Trouble the Water - HBO
by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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A film due for an HBO premiere on April 23, after having shown well at film festivals during the last few months and even earning an Oscar nod in the documentary category is Trouble the Water. This is an up close and personal view of Hurricane Katrina. And while Trouble the Water isn’t the riveting account shown in Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, it’s a good personal essay of lower ninth ward residents’ take on Hurricane Katrina.
Aspiring rapper Black Kold Madina, whose real name is Kim Roberts, and her husband, Scott, decided to videotape the hurricane as it bore down on New Orleans nearly three years ago. What evolved from the couple’s video and Kim’s narration is highlighted in this documentary, which could also be a study of poor, Black life in pre- and post-Katrina, New Orleans.
The Roberts, who reveal that before the storm they made a living selling drugs and not doing much of anything, started taping on August 28, 2005, as the hurricane landed. And they admit they frankly couldn’t afford to get out of the city when Mayor Ray Nagin advised his constituents to vacate the area. It will probably never be confirmed just how the city, the state of Louisiana or even the country thought that poor, lower-class citizens were going to evacuate before the hurricane hit, especially without any assistance. But in Trouble the Water, the Roberts seek to speak for the people who stayed, suffered and died, and, indeed, those who still struggle in the aftermath years later.
With the help of directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (who travel to the Superdome after Katrina and run into the couple), the Roberts juxtapose their taping of the hurricane with the weeks that follow, but it began with them just taping the circumstances for posterity. I’m sure they didn’t realize at the onset the devastation and tragedy that would ensue, which included the hurricane claiming a grandmother and an uncle, among other family members.
And even though the couple may not have meant much to their community before the hurricane, in the end they were heroes, as their commitment and creativity—along with two other men—helped at least 25 stranded neighbors leave the area and make their way 10 blocks to an abandoned naval base. But help was still so close yet so far away; as they still couldn’t take shelter at the base, as military officials told them that the base was off limits—something about “protecting the government property,” according to one officer.
They finally hole up in Frederick Douglass High School until they were able to leave town for Alexandria, Louisiana, to secure shelter with one of Kim’s relatives. Afterward most of the group wait for help from the government that seems “too little, too late.”
One ninth ward resident used the analogy that the government had ignored them like someone would ignore the spices that are stuck at the bottom of the spice jar.
A Roberts’ relative, who was incarcerated during Katrina’s wrath, said he didn’t know that a hurricane was imminent, because the prisoners were watching Rap City on BET, as opposed to the news station.
In the end Kim realizes her goal of becoming a rapper, and her husband finds work in construction; and they both, against previous protestations, return to New Orleans.
For me, Trouble the Water, while steeped in regional dialect that is both troubling and sometimes incomprehensible, was a good DIY home video that fortunately turned into a greater project. The Roberts are similar to many couples, struggling to make a living (albeit they were doing it illegally); but the misfortune of Katrina literally thrust them on a road of reflection and a renewed commitment to improve their lot in life.
Trouble the Water premieres on HBO April 23.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.
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