The Most Compelling Pop Culture to Come Out of Katrina
Some 1,800 people dead. Billions in damages. Families uprooted, businesses submerged, lives irrevocably changed. The immediate effects of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that followed are a matter of record, and of remembrance. And like so many other tragedies, it spawned an outpouring of art.
The work that followed in the wake of Katrina’s devastation ranged from documentary to allegorical, from restrained to hyperbolic, from inconsolable to enraged. Regardless of tone, though, it helped us articulate our grief and celebrate our resilience—the very processes that have seen us through countless tragedies, and will see us through countless more.
The intervening decade has seen a host of disasters both natural and man-made, but nothing has prompted an outpouring of creative work like this one. As were discussing the selections for this piece, though, we realized that while the stories and songs and movies are in many ways topical, they all endure. Whether it’s testament to Katrina’s singular destruction, or the bravery of the people of New Orleans and neighboring area, everything that follows feels as fresh and raw now as it did when it was first released.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Director Benh Zeitlin’s movie about a poor neighborhood in the American South threatened by flooding is as emblematic of Katrina as anything released in the years following the storm, even if it is in many ways a fantasy film. This beautiful celebration of survival amid tough circumstances also gave us Quvenzhané Wallis’s brilliant performance as Hushpuppy. (You don’t get nominated for an Oscar at 9 without being a powerhouse.) Of all the films and television programs that came out of the storm’s aftermath, Beasts is among the best.—Angela Watercutter
Lil Wayne, “Georgia….Bush”
Lil Wayne’s much-anticipated Carter 2 was in the can when Katrina devastated his hometown, but addressed it when he dropped his Dedication 2 mixtape the following spring. Over a sample that curdles Ray Charles’ nostalgia into resignation, Weezy took Dubya to task: Then they telling y’all lies on the news / The white people smiling like everything cool / But I know people that died in that pool / I know people that died in them schools / Now what is the survivor to do? / Got no trailer, you gotta move… For a rapper who made his bones with non sequitur wordplay, it was the most trenchant evidence yet of his maturation into a take-no-prisoners emcee. —Peter Rubin
Josh Neufeld, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge
Neufeld had been in the comics/cartooning game for a while, but after volunteering for the Red Cross in post-Katrina Mississippi (and blogging about it), he threw himself into this non-fiction graphic novel that follows seven survivors of the flooding. By turns infuriating and poignant, visceral without being cloying, it’s masterful (and masterfully reported) testimony to the people most affected by the storm. —Peter Rubin
The Wire never got the awards it deserved—Dog With A Blog has more Primetime Emmy nominations—and creator David Simon’s follow-up Treme was supposed to be the breakthrough. He collaborated on the project with Eric Overmyer, who worked with Simon on Homicide: Life On The Street and lives part-time in New Orleans. The series never quite caught on like other HBO hits, but it focused on musicians, artists, and Mardi Gras Indians (and NOLA native/Wire veteran Wendell Pierce) with meticulous detail. It is Simon’s most unassumingly incisive work. —K.M. McFarland
Jesamyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
If Ward’s first novel hadn’t won the 2011 National Book Award, it may well have escaped larger notice, which would have been tragic indeed. The story of a family—widowed father, pregnant teen, pit bull and all—in a coastal Mississippi town during the 10 days before the storm, spins its smallness into grandeur, with love and pain and birth and loss spilling from every page. We love to speak of books as myths for the modern age, but this is the real deal. —Peter Rubin
When The Levees Broke
2006 was Spike Lee’s last creatively significant year, a time when he produced his biggest commercial studio hit (Inside Man), and this, his best documentary work. He’d already established himself as a gifted documentarian with 4 Little Girls, The Original Kings Of Comedy, and Jim Brown: All-American. But Levees resonates in the same angry, frustrated vein as his best film this century, 25th Hour. His crew made eight trips to New Orleans and interviewed more than 100 people, providing a definitive overview of the failures at all levels of government and the reactions of those impacted by those failures. He returned five years later to chronicle how slowly the recovery unfolded in the companion documentary If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise.—K.M. McFarland
Dave Eggers, Zeitoun
Zeitoun isn’t the story of New Orleans, or of Katrina. It is the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American whose family survived the flooding only to see him detained by the Army National Guard. It is writer Dave Eggers at his finest, and most restrained: focusing a clear lens on a universal injustice by looking at one individual’s story. Zeitoun the man has not fared well since the book’s release in 2009 (he faces charges of stalking his ex-wife), but Zeitoun the book remains earnest and precise.—Charley Locke
Terence Blanchard, “Levees”
The secondary title of jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s 2007 album A Tale of God’s Will is A Requiem for Katrina, so we could include the entire record here. But “Levees”—one of several compositions in the score for Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke—is the most stunning track. Throughout its eight minutes, the track provides about as much sadness and beauty as a listener can handle—and, yes, a fitting requiem to the storm. —Angela Watercutter
The Legendary K.O., “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People”
The Houston rap group took Kanye West’s famous assertion from a Katrina telethon and spun it into a re-imagining of West’s “Gold Digger.” Written over the course of about a day, the song was downloaded some 10,000 times in the 24 hours after it appeared online, and was downloaded hundreds of thousands of times in all. As the days after the flood dragged on, people packed the Superdome and the government was slow to react, causing frustration to reach its peak. Having a pair of MCs note Five damn days, five long days/And at the end of the fifth you walking in like, ‘Hey!’ struck a nerve. It was rough and urgent and said many things that needed to be said—and did so loudly and unapologetically. —Angela Watercutter
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