As Tough As Tom Joad

Jonathan Rosenbaum

Kimberly and Scott Roberts outside their flood-damaged home in New Orleans.

I can’t quite follow the offscreen sound bites preceding the main title of Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s new documentary, Trouble the Water. But from the media voices I can transcribe, it’s clear they succinctly present the film’s agenda. At the same time, we see the inter-title September 14th 2005/​Central Louisiana” appear onscreen and get the first glimpse of the people who’ll become the documentary’s central characters, seated around a picnic table. 

Having survived drug-related pasts, they regard the loss of their worldy possessions and several loved ones and the government's lack of concern as lesser setbacks they can triumph over.

Two of the offscreen voices come from President Bush. The others come from newscasters or interviewees:

1. About 300,000 people displaced by Katrina have been scattered to at least a dozen states.”

2. Surviving Katrina was one thing; now people are just trying to survive the aftermath.”

3. “[inaudible] … evacuees were rolling in … .”

4. It’s been called the largest migration in the country since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.” 

5. Bush: I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.”

6. For years officials have warned that the levees could break.”

7. I don’t believe for one minute that anybody allowed people to suffer because they were African Americans.”

8. “[inaudible] … had the same reaction that they were all white people.”

9. Bush: We’ve got a job to defend this country in the war on terror and we got a job to bring aid and comfort to the people of the Gulf Coast, and we’ll do both.”

The first four statements evoke The Grapes of Wrath and its celebration of heroism, survival and community. In fact, the two most important characters in this real-life saga – 24-year-old Kimberly Roberts and her husband, Scott, heroic residents of New Orleans’ 9th Ward – register, at times, as updated versions of Ma Joad and Tom Joad, even though Steinbeck’s duo are mother and son, not wife and husband, and white, not African American.

The final five sound bites seem devoted to exposing or countering the lies and denials in #5, #7 and #9, particularly those stemming from Bush. One could hypothesize that the key turning point in many Americans’ perception of Bush – a shift in his image from heroic warrior to inept, hypocritical poseur – was in 2005, following the TV coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath. The wholly inadequate ways Katrina was officially anticipated made the government’s indifference to large portions of the population both palpable and inescapable. 

The follow-up perception – that you can’t be a warrior without an actual war (as opposed to a couple of metaphorical ones) – has regrettably been much slower in forming, thanks to a deceitful media vocabulary that uses war on terror” to stand for broad security measures and war in Iraq” to stand for a military occupation. This makes it easier to postulate a war that can only be waged permanently – without any clear definition, much less hope, of victory. (This was at least obliquely clarified when the New York Times recently rejected an Op-Ed by Sen. John McCain for its failure to pinpoint what a victory in Iraq might entail.)

We can see the sort of aid and comfort” Bush had in mind when we hear about Naval officers preventing Kimberly, Scott and their neighbors – at gunpoint – from finding even temporary shelter from the flood in a closed but dry naval base with 200 empty family-housing units and more than 500 evacuated rooms.

We had to do our job and protect the interests of the government,” one of those officers in the documentary explains. 

And if this leaves any doubt about whose government he’s referring to, the commendation Bush subsequently gave those officers for defusing a potentially violent confrontation” should clear that matter up. After Kimberly laughingly describes having been treated as un-American, like we lost our citizenship,” one of her Memphis relatives remarks: If you don’t have money, if you don’t have status, you don’t have a government.”

Ironically, it was the National Guard’s public relations team that inadvertently helped set the agenda of Trouble the Water. Flying to Louisiana a week after Katrina struck, Lessin and Deal – producers of Fahrenheit 9/11 and veterans of other Michael Moore documentaries – originally wanted to film the return of National Guard troops from Baghdad to New Orleans. But the public relations people blocked their access, reportedly saying, Fahrenheit 9/11 screwed it up for all you guys.”

Even though some vestiges of their initial plan remain in the film, Lessin and Deal luckily met Kimberly – an aspiring rap artist under the alias Black Kold Madina – soon afterward. Kimberly had bought a cheap video camera shortly before the storm hit and had documented her immediate experiences. So the producers-directors decided to let her story – her raw footage and their recounting of her further adventures – become their focus.

As storytelling, the approach has certain glitches. The film keeps cutting between Kimberly’s free-wheeling footage (supplemented by various smooth TV news reports) and Lessin and Deal’s footage, which either documents or retraces subsequent events (such as Kimberly and Scott driving a truck full of evacuees to a town in northeast Louisiana, or eventually returning from her cousin’s place in Memphis to their old neighborhood in the 9th Ward). As a result, some plot details remain fuzzy. Even after two viewings, I’m still not clear how they acquired the truck.

But as a portrait of the couple and their extended family – including two dogs, a cat and various relatives and neighbors – Trouble the Water is wonderful. And what it says about whom you can trust in a crisis if you’re poor and black couldn’t be more lucid and direct.

Evidently it’s this underlying message that prompted some potential distributors at Sundance to shy away from the film, even after it won the Grand Jury Prize there, with the reported complaint that it was too black” and didn’t have enough white people in it. 

But the issue is less about the absence of white people in the film than about their placement in the slicker sections. The single most hilariously shocking bit is a musical commercial for New Orleans tourism made just before Katrina hit, enthusiastically hawked by a young white woman. While the ad shows a few black musicians playing Dixieland, the white dominance of the band and its audience is so glaring that no commentary is needed.

Part of what makes Kimberly, Scott and their friend Brian so positive, generous and indestructible is that they have managed to overcome drug-related pasts, which they talk – and, in Kimberly’s case, rap – about. To their credit, having survived that particular disaster, they miraculously seem to regard the loss of their worldly possessions and several loved ones, the government’s callous lack of concern and its ineffectuality, and the subsequent profiteering of mercenaries as lesser setbacks they can somehow triumph over. 

This ultimately makes Trouble the Water more uplifting than depressing – a timely reminder that, as Ma Joad said at the end of The Grapes of Wrath, We’re the people that live. Can’t nobody wipe us out. Can’t nobody lick us. …We’re the people.” 

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Jonathan Rosenbaums website is www​.jonathanrosen​baum​.com. His most recent books are Essential Cinema (Johns Hopkins University Press), now available in paperback with a new afterword, and Discovering Orson Welles (University of California Press).
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