes, and facts that cannot be ignored when people of different worlds are put together. Desert Bayou didn’t pick two families and try to paint a picture of disenfranchised people who did not have their own share of problems that may have been caused by their own doing. At the same time it did not paint a picture of a people who represented an all white community who were hiding in their homes because “they” where coming. Though I am sure there are those who fall under this category, this documentary gives you the insight on how the two families where fighting their own demons and how a town open their arms to a people they may not have understood or would have preferred to have never known.
When you listen to the fears and ignorance of some of the citizens of Utah, from their explanations of the criminal background checks of the evacuees once they landed, to the curfew given to the evacuees when they where taken to an abandoned military base to live, you experience the true effect of the media. Because of an explanation of being misinformed, the District Attorney gave the citizens of Utah the impression that some of the evacuees consisted of murderers and rapist. It turns out the information was false. He was never held accountable. But you have to ask yourself, is this only place in the States this is happening.
Out of the 600 evacuees, 100 of them had made a decision to make a life in Utah. In interviews we are introduced to a couple of the “black faces”, two women, which make up the African-American presence that was already there. They try to explain the rationality of those who are fearful, but they are sure to reiterate that there is yet much change that needs to take place, specifically that there is only a small group of African-Americans living there. When we’re introduced to one white couple, the wife does all the talking. At one moment she’s exhibiting the fears that can be seen in her eyes as she explains why the evacuees should be taken to the military base and yet, in another scene expressing approval for the citizens of Utah who were able to make them feel at home. Then there’s the voice of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach who was fired from his radio gig by the Mormon owners of his radio station because he wanted to physically welcome an evacuee by demonstrating on the show. It is here where you get a sense of how things from the fifties and sixties have not quite left the mentality of some people.
There are random people from the evacuees to Utah citizens who express their thought. How can we forget the woman who explains that Utah is racially harmonious as she refers to the evacuees as irresponsible and how they chose not to get on the busses going out of New Orleans? But there is a balance to every negative in this film. From the bearded man explaining how wrong the Governor actions made the evacuees feel isolated, to the citizen who visited New Orleans and now feels he’s an expert as to who they are. From the Democratic Mayor, Rocky Anderson, who bullet points every action that could have been done differently, to Colonel Scot Olsen who decides to take every one of his actions and explain it as a security measure for the country and state of Utah.
I give kudos to Desert Bayou for being a great documentary of comparison. Comparing the struggles of the past in race relations to how there are still changes needed today. Comparing how New Orleans was made up of a people who were unaware of the opportunities in the rest of the world while Utah purposely liked being a world to it. Comparing how ignorance can come in the form of lack of education and in the form of lacking to be educated. There are a few appearances by Master P, hip hop rapper, who unfortunately had family experience this disaster as well as the lost of life. But when he speaks of his dismay that there are those who may never return to the place he grew up, he sees little hope that it will be the same. Dr. Beverly Wright (Sociology Professor/Historian) gives a little hope that like herself, others will try to fight for the culture that belongs to the African-Americans of New Orleans the one place that African-Americans called their own.
It was wise for Alex LeMay to only spotlight two families. This way the viewer can be captivated by the struggles from the beginning of these people’s journey to their start in a new life. He did not try to avoid the fact that New Orleans had serious problems with poverty and racial tension before Hurricane Katrina. You may even hear those say it may have been the straw that broke the camels back. There was something much deeper that brewed in Louisiana and Katrina made the pot boil over. It exposed our government and it exposes us. I gave when the fireman had the boot out collecting money, but whatever became of it. Just think, the Superdome sheltered 26,000 people and this is the story of only 600.

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