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Review: ‘Katrina Babies,’ a Stunning Examination of a Horrific American “Folktale”

Review: ‘Katrina Babies,’ a Stunning Examination of a Horrific American “Folktale”

It’s a strange thing, seeing abject misery commingled with the utmost horror. Even to live it vicariously almost breaks you down completely. 

There’s the ceiling-high water, containing the flotsam of sunken dreams and devastated plans. There are the rooftops protruding from it like desert islands, entire neighborhoods reduced to a miserable series of archipelagoes. 

And then there are the people. They’re trapped on these islands. They’re making desperate calls while telephones still work. They’re singing songs while trapped in attics to keep a shred of stability and dignity. They are children, and they’re watching people decay from dying to dead and dead to detritus. 

If it brought me to tears watching it secondhand, imagine what it must’ve been like to experience.

Katrina Babies, a HBO documentary directed by New Orleans native and first-time filmmaker Edward Buckles Jr., is about these people, these children, and their lives. It is about not only the 2005 hurricane, but also about its immediate aftermath and especially the trail of health issues — both mental and physical — left in its wake seventeen years later. 

It is a documentary made, according to one interviewee, in the style of African oral tradition. “Katrina has become a folktale,” he says. And he is correct, but it is important to distinguish a folktale from a fairy story. The former exist as tales told over the years to explain why things are the way they are (why the sun sets, why the moon rises, etc.). The latter is a story for children full of pure good and pure evil and populated by wizards, goblins, sprites, and magical godmothers. 

The disaster that is Hurricane Katrina will live on because its survivors will talk about it and those who survive them will do so in turn. It will be a reminder of Black America’s resilience but also of its sorrow. It will serve to tell future generations why New Orleans now doesn’t feel quite as Black but it still has some groove.

This is the impression one gets from watching Buckles’ documentary about his hometown.

Utilizing the oral mode of storytelling, Katrina Babies is a mélange of interviews, news footage, and even some animated collage work that serves to illustrate various interviewees’ stories. The camera work is simple because the story is the thing. We look at the subjects head on. At times, it becomes uncomfortable, nearly claustrophobic. This is not due to a failure on Buckles’ part but rather the success of his project. He has set out to do what few have done before: ask the children what they are thinking. 

Now, the “children” are largely in their late twenties and early thirties, but, because this is a topic none of Buckles’ subjects have been asked nor spoken about previously, memory’s power seems to transport them back to childhood. The burden of undisclosed trauma bears down on both the interviewer and his respondents. They have to take a break at one moment because a woman, Miesha, doesn’t want to cry on camera. Her tears, in turn, make Buckles lachrymose. He’s lived through Katrina as well, but talking about it this much with this many people is taking its toll. He’s tired, and we completely understand why.

If I haven’t explained the thesis of the documentary much, it’s because there isn’t one that’s necessarily very grand. It boils down to this: many adults took their children’s silence during these travails as a sign that they were doing okay. Buckles’ mother, another interviewee, even points out that, whenever she would ask a teenage Buckles if he was okay, he would say he was fine. 

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So, unlike a fairy tale, there are no good/evil parents. There are simply adults whose livelihoods and homes were washed away, and, if their children weren’t forthcoming or in open mourning, they’d have to take it as a sign that the children were okay, that they can have anything wash off their backs. 

Of course, in an age of counseling and therapy, we now know this is not possible. But if you were the parents, if you had only perhaps faith and personal dignity to keep you upright after losing everything, you might just allow yourself not to look too deeply at what’s bothering the children. It’s not good, but I can’t condemn it as evil. It’s just the way things are sometimes. 

Besides this, the central conceit of Katrina Babies seems to be that the storm washed away foundations of every kind. As a consequence of homes being destroyed, neighborhoods were uprooted, and so were their people. Kids had to start all over in new towns and make new friends. Sometimes these new “refugees” didn’t fit in, and the locals let them know. 

Katrina Babies suggests that one lasting scar from the storm was the psychological effects of displacement. “When so much of who you are is where you’re from,” one woman says, “and where you’re from is now destroyed, what does that say about your identity?” Kids who were actual babies and toddlers during Katrina now face rising violence in the city. Displacement put rival neighborhood gangs in close proximity to one another, so now they’re shooting it out in resettled neighborhoods. Nothing feels certain after having everything taken away, so why, they ask, care about anything?

The film spends a little time concerning itself on the catastrophe that was the federal government’s response. The incident with FEMA trailers being filled with formaldehyde is covered as we meet a woman who developed several health problems — including cancer — after living in one. We meet Adriana, a transwoman who, as a nine-year-old, captured news crews’ attention for her articulate excoriation of conditions in the Superdome, one of many poorly served Katrina relocation camps. We see Kanye West say, “George Bush does not care about Black people.” Given what we’ve witnessed, it feels like the man is onto something.

Buckles ends his documentary like the best of tales — with a glimmer of hope. 

He reconnects with family that had lived in New Orleans with him but has since relocated. He shows us that his subjects have tried their best to lead hopeful lives. They may not have talked about — may not have been asked about — their feelings concerning such a consequential time in their lives, but they are talking about it now. At this stage in their lives, they’re open to openness. “I think it’s hard to talk about Katrina because it takes having some form of vulnerability,” a woman says. “If you’re not able to be vulnerable, how do you heal?”

In the end, Katrina Babies seems to say New Orleans wasn’t rebuilt, but, rather, built over. The formerly Black neighborhoods have been broken up and gentrified. Families that had been there for generations are gone. And, sometimes, the old residents are too afraid of the new New Orleans to ever come home.

But still, there’s hope. The folktale will be told for generations and become a part of a cultural memory. They’ll be unable to overlook the crime. 

And they’ll never forget the healing that came after. 

Katrina Babies premieres on HBO and HBO Max Wednesday, August 24, 2022, at 9pm ET/PT.

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