Trouble The Water
Arriving just two and a half years after the Iraq War's stage-managed opening shock and awe, Hurricane Katrina responded in kind, its images seared into the brain. As footage from helicopters circling over a flooded city looped on CNN, Wolf Blitzer observed in voice-over, "They were so poor, and so black." In the weeks that followed, Katrina became shorthand for the many failings of the Bush administration, and the storm's survivors became minor characters in a grander narrative about the failure of Republican government.
As a result, it's more than a little rewarding that Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's first feature, Trouble the Water, doesn't present Katrina as allegory, but as a disaster that tested the people who found themselves caught in the middle of it. Documentaries live and die on the strength of their characters, and with Kimberly Rivers Roberts and Scott Roberts, Lessin and Deal found two people who are equal to the gravity of the storm but also self-assured enough to not be defined by it.
In five minutes, Kim Roberts' pre-storm footage reveals why some people didn't leave New Orleans despite warnings. No one had cars, weather predictions were hard to get and sounded inaccurate, and the warmth of the neighborhood made it seem like everyone could just ride the storm out together. But the hurricane quickly kicks in, as Roberts and her neighbors watch floodwaters rise, leaving them stuck in Roberts' attic without any assurances that someone is watching out for them. They seek government help, first by calling 911, and then by going to a nearby Navy base, each time finding themselves rejected from authorities they assumed would be there for them. By the time Lessin and Deal become involved in the story, following the Roberts as they try to navigate a world that stubbornly refuses to settle, it's easy to forgive the familiarity of the larger Katrina narrative in order to explore the lives of such unique, if troubled, characters.
Trouble is a road movie for a while, as the Roberts take solace with relatives in northern Louisiana and Memphis. But eventually they return, and we learn the harder truths of their lives--drug addiction, tough childhoods, and other things that might have been more pressing if we hadn't joined them at the point when Katrina pushed all those concerns off to the side.
It is only at Trouble's end that we learn that Kim, in particular, has had a life full of Hurricane Katrinas, and that she has coped with her pain by recording hip-hop tracks. Back at home, she plays one, singing along to her own story. In this moment, Lessin and Deal remind us that the shock of Hurricane Katrina hurt before the storm became proxy for all that was wrong with the country circa 2005, and it still hurts today.