Tonight, the Oscar-nominated Trouble the Water—a documentary by filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, premieres on HBO. The film features 15 minutes of live hurricane video shot by Kimberly Roberts, an aspiring rapper whose family was too poor to leave New Orleans, and follows Kim’s family and others through the horrific aftermath of the storm. Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc—the breakout star of Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke documentary and author of Not Just the Levees Broke: My Story During and After Katrina (and a consultant on David Simon’s new post-Katrina HBO drama)—writes below about why viewers should still care about New Orleans four years later, and why Trouble the Water just may be the wakeup call we need.
Last September, when Trouble the Water first premiered in New Orleans, I remember thinking, "I have to go down to Canal Place Cinema and support this." So many people have “Katrina Fatigue,” as I like to call it—the hurricane is four years out, and I applaud anything that brings another testimony into the public conversation; that shows people how bad it was, and how bad it still is.
So I went to the premiere, knowing Danny Glover was hosting it, and I couldn’t get into the screening—so I texted Spike Lee, who directed When the Levees Broke, the documentary I was in, and asked him to pull some strings, but he didn’t have Danny’s number. So I finally just walked up to Danny and said, “Mr. Glover, you don’t know me, but I’m Phyllis, and I was in another Katrina documentary and I have to see this film!” He grabbed onto me and I wouldn’t let go until I got a seat inside—that’s the way I am. And when I saw it then, and watching it again now, I think that Trouble the Water is an amazing accomplishment, and something everyone should see about the people who had to live through what we all went through here in New Orleans. It’s just raw—it’s a look at the poorest people of the Ninth Ward, and those who couldn’t afford to leave, and if you have a heart in your body, you will feel this film 100 percent.
Kimberly Roberts is the “star” of the film—if you can call her that—a 24-year-old aspiring rapper who did not have the finances to get the hell out of New Orleans when Katrina hit, and still, she managed to film all of her harrowing experiences on a Hi-8 camera—the water rising, being trapped in the attic with her husband and neighbors, the fear they felt. That she could turn this 15 minutes of footage into an Oscar-nominated documentary—I’m amazed by it. And that rap song she sings at the end of the film about growing up so poor, with her mother on drugs and being forced to steal—it just shows that she is a strong woman, and so honest, real, determined, courageous, and intelligent.
We have so much intelligence down here in New Orleans, and yet, even four years after the hurricane, we can’t rely on the school system. Crime is at an all-time high. My old high school, Joseph S. Clark, shut down, and we don’t even have parks yet for kids to hang out in—that’s what we did in the ‘70s, at least—I’m still trying to petition for these things, to organize our community, and these fool ass people have not yet gotten down here to rebuild.
That’s why films like Trouble the Water are so important, and why it’s great that it’s making it to a wide audience via HBO. People can say that writing a check doesn’t mean anything, but honey, it does. Even $20, if that’s all you can afford in the recession, that helps. And if you don’t trust the system to deliver the money to the right places, call a school yourself and ask them what they need.
“That’s what’s going to help us rebuild the most—talking about what happened and how we can move on—and why documentaries like Trouble the Water are still so relevant. If we aren’t talking about what we still need, how can we be sure people won’t forget?”
For my part, I am still going out into the streets every day to talk to people about their experiences—I call it getting “phyllisophical.” Other people call me the Dr. Phil of the streets. But I am happy to help, even if it takes me an extra two hours at the grocery store. One woman told me she was going to commit suicide after Katrina, and that she saw Spike Lee’s documentary, and I saved her life. She gripped my arm at the store, and she told me, the way you shared with everybody so openly, you helped me to heal. And I think that’s what’s going to help us rebuild the most—talking about what happened and how we can move on—and why documentaries like Trouble the Water are still so relevant. If we aren’t talking about what we still need, how can we be sure people won’t forget?
Here in New Orleans East, we desperately need a hospital. I just sent President Obama 10 letters the other day ( I remember Oprah saying persistence pays off) saying that since Katrina, we still only have two medical trailers in this part of town, and they aren’t equipped to handle emergencies or even basic lab work. Plus, if you lived in a FEMA trailer for three years like I did, the last thing you want to do is go to a trailer for medical care.
Every little thing helps. We have Brad Pitt and Chris Rock’s wife here now, and I think collectively its making a huge, huge difference. But we need something really big, like a hospital, that shows where the $25 billion in recovery money is going.
“I am still going out into the streets every day to talk to people about their experiences—I call it getting phyllisophical. Other people call me the Dr. Phil of the streets.”
What I hope people will realize when they see Trouble the Water is that we still have so much to do here, and that Katrina really changed so many lives, but we are a really resilient people and we want our city to come back. There are still areas that look like Katrina hit yesterday. We aren’t looking for a handout, but it’s hard to believe that the city that we love (and everyone loves—the Mardi Gras, the jazz, the hospitality!) will never be the same.
I wasn’t poor before Katrina, and I’m certainly not poor afterward, but Trouble the Water pisses me off all over again, in a good way. I mentally moved on from the storm after I wrote the last page of my book, but this documentary has opened some old wounds and moves me to action, and I can only hope it does the same for others.
Phyllis Montana-Leblanc is a Hurricane Katrina survivor. She was featured in Spike Lee's documentary When the Levees Broke and is author of Not Just the Levees Broke: My Story During and After Hurricane Katrina. She is at work on her next memoir, No More Wire Hangers, about domestic abuse in teenage relationships.