January 25, 2009
I had planned on writing a more traditional review of one of the year's best documentaries, Trouble the Water, but my experience last weekend in the nation's capital underscored the film's final judgment in a more meaningful way than I expected.
As I originally viewed it for the first time several weeks ago, Trouble the Water was a searing indictment of not only the Bush Administration's mishandling (see: comprehensive negligence) of the Hurricane Katrina victims, but of the United States' long-standing indifference to the suffering of its most downtrodden citizens, a group comprised of but not limited to African-Americans in the Deep South. This weighty charge was made obvious by both the surreal footage of New Orleanians wallowing in the aftermath of Katrina, and also the matter-of-fact conversations had by the victims in Trouble the Water as they eventually accepted their tragic fate: “It's proven to me that, hey, if you don't have money, and you don't have status – you don't have a government.”
It was an ironic sight in Washington, D.C., then, to observe so many hundreds of thousands of African-Americans bedecked from head to toe in American flags and ear-to-ear grins, truly beacons of a new American patriotism. Nobody attempted to downplay their own enthusiastic pride; the city was possibly the happiest place on earth for five days straight (and the unabashed delight clearly bled through to the media, apparent by the breathlessly worshipful CNN coverage I observed on and off throughout the weekend). It didn't seem to matter who had "money" or "status" - this was suddenly everyone's government, and they were proud of it.
So there I was near the foot of the capitol, looking down the National Mall at almost two million people come out in the cold and celebrate what in reality is still only the idea of a better tomorrow. I stood there, scratching my head and attempting to reconcile the United States of Trouble the Water with the United States of Barack Obama. How did we get here, and what did it mean?
Kimberly and Scott Roberts, the subjects and heroes of Trouble the Water, don't necessarily provide easy answers to those questions, but their story does exist as a link between the two Americas. In the days before Hurricane Katrine ravaged the Gulf Coast, and not knowing how bad the damage would be, Kimberly began filming the reactions of her friends and neighbors in New Orleans' Ninth Ward. Unable to afford a way out of the city, Kimberly and her husband eventually found themselves in their attic as the floodwaters rose. It is where they would remain stranded, along with others on their block, for days after the storm was over.
Aside from the harrowing footage Kimberly captured during that time, Trouble the Water features some of the most honest and moving interviews found on screen this year. Surprisingly, however, it isn't what's said so much as what's not said that sticks with you: though it could be expected from anyone in their position, Kimberly and Scott don't spend all of their hours lamenting the Bush administration and racism and mistreatment and bad jobs and bad luck. They're hopeful, encouraged, almost repentant as they seek a new beginning. Katrina swept away their fortune, but not their fortitude, illustrated perhaps most memorably by a spontaneous rap Kimberly delivers of one of the songs she hopes will earn her a career in the music business.
This was the same pride that I saw on so many faces in Washington last week, and the same attitude that marks a sea change in the United States. Many people feel a sense of ownership in our government for the first time, a development that can only be considered positive for the future of the country. The tagline for Trouble the Water will be lost on those who overlook its themes: "It's not about a hurricane. It's about America." You could say the same thing about the inauguration: "It's not about a president. It's about the people."