It wasn't Katrina that made me leave town, though, and it's not what caused the major damages to the city, either. The fatal blow was the levee system, much of which had been recently "renovated" by the Army Corps of Engineers.
But that didn't make the news, which only seemed interested in tabloid-style stories, except as some small, back page story or two. And for many, the only way we learned so much about the Corps' mess was this documentary, The Big Uneasy.
Below is a write-up I did back in 2011, when I first saw the film at a theater in my new home of Charleston. Harry Shearer, the comic actor who made this serious documentary, was there, too. And below my write-up on what the film did for me is that actual film in its entirety.
Get out the popcorn.
I am, though, a Yat. And I also lost my New Orleans home and almost everything in it to Hurricane Katrina, which happens to be the general theme of the film.
But please note that term “general theme.” This isn’t a movie that centers on the disaster. It doesn’t show the thousands of people hiding in the Superdome or sobbing outside the city’s convention center, unlike the many other Katrina flicks that have come and gone. It doesn’t use that old Randy Newman song about the ’27 flood as tear-provoking background music. You won’t see footage of bodies floating around in the flood waters, either, which many of those other movies thought nothing about impersonally displaying. It’s not a tabloid-type of documentary.
And if The Big Uneasy had been anything like that, when I first saw the film at a theater in 2011 I’d have had the same response I gave to those other Katrina films – I would have walked right out in the first 30 minutes, mad as hell, throwing popcorn at anybody who looked at me while I stomped up the aisle, grunting and cursing.
What this film does show, and made sort-of official for the very first time, in my opinion, is the cause of the flooding that followed Katrina. It shows how that same cause is still present, too, and because of use of the same faulty methods in levee reconstruction. And it tells this tale with historic recollection, including the development (and consistent mis- and un-development) of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, those so-called levee renovations, and the development of Army Corps of Engineers’ responses, which started as hush-hush only to expand to push-push (and nearing shove-shove, too).
And I give The Big Uneasy a thumbs-up, four-star, six-pack rating for doing so. It tells the facts – the information that mass media didn’t acquire for many reasons, and which nobody was going to tell them, anyway. It’s explanatory, not exhibitionist. And when I first saw the film at a special showing shortly after its first release, it provided me – one who was directly affected by the hurricane – the information I really needed to know, to confirm, to bring the whole ordeal to a closing point of sorts.
But the flooding was 10 feet deep. We wound up with two feet of water inside the house, and it stayed there for 12 days.
But my home was not flooded by Hurricane Katrina. The winds took out some awnings and a patio covering, ripping a hole in the rear door frame in the process, okay, but … just like my 70+ year-old neighborhood survived Betsy and Camille back in the ‘60s without any flooding, so too did my street remain fully drained and un-flooded when Katrina came through.
My neighborhood and its homes were flooded hours later, when the levee wall of the London Avenue canal broke. (It was just one of many such breaches and breaks to occur all about the city after the hurricane was gone, leaving 80 percent of New Orleans flooded.) That first breaking point was just north of Mirabeau Avenue. Our house was less than one and a half miles due east from that breaking point. An entire section of a recently modified and “improved” levee lifted up from its foundation and floated back, letting the water from Lake Pontchartrain gush out.
And gush it did, down Mirabeau, onto my street, and then inside my house – and hours after Katrina had already come and gone. It was the faulty levee that took my home, my possessions, my keepsakes and my memories – not the hurricane.
So why did I bother to watch The Big Uneasy, especially since the other Katrina movies bothered me so much? I guess I felt more at ease because it’s directed by Harry Shearer, an adopted son of the city who calls New Orleans his part-time home.
He’s well-known around the globe, mostly for This is Spinal Tap and as the voice of animated characters in a couple of popular TV series, but New Orleanians still find him regularly featured in small local publications like Gambit and Offbeat. That’s because he’s really a part of the Crescent City. He lives there like a local, not a tourist on extended vacation, unlike some other folks.
There’s a common series of superstars the city gets from time to time, like Trent Reznor or Nick Cage, who claim uptown mansions as temporary homes which they use as either 1) Mardi Gras frat houses until they’re arrested for juvenile, tourist-like behavior, or 2) reclusive hideaways from which they only step outdoors to complain about New Orleans’ true and non-drunk-tourist culture. Then they leave, eventually, and badmouth the city to media while standing behind an entourage of press agents and personal assistants.
But you won’t find Shearer in the NOPD’s central lockup, and you won’t see him chasing tourists away from a Garden District home. You’ll see him chowin’ down a muffuletta, maybe, or at City Park, or strolling down Magazine Street, or atcha mama’s jernt ovah by da lakefront chompin’ down dem erstahs, hawt. Harry’s an adopted Yat, meaning this story was personal for him, too. And I knew he would know what us Yats wanted to know.
For that reason did I sit throughout a special showing at a theater in Charleston, South Carolina, where I’ve lived since Katrina, back in 2011 when the film was first released, and which Shearer himself attended. I trusted The Big Uneasy to tell me a unique and insightful story, unlike those shock flicks, and directly from the perspective of one who knows and loves the city, who calls it home.
And it didn’t try to shock me with tragic images or pull my heartstrings; it told a factual, insightful story that I wanted – needed – to see and hear and confirm.
Shearer stayed around after the showing to answer questions. There were a bunch I wanted to ask, but thought better of when I admitted to myself I would probably only use that experience as opportunity to release personal tensions, or maybe even just to point out to the crowd that a N’Awlins dude was amongst their Lowcountry selves. I kept my hand down.
I did mention it to Shearer directly, though, in the personal conversations he spent much time having with the audience after the Q&A. “I’m from Gentilly,” I said, which he responded to with a wide-eyed “Heeeeyyyyy!”of recognition, which I’ll egotistically claim to indicate the comfort I bestowed by letting him know a true Yat, my honorable dudeness, had selflessly attended the showing of his film.
It tells very many facts that will answer very many questions. It tells of the folks who provided those facts, and even though they paid both professional and very personal prices in the process. (And it will tell you of many topics you can bring up for conversation next time you buy me an Abita Beer!)
The Big Uneasy tells the story that no one else was willing to tell, and from a perspective that no one else could tell it. And for that, I am truly thankful.
Okay, let me apply a few details that some might expect to find in a movie review (which I still swear this is NOT). It’s 98 minutes long. It’s unrated, but at worst would get a PG-13 for its quick inclusion of some boob-flashing tourists and a mild adult utterance or two. Awards, nominations and film-festival selections of The Big Uneasy total nine. It includes interviews with many from the local community, and The Big Uneasy also features some intersperses with actor John Goodman (who’s another great adoptee of the Crescent City).
And you can watch the entire flick below. As for an actual description, I’ll just share some of the production’s own “about” release:
In his feature-length documentary The Big Uneasy, humorist and New Orleans resident Harry Shearer gets the inside story of a disaster that could have been prevented from the people who were there. Shearer speaks to the tireless investigators and experts who poked through the muck as the water receded, and uncovers a courageous whistle-blower from the Army Corps of Engineers. His dogged pursuit of facts reveals that some of the same flawed methods responsible for levee failure during Hurricane Katrina are being used to rebuild the system expected to protect the “new” New Orleans from future peril.
Shearer’s original press release for The Big Uneasy asks the same question, although with much better wordage, and which I’ll use in closing:
Of course, why it took the bass player from ‘Spinal Tap’ and the voice of Flanders, Smithers and Mr. Burns to reveal these tragedies is a story unto itself.