Friday, May 5, 2017
May 5, 2017: DisasterStudying: Representing Katrina
[May 6th marks the 80th anniversary of the Hindenburg fire, a turning point in the use of video and newsreel footage to chronicle tragic disasters. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of historical disasters, leading up to a weekend post on that and other contexts for the Hindenburg.]
On three exemplary stages of artistic depictions of the recent, controversial tragedy.
1) Documenting: Released less than a year after Katrina hit, Spike Lee’s gripping documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) is required viewing for anyone seeking to understand the hurricance and its many complex contexts and effects; but it’s only one of many impressive documentary films on those topics released in the years after the storm. Among them I would especially highlight Trouble the Water (2008), an immersive account of the storm filmed by a local family and featuring some of the most stunning and devastating on the ground footage of a hurricance ever captured. Taken together, Levees and Trouble offer crucial complementary lenses through which to document Katrina, and on a broader level exemplify what documentary storytelling can do in representing such histories and communicating them to audiences.
2) Rebuilding: There are likewise important documentaries about the multi-layered, ongoing efforts to rebuild New Orleans in the post-storm era. But I believe that the best artistic representation of that process is Treme, David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s four-season HBO show about music, food, race, culture, relationships, and the residents of that New Orleans neighborhood (and of the city overall) in the storm’s aftermath. Simon is a master television storyteller, and one of our culture’s most impressive depictors of urban communities and stories, but I would also argue that a TV show was the perfect artistic vehicle to chronicle the rebuilding process. Being able to follow the show’s numerous characters across multiple episodes and seasons provided a gradual, nuanced, contradictory, and always compelling perspective on whether and how the city could find its way again after the destructions and traumas of the storm.
3) Remembering: Both those documentaries and a show like Treme continue to have vital roles to play as New Orleans and the nation continue to document and rebuild, but nearly a dozen years after the storm, the complexities and meanings of remembering have also taken on a more prominent place in our collective narratives of Katrina. I don’t know of any artistic texts about Katrina that represent those complexities and meanings more successfully and powerfully than does Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning novel Salvage the Bones (2011). Ward’s immersive, lyrical novel of a Mississippi family before, during, and after the storm is in many ways singular, but I would nonetheless argue that it also exemplifies what novels can do as representations of dark and potentially divisive histories. By focusing so fully and deeply on her central characters and family, Ward’s novel illustrates how fiction can produce empathy with the individual experiences and perspectives that are at the heart of any historical event—and thus can reshape our collective memories of those histories through such intimate, individual voices and stories.
Special Hindenburg post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other historical or contemporary disasters you’d highlight?