Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 20, 2007

Two post-Katrina documentaries

Filed under: Film,racism — louisproyect @ 4:06 pm

Opening on October 5th at City Cinemas Village East in New York, “Desert Bayou” focuses on a group of 600 African-American survivors of Hurricane Katrina who were flown out of New Orleans and into Utah as part of a rescue mission. From the moment they get off the plane and for the entire time they are in Utah, they face unremitting suspicion and racial prejudice from the surrounding mostly Mormon community, as well as a deep sense of cultural alienation. Whatever you want to call Utah, it is certainly not the Big Easy.

In many ways, the clash between the new arrivals and the new world they find themselves in mirrors that of “Lost Boys of the Sudan,” another documentary that examined the plight of Africans in Houston, Texas. In many ways, African-Americans might feel like aliens in their own country. However, when you end up in a state that is only .08 percent African-American and that is a home to an organized religion that officially enshrined racism in its theology until 1978, that feeling can only be deepened.

Director Alex LeMay filming in Utah

Although Utah was supposedly rescuing the New Orleans survivors, the evidence suggests that they would have preferred that they were drowned. As director Alex LeMay makes clear, the treatment meted out to the African-American survivors would have never been tolerated if they had been rich and white.

When they arrived at the Salt Lake City airport, their luggage–such as it was–was searched by the cops, a clear violation of their rights as American citizens. Since there was so much lurid and racist coverage of New Orleans residents running wild in the days following Hurricane Katrina, the Utah officials must have worried that the luggage concealed machine guns or worse.

They were then put on buses and taken directly to Camp Williams, a National Guard artillery training site in the middle of the desert about 45 miles from Salt Lake City, and housed in barracks. Although the film does not make the comparison, one cannot help but be reminded of Japanese-Americans being herded into concentration camps after Pearl Harbor.

While the Nisei were suspected of being spies, the residents of New Orleans were had to face charges that they were dangerous criminals. After being subjected to two criminal investigations that turned up nothing, rumors continued to fly that were killers among them. State Attorney General Mark Shurtleff endorsed these rumors on a talk radio show, stating that “We actually found out that several dozen are convicted murderers.” This was completely false.

Directed by Alex LeMay, “Desert Bayou” decided to look at things from a different angle than other documentaries on New Orleans and it is good that he did. The film is almost as much of a study of what it means to be a Mormon in Utah, a subject that is obviously of some interest given Mitt Romney’s bid to be the next president of the United States. The general impression conveyed by the average Utahan interviewed in the film is a mixture of fear and superiority. They regard Black people as violent and backward. Since there are so few African-Americans in Utah, the only impression that they have is formed by television. Karyn Dudley, an African-American who lives in Salt Lake City and who belongs to the Mormon Church, told LeMay:

I don’t know I just think Utah, as a whole, is afraid of the unknown. They are a product of what they see on TV, simply because there aren’t a lot of African-Americans here. They don’t realize that we are an individual (s) —that rapper you saw on TV, that’s not me, that’s not my brother, that’s not my dad, that’s not my uncle. And so they can’t assume that what they see on TV, or even what the media portrays… African-Americans to be to be true.

Not every Utahan comes off badly in the film. Rocky Anderson, the Democratic Mayor of Salt Lake City and a lapsed Mormon, is a voice of reason and humanity throughout the film. He is not one to mince words:

The Bush administration is completely responsible for what happened to New Orleans and the surrounding areas, they were incompetent, I don’t think they cared, and then in the aftermath you saw an abysmal response in terms of the evacuation efforts, the efforts on the ground to provide assistance, and then, I’ve got to say an unbelievable, and I think a racist coverage by the media, leading this nation to think that all these African American people are raising utter hell, that people are being raped and murdered, and bodies were being stored in freezers—including one nine-year old girl with her throat slashed, and none of them true, not one bit of that was true, and yet that still the impression in most people’s minds in this country, and it’s because it was repeated over and over and over again in our nation’s media.

Despite the culture shock and the racism that confronts them, a number of the Katrina survivors decide to stick it out in Utah. The state’s natural beauty and the dynamic economy promise a better life than the one that they left behind. It must be said, however, that the film is not a Horatio Alger tale. The difficulties facing African-Americans in Utah are about as great as they are everywhere else. One feels a great deal of sympathy for a couple of the men who decide to stay in Utah, but wonder about their prospects since they acquired drug and alcohol problems in the span of their troubled lives. Alex LeMay does not attempt to gloss over these problems, to his credit. All in all, this is a very fine documentary that contains some painful truths about the racial contradictions in America today, brought to a very sharp edge by Hurricane Katrina.

* * * * *

Directed and narrated by Greg Palast, “Big Easy to Big Empty – The Untold Story of the Drowning of New Orleans” is a 30 minute film with 60 minutes of additional footage that is available from Palast’s website.

As one might expect, the documentary is first-rate investigative reporting. Borrowing from Michael Moore, Palast drops in on the corporate headquarters of Innovative Emergency Management, an outfit that was paid $500,000 to come up with an emergency evacuation plan in case of a major hurricane. No plan was ever produced, but the company did make major donations to the Republican Party. After pressing a company spokeswoman for an explanation why a plan never materialized for a few minutes, security guards showed up and escorted Palast away.

This was not the worst encounter with the authorities in New Orleans. Because he filmed a trailer park for Katrina survivors in close proximity to an Exxon refinery, he was charged with violating Homeland Security laws–as if his documentary might be used to tip off al Qaeda. As Palast pointed out to his accusers,

Once I was traced, I had a bit of an other-worldly conversation with my would-be captors. Detective Frank Pananepinto of Homeland Security told us, “This is a ‘Critical Infrastructure’… and they get nervous about unauthorized filming of their property.”

Well, me too, Detective. In fact, I’m very nervous that this potential chemical blast-site can be mapped in extreme detail at this Google Map location.

Charges were eventually dropped.

Just as was the case with the Camp Williams survivors, Palast uncovers racist treatment toward his interviewees who are simply trying to restart their lives in the homes they once lived in. In the course of his investigation, Palast discovers that hundreds of them are not allowed to return to a housing project that was not even damaged by water. It seems that the project is in close proximity to downtown New Orleans and a ripe plum for real estate developers. What the hurricane could not destroy, corporate greed would, as this exchange between Palast and an African-American would indicate:

GREG PALAST: The city has sealed up almost all public housing. But these apartments were never touched by water. It was nearly perfect.

And this, it’s been a year.

PATRICIA THOMAS: It’s been a year, and my house looking good like that.

GREG PALAST: I think you and I together, just the two of us, could put your place back together in a week.


GREG PALAST: No problem.

PATRICIA THOMAS: No problem at all.

GREG PALAST: But they won’t let her in. And this has nothing to do with Katrina.

PATRICIA THOMAS: Katrina didn’t do this. Man did this. Katrina didn’t come in my house and put these gates up on my windows and things. Katrina didn’t have me walking out here looking for somewhere to stay. Man did this. This was manmade.


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