Katrina’s Second Line

Through its nod to “Trouble the Water,” the Oscars have summoned the ghosts of New Orleans just in time for Mardi Gras.

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Backwater blues have caused me to pack up my things and go

Backwater blues have caused me to pack up my things and go

'Cause my house fell down and I can't live there no more

Bessie Smith, “Backwater Blues”

As tourists travel about downtown New Orleans and the French Quarter for Mardi Gras this week, they will no doubt comment on the limited hours of some of the city’s more authentic haunts. But as neighborhoods such as the Lower Ninth Ward continue to struggle in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there is more than just people missing.

Where there is no people, there is no culture, and much more is being lost due to the suspiciously slow pace of recovery. Thankfully, we have Trouble the Water—the documentary film just passed over by the Oscars to brazenly summon the voices and spirits of those—who by force or choice—have not returned since Hurricane Katrina.

There’s a certain haunting presence about Trouble the Water—a presence that is immediately felt by anybody who has journeyed across New Orleans in the past few years.

The film tells the story of Kim Roberts, a 24-year-old New Orleans resident and aspiring rapper, and her husband, Scott, as Roberts documents their experiences before and after the hurricane on a hand-held video camera. Produced in collaboration with Tai Leeson and Carl Deal, the very fact that the film exists speaks to the economic hardships of so many Katrina survivors.

As Rivers told the Brooklyn Rail, “We’d run out of money. We had about a hundred dollars left, and we was like, ‘We ought to try to see what we could do with this tape; we might find somebody we could give this tape to; well not give it, but either sell it, or license … you know, see what it’s worth.’”

These comments reflect the do-it-yourself ethic of the hip-hop generation and the time-tested drive of African Americans to “make a way out of no way.” Survival is, of course, a distinctly improvisational mode of navigating the world, and Trouble the Water harnesses the rhythms of black improvisation via Roberts’ audio and visual narration.

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