Faith and Black Resistance in Film Trouble the Water - Story of Hurricane Katrina Through the Eyes of Ninth Ward Residents

Faith and Black Resistance in Film Trouble the Water - Story of Hurricane Katrina Through the Eyes of Ninth Ward Residents

Trouble the Water is a powerful independent documentary film that tells the story of Hurricane Katrina through the eyes of the Ninth Ward residents Kim, Scott Roberts, and their friends and neighbors. It is a narrative documentary that told story of Katrina in a way that put faces and voices to the many left behind-the poor, the incarcerated, the elderly and the hospitalized. The film celebrates the heroism of these individuals and in the process revealed massive government failures that are hard to imagine. Trouble the Water is a documentary about social and racial inequalities in the U.S, but the film seem to place more emphasis on the use of faith, resilience and communal bond as traditional strategies of resistance for African Americans.

Trouble the Water was set against the premise of structural racism and how this amplified the effects of Katrina. Structural racism by definition is “the social, educational, and political forces or policies that operate to foster discriminatory outcomes or give preferences to members of one group over others.” Compare to any other event in history, the way Katrina was mishandled on the policy level, media level and at community level, represent just that- structural racism. From the onset, Trouble the Water set out to paint a vivid picture of this to the viewers. It was grounded with raw amateur video footages dating back to the day before Katrina, to give a background on what the city really was like before storm. What the viewer ultimately see, is portrait of a community that was abandoned way before storm. Through Kim’s amateur street interviews, numerous people expressed their desire to evacuate but having no means to do so. When the disaster finally strikes and Leeves broke, graphic and horrific images emerged on the screen in Trouble the Water. Images of elderly people helplessly hauled on wheel chairs or baggage carousels, and dead bodies floating in waters in the streets are depicted. The film presented these in a touching way that makes the viewer wonder why the city was not evacuated. But in Kim’s comment, we found the answer. "If you don't have money, don't have status, you don't have government" (Kim's friend, Trouble the water). This is the anthem for many blacks who grew up in the projects like that of the ninth ward. They see their community as a cage and their interactions with that cage have implications for how they perceive the government and its institutions. There is always a sense of been neglected which was captured and amplified by the images in the film. Even after the storm, their community was given no priority for clean-up and the film contrasted this well with the quick clean-up of the French quarters. The implications for this are many but the most important is how it revealed the government shaming indifference towards low-income communities. That reality is what was on the ground in New Orleans before Katrina. It is also the daily struggle of many black communities throughout the US-failing public schools, record high levels of incarceration, and extreme poverty. It is against this backdrop that the film set out to convey a larger story-the story of faith and resilience as seen through the experience of the film’s main characters, and how this relates to the larger African American communities.

Faith has always been an important component in the rich African American history and there is predominant representation of faith in Trouble the Water. Faith in both the religious and non- religious sense is “loyalty, firm belief and complete trust.” This sense of loyalty and trust is at the heart of the use of faith in Trouble the Water. During difficult times, most African Americans relied heavily on their faith and trust in each other especially those closest to them. It is what get them through hard times, and give them strength and encouragement to carry on the fight together. In trouble the Water, the story of Kim, Scott and Larry embodied this faithfulness and trust in each other. They openly express their gratefulness for having each other, and collectively acknowledge God’s goodness in what he helped them accomplish. For them, their rescue was a successful-they survived the Hurricane and their lives are bettered. We see this through the film’s portrayal of their tone and constant positive and upbeat mode especially Kim. “See there you go. When you trust in God, he’ll still send miracles your way” (Kim, Trouble the Water). Kim made this comment at a point in the film where she and her family were stuck in their attic with no food or electricity, and devastating water rising outside. Their hopes were fading away and food was running out. This is usually the time when many would be down and defeated but she maintained faith and it pays off. A friend of her husband came and rescued them to a nearby elevated area where they found a boat and they in turn help others. It was in this context that she gave thanks and praise and what was interesting is how the film zoomed in her face as she recounts this for the audience. Faith is a powerful tool for survival and as the flood waters rise and the people’s struggle intensify, there has been an increase in the number people in the film seeking God, or faith in higher power.

Thank God for some shelter. Somebody opened their hearts up for us to stay with until we get things situated. Just pray for that, you know, God finishes leading us in the right way. Right areas, right people (Brian, Trouble the Water).

When you hold on to something greater than yourself, miracles happen. This is a shared belief among African Americans. It is their faith that drives them to the right people and right places and this comment by Larry affirmed this for the viewers. Scott eventually found a truck and hauled his family out and we saw other neighbors coming to their aid to provide shelter. What viewers also see is Scott’s attempt to haul other people out especially when they drove by the doom and saw many people suffering with no help. This is the faith and trust the characters placed on their community when crisis hit and it shows the way they create relationships with their neighbors. Throughout their struggles, throughout their hardships, and even through the deaths of those they left behind, the film portrayed them as undefeated, undeterred and always having faith. They came together at Kim's grandmother funeral, and even when the soldiers denied them shelter, Kim with a smile, salute and say to them, "God bless you all." Faith and spirituality is always been a survival mechanism for African Americans for generations.

Despite the many evidences of faith and spirituality however, there is no specific religion stated or professed in Trouble the Water, but from the overt expression of faith, there is a religious context for the use of it in the film. This is evident from the scene where Kim and Scott opened their home, their attic, sharing their food and water with neighbors during Katrina. Scott’s friend Larry, a once-ascribed enemy, joins the group and together they save themselves and other people. Then Brian becomes a friend. They risk their own safety to save, share, and protect their neighbors and this is the center of the moral tenants of Christianity. Love for ones neighbors. There are other instances where representation of Christianity was not all that overt.

“Oh Jesus! This is my face after opening my back door! Oh, be with us lord please" (Kim, Trouble the Water). This statement implied her belief in the religion of Christianity through her open expression of the name of Jesus. The reason the film took the position of not specifying any religion is because the director wanted the viewers to grasp it within the context of the film. Faith within the film’s context is a tool for survival and a thread that kept the characters connected. Faith in friends, and neighbors helped Kim and her friends overcome the effects of Katrina and live to share their story in a positive way. It became in essence a testimony of triumphs over the trauma of Katrina and structural racism, and many black communities can relate this experience.

Surviving Katrina and returning home to rebuild a life, is also an amazing stories of resilience in the face of many obstacles including outright racial discrimination. Resilience many will argue cannot occur in the absence of "real or perceived risk or adversity," but being resilience includes more than merely surviving and being a victim for life. It also encompasses the ability to heal and to be empowered to live life fully. This type of resilience is what the viewers see within context of Trouble the Water. Understanding resilience and strength among African Americans, requires first acknowledging their painful experience in the US and the film gave perspective on this on clear terms. It chronicles the amazing journey of the main characters through the ordeal of Katrina and the viewers saw fortitude and courage at its best. What they also see is the painful reality of knowing these characters literally came from nothing.

The way I was going in New Orleans, was either in jail or underground (Scott, trouble the water).
I am already at the bottom, can't go anywhere but up (Kim, trouble the water).
They didn't tell us the hurricane was coming; took all the TVs; no food for prisoners; eating paper and tooth paste. All the deputies and guards left us to die (wink, trouble the water).

Their lives were already a living nightmare even before Katrina. They felt abandoned in many ways and they view their future with some degree of oblivion and uncertainty, and the only thing certain is either ending up death or in jail. The film painted vivid pictures for the audience as the characters share their experiences and feelings. Kim spoke tearfully about having no father at home and her Mothers dying of AIDS when she was only 13. It was disheartening to watch her share her eventual struggle in the streets of New Orleans. Scott told the story of his own past life as a street hustler living a life that was a death end. And even after the disaster, a time when these people are really entitle to some degree of help, the viewers see them abandoned yet again. The Mayor spoke of evacuation but transportation provided and we watched Kim and her friends denied shelter by the guards under the pretense of protecting the government. Kim's brother Wink share his ordeal with the rest of the prisoners left to die in flooded jail shells and almost as a sequence, the film depicts fragile looking elderly in wheel chairs, and a woman with a dying child with no water or food. News coverage of people in walking across the interstate bridge trying to make it out of the storm knowing fully no help is coming. Kim’s friend summed it all for the viewers; "this is the type of stuff you see in third world countries." But against all predictions to the contrary, these characters refused to give up. They came together and show the world the power of resilience and perseverance. They weaved through the experience of Katrina and show us an inspirational story of adaptation and transformation. They were transformed by the experience of Katrina and they resist the urge to give up, the urge to go back to their old ways and the urge to be seen as victims. They fought through it and they prevailed and this is the ultimate definition of resilience and the film captured it all for the audience to see.

Resilience also comes with the urge to stand up and fight for what you believe in and the film's extensive use of Kim’s music played a vital role in this. The film makers captured and amplified her voice on the screen as she challenges the system. While she realizes she cannot change the social order of things, the film cleverly depicts her consistent defiance of the status quo through her persona, music and lyrics. Music becomes a unique window to look closely on the courage of Kim and members of her community as a testament to their resilience despite how government failed them. "My music is what gives me sanity" (Kim, trouble the water). Sanity to have the courage to stand and speak for what you belief and sanity to criticizes institutional failures. This form of expression against authority and injustice through music, parallels the various African American musical innovations that have evolved over time and in various forms. We recalled Old Negro spirituals songs developed by slaves, gospel music that gave black churches unique identity and freedom songs use to advance the goals of the civil rights movements. Kim music allowed the viewers to see a connection between the contemporary Hip Hop music to generations of enduring black musical heritage. Kim's song tittle "amazing" is a self-affirming account of her struggles to overcome the obstacles, from dealing with the loss of her mother, to her hustle in the streets and the experience through Katrina. The music was a testament of her fortitude and resilience and the film directors intentionally played the song in its entire because of its significance to message of the film. Kim openly shared her past life as a street drug dealer and she stated this song was written as a strategy to overcome her past. When she performed the song towards the end of the film, the viewers witnessed a woman's triumph in getting her life in order, putting behind her past life of selling drugs. Music has been a force that fed African Americans courage through trouble times and the film shows how it helped Kim and her friends kept their heads up above the same trouble waters. Kim along with many others in her community symbolizes the fortitude, resistance, strength and the undying faith of African American people that have persisted for generations.

Communal bond or sense of community is another element widely represented in the film Trouble the Water. Sense of community by definition is "is a feeling members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and the group, and a shared faith that member’s needs will be met through their commitment to be together" (McMillan and Chavis, 1986). This spirit is at the heart of the film from the very onset. We saw from the opening scenes of the film, Kim touring before the storm, taking amateur videos of her hard-scrabble neighborhood of genuine poverty. Beneath this however is the reality that the viewers see of how happy this people seem to be with their lives. Despites all predictions of the devastating effects of the storm, many didn’t want to leave simple because they don’t want to leave their homes. The felt a sense of connection that made hard to for them to imagine going anywhere. Kim proudly called this segment of her video "the world we had before the storm." Children happily running and the viewer see a community that is deeply connected. The real story of communal bond however came in the aftermath of Katrina. The crisis brought people together enemy and friend alike.

During Katrina, my enemies helped me out. I never thought I’d see that day that somebody that don’t like me, and I don’t like that person would come together, you know, and do something positive…..but the storm brought us together (Scott, Trouble the Water).
The storm brought Scott and his old friend Brian together from their past heated rivalry. A rivalry that stemmed from their history of been street hustlers. They came together as people with share problems and aspiration and that is to tackle the effects of Katrina. They saw this is bigger than them or their suppose rivalry. Brian helped him them evacuate their home risking his own life amidst the chaos. They place the importance of helping each and standing as a community above everything. Black communities have a tendency to come together during crisis and view themselves as victims of the same course and its empowering. By chronicling the journey and experience of the characters, the film also convey a powerful message of shared emotional connection to their homes. Despite everything that they’ve been through, we saw them returned to New Orleans to try to rebuild their lives again. Holding on to each and refusing to let go of their connection to their root, help them remain positive amidst the ordeal. This spirit of oneness or bond is a power characteristic common among African Americans.

Placing emphasis on the issue of faith, resilience and communal bond has made Trouble the Water a powerful documentary film. Viewers will always differ on how we interpret the message of this film but it is hard to argue against the over-arching use of faith and black resilience as another lens through which the film can be view. But to truly understand faith, resilience or community within the context of black struggle, requires and understanding of the history of that story. And one area to look is the President Obama’s speech on race-“A more Perfect Union.” Although this address race in America in a broader perspective than we hope to mention here, but a segment of the speech gave a picture that help us understand the black struggle and how their use their faith and hope to look forward.

They came of age in the late '50s and early '60s, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What's remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but how many men and women overcame the odds, how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them (Barack Obama).

Although the first part of this comment is outside the scope of our discussion, it is necessary to include it here for proper understand. What the president highlighted leading to this comment the history of black struggles in truest nature. To resist the urge of listing everything, blacks were basically excluded from basic things ranging from economic, social, educational and many saw themselves living in welfare economy. They lack economic opportunities and there is also lack of so many basic services in urban black neighbors and they have inferior educational systems. This part of the black struggle has continued for many years and it’s the same pictures the viewer saw when Kim spoke about the death of her Mother and her eventual end in the streets. But as the later of the President statement indicates, many persevere and eventually made it through the odds and it’s a remarkable thing and its common among blacks everywhere. This perhaps helped give perspective on the way the film directors of Trouble the Water approach the characters and captured and inspirational story.

Trouble the Water present possibilities for new forms of independent media and art, which are linked to community, and empower those often left out larger social debates or representation to know that their stories and experiences are of value, and that their voices should be heard.

Work cited
Roberts, Kimberly, Scott Roberts, and Larry x, perf. Trouble the Water. Narr. Carl Deal and Tia Lessin. 2008. 2008. DVD
williams, Juan. This far by faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience. New York: Wm. Morrow (companion to PBS series), 2003. Print.
Ajirotutu, Dr. Cheryl, Carl Deal, and Gabriella Anais Deal-Marquez. "Study Guide." Study Guide: Trouble the Water. Ed. Prof. Evelyn Ang. N.p., 10 Aug. 2010. Web. 10 Mar. 2012. . Path: www.troublewaterfilm.com.
Loury, Glenn. "Poverty and Race." Institute of Race and Social Development. Boston University, 16 July 2011. Web. 2 Mar. 2012. Path: http://www.bu.edu/irsd/files/povertyrace.pdf.
Street, Paul. "Race, Poverty and Prison." History is a Wepon. N.p., 22 June 2011. Web. 12 Feb. 2012. .
Obama, Barack. "A More Perfect Union." DNC. Philadelphia. 18 Mar. 2008. Web. 4 Mar. 2012. .