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.

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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.

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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.

There’s a telling scene early in the film, when Roberts travels the streets of New Orleans singing Patti LaBelle’s “On My Own,” shortly before the storm. The film is littered with such references, offering audiences the possibility of gaining greater literacy in black New Orleans culture. In another example, the Roberts’ family dog is named Kizzy, a nod to Alex Haley’s Roots, a metaphor for an overburdened black woman.

These are just a couple of examples of Roberts’ deft use of black vernacular to build a metaphorical shelter from the winds of Hurricane Katrina. All of this helps establish the narrator as an intellectual agent, despite her claim early in the film that she was the “only stupid nigga who stayed.”

Trouble the Water is just the latest in a long “blues tradition of investigation and interpretation,” according historian Clyde Woods. Roberts’ narration of Trouble the Water, Woods writes, “draws on African-American musical practices, folklore, and spirituality to reorganize and give a new voice to working class communities facing severe fragmentation.”

Roberts also reflects on the gender tensions among Katrina survivors. As an aspiring hip-hop artist, she uses rap music—a decidedly male-centered cultural space—as a vehicle to express the specificity of her life as a black woman.

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When queried as to why she decided to carry a hand-held video during the storm, Roberts told the Brooklyn Rail, “I decided to film because I realized we weren’t going to be able to leave—that was the fact. And just in case it happened like how people said it was going to happen, I wanted to film it, just in case we died. I didn’t want to go out like that. With all I had been through my whole life, I always felt to some degree that my life was meaningful and that I was put here for a reason. If I died, people gonna know how I died. So to some degree, I was feeling like my legacy should live on and people would know what had happened to us. “

Roberts and her husband survive the hurricane. And Trouble the Water serves as tribute to those who were lost in the storm. In that way, the film serves as a kind of “second line” performance—the parade of dancing, shuffling bodies that occurs, often after a funeral. According to musician Michael White, “at the time of their origin, these parades offered the black community an euphoric transformation into a temporary world characterized by free open participation and self expression through sound, movement and symbolic visual statements.”

White adds that in the moment, the second line obliterates social class and status. “…one could be or become things not generally open to blacks in the normal world: competitive, victorious, defiant, equal, unique, hostile, humorous, aloof, beautiful, brilliant, wild, sensual, and even majestic.”

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Indeed, Trouble the Waters serves as a triumphant and critical reminder to a nation that would rather ignore the dead bodies that were sacrificed and cultural gifts that New Orleans gave our country. And that in itself is troubling.

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books including Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation. Neal is a professor of black popular culture at Duke University.


Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter