Documentary Review: Trouble the Water
Trouble the Water, directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, the producers of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, and executive produced by Danny Glover, follows Kimberly Rivers Roberts aka Black Kold Madina and her husband, Scott Roberts, who live in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, a ward that was devastated during Hurricane Katrina. The film was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2009 Academy Awards.
The filmmakers met Kimberly and Scott at the New Orleans’ Superdome where the city’s residents who had not fled the hurricane came for shelter and FEMA aid. The filmmakers were looking for possible subjects they could work with for a documentary about the disaster. Little did they know what great subjects Kimberly and Scott would make.
On August 25, 2009, Kimberly Rivers Roberts was preparing for Hurricane Katrina by videotaping her neighbours. She couldn’t leave her home in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward because she couldn’t afford to, neither could many of her neighbours. She had recently sold her car and didn’t have any means of transportation out of the city and the city’s government wasn’t providing any. Roberts’ footage of life before the hurricane is pretty amusing: there is a neighbour who asks if she has some weed, the neighbourhood children who proudly exclaim that they “ain’t afraid of no water”, her two dogs, her uncle who obviously has a drinking problem and who she has to wake up so that he can take shelter in doors (He later dies during the storm and Kimberly discovers his decomposing body upon her return to her neighbourhood). Kimberly videotapes the news as New Orleans’ mayor insists that everyone evacuate, however, no assistance has been given to New Orleans residents who can’t afford to leave. Kimberly began filming the storm in the hopes that she could sell some of the footage to a News Station after the storm. Little did she know how videotaping this disaster would change her life.
Kimberly’s footage of subsequent events is startling. We get to see firsthand how it was like to live through Hurricane Katrina. At one point we see that Kimberly’s house begins to flood. The filmmakers inform us at this point that the levees are failing. Kimberly and Scott decide to go up into their attic. They take in their neighbours who are unable to get to higher ground. They end up having to leave their two dogs to fend for themselves (We will later see that the dogs manage to survive on their own and are reunited with Kimberly and Scott soon after the hurricane). From their attic, we see that the water has risen so high that only the top of a street stop sign is visible from above the water. The filmmakers play 911 calls from other New Orleans residents who are afraid of drowning in their houses. These recordings are chilling as 911 operators coldly inform people that there is no one coming to rescue them. “So I guess I’m going to die then.” one resident responds.
What is very moving about the film is how despite not having very much Kimberly’s community comes together to survive the storm. Larry, a neighbour who we learn later doesn’t even like Scott, ends up risking his life in order to rescue Kimberly, Scott, and their neighbours from their attic and take them to higher ground. He manages to take people across the water using an old punching bag.
People like Kimberly, Scott, Larry, and other people from Kimberly’s community are generally the population of New Orleans that the city officials try to hide from tourists. They are poor and in trouble with the law (We learn that Scott and Kimberly were drug dealers) but we see that despite all this these people are also everyday heroes who are willing to share what little they have with their neighbours, and even risk their lives for them.
The film follows Kimberly and Scott after they eventually flee New Orleans (in a stolen truck with their neighbours) and are able to access FEMA services. Kimberly and Scott begin to see the disaster of the hurricane as an opportunity to start their lives anew and escape their past as self-described street hustlers. Later on in the film, Kimberly reflects on the fact that for many of New Orleans’ poor Black residents, their flight from Hurricane Katrina was the first time they had left Louisiana and got to see how Black people live in other states. It appears to them that the standard of living of Black people in other states is much better than for those in New Orleans.
As we watch the film, we will learn that Kimberly is already a survivor. Her mother died of AIDS when she was thirteen years old. Kimberly lived on the street with her little brother, stealing in order to survive and avoid child services who she worried would take her brother away. She eventually got into drug dealing. Kimberly is also an aspiring hip hop artist and we get to see her perform in the film.
By the end of the film we learn that Kimberly and Scott have started their own record company Born Hustler Records. Scott has given up his life as a drug dealer and got a job in construction rebuilding homes damaged by Katrina.
Through my own research, I’ve learned that Kimberly and Scott now have a daughter named Skyy, who was born on Martin Luther King Day.
The filmmakers intersperce Kimberly and Scott’s story with facts about the disaster. We learn that the Louisiana National Guard was not on the ground at the time to help New Orleans’ residents evacuate because they were stationed in Iraq. When they finally return, Scott thanks them for coming but says that he hopes they stay in Louisiana because “it’s not our war.” We learn that the levees that eventually broke had been sited several years earlier for not being adequate. We learn that New Orleans’ residents who were homeless at the time of Hurricane Katrina, such as Kimberly and Scott’s friend Brian who is a recovering addict who was living in a group home, don’t qualify for FEMA compensation because they can’t prove residence. We learn that although the majority of white residents have returned to New Orleans, the majority of Black residents have not, thus dramatically changing the demographics of the city.
I found the film truly inspiring. It showed the power of community and how crisis, which we often think would bring out the worst in people, can actually bring out the best.
I found it interesting how often the city’s affected residents reflected on how their experience reminded them of people in Third World countries and how if America is the richest country in the world it could let its citizens suffer like this. In many ways, the victims of Hurricane Katrina were made refugees by the disaster. Many of the cities Black residents have been resettled in other states and might never return to New Orleans. Kimberly and Scott’s journey reminded me of the stories of survival of many of my neighbours who were refugees of war. Perhaps this experience could help people living in the First World better understand how easily things can fall apart in a city. We also need to reflects on the standard of living of everyone in our own countries before we judge other countries for their poverty and human rights violations. Living in Canada, a reality is that many of the Aboriginal peoples here live in “Third World” conditions, with no adequate drinking water or shelter. We have developped some parts of our country and underdevelopped others. And, just as in New Orleans, your race and class determines whether or not you will get to live in “First World” conditions or “Third World” conditions.
Website for Trouble the Water
“Trouble the Water star, rapper Kimberly Rivers Roberts, readies her cd” by Randy Lewis in the LA Times April 2009
“Four years on, Katrina remains cursed by rumor, cliché, lies and racism” by Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian August 26 2009
Zeitoun, a work of non-fiction by Dave Eggers, based on a true story that took place during Hurricane Katrina