There's been no shortage of films and television programs about or inspired by Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures over the last 10 years, including a variety of hard-hitting documentaries and an award-winning work of magical realism. Whether originally created for theatrical presentation or cable television, the best post-Katrina films uniformly have come from visionary artists hoping to shape public discourse on burning issues ranging from coastal erosion to the rapid gentrification of New Orleans.
No post-Katrina documentary has matched the impact or level of artistic achievement found in two four-hour, multi-part documentaries directed by Spike Lee for HBO. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts addresses the hurricane, the federal floods and the ensuing bureaucratic failures in the first year after the storm.
If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise revisits New Orleans in 2010 to examine the city's ongoing recovery and the many forces that seemed to conspire against that effort.
Lee's confrontational style is a perfect match for the subject matter, which ranges from FEMA's failures and the forced dislocation of residents to the hidden politics of funding the recovery and the loss of public housing and Charity Hospital. The two films paint a kaleidoscopic and deeply humanist portrait of a city under siege. Native sons Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme) and Wynton Marsalis appear intermittently and serve as the films' eloquent conscience. Future generations can look here first to try to understand post-Katrina New Orleans.
Directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, the Oscar-nominated documentary Trouble the Water is powered by extensive footage shot by then-24-year-old 9th Ward resident Kimberly Rivers Roberts before, during and immediately after the hurricane as the flood ravages her neighborhood. The film follows her and husband Scott Roberts as they return to the city and try to put their lives back together, putting faces on a widely shared struggle. But it's Roberts' heroic amateur footage — gathered with the eye of a seasoned journalist — that renders the film essential.
Longtime New Orleans resident and famed satirist Harry Shearer was an unlikely source for The Big Uneasy. But Shearer's self-financed documentary was an impassioned personal response to widespread misinformation about the causes of the flood. Using diagrams, graphics and testimony from experts, Shearer manages to build an engaging story around his scathing indictment of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (It also featured an interview with Gambit political editor Clancy DuBos.) Five years later, the film remains the single best way to grasp exactly how 80 percent of the city wound up underwater despite the main thrust of Katrina hitting coastal Mississippi and missing New Orleans.
New Yorker Benh Zeitlin moved to New Orleans after the storm to make Glory at Sea, a beautiful and impressionistic 25-minute meditation on personal grief. It's an art film that offers little in the way of traditional storytelling but spoke directly to New Orleanians living in the wake of tragedy. Zeitlin stayed in south Louisiana to make Beasts of the Southern Wild. Nominated for four major Oscars, this fable transcends the ravages of the flood to address even larger themes of cultural loss and environmental catastrophe, all while paying tribute to the determination of the region's people.
Series creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer may have cut a little too close to the bone with Treme, the HBO dramatic series that depicts post-Katrina New Orleans in painstaking, barely fictionalized detail and still elicits strong passions among locals. Treme peaked creatively in its first season and went on to engage in near-journalistic treatments of events probably best left to another medium. But its ultimate value as a cultural time capsule may only emerge slowly over time.