Most Americans don’t want to deal with the race issue.
— Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
“They passed the word along, don’t tell ’em where they going. Just tell ’em you don’t know.” As recalled by Clifford Andrews, the confusion initiated by Katrina lasted beyond the storm, the flooding, and the days spent at the Convention Center in New Orleans. At the start of Desert Bayou, he and other survivors remember what happened when they boarded planes and wondered where they were headed. “How we found out where we were going,” he says, “The pilot came on the speaker and he said, ‘Welcome to Jet Blue, the flight time will be three and a half hours to Utah.’ And that’s when everybody fell out.”
As he remembers the mayhem two years ago, Clifford is standing in what looks like a parking lot, his sunglasses shielding against the bright sun, majestic mountains and huge sky behind him. He and about 600 other Katrina survivors made it to Utah, where they faced still another kind of ordeal. Ralph Parker, another evacuee to Utah, notes, “We have similarities, but the main difference is, there’s a lot of white folks. What can I say?” And with that, Alex May’s documentary offers up a brief, guitar-backed montage of white folks, on sidewalks and en masse, wearing suits on their way to work. The camera pulls out to show two men in sweatshirts. The point is more than clear: Clifford and fellow evacuee Curtis Pleasant stand out in this crowd.
The difficulties of moving from New Orleans to Utah were premised, of course, on the trauma of the storm. As Curtis confesses, he’s still haunted by images of the storm, the long days and nights spent in the Convention Center (“Men been killed in there,” he says tearfully, “Kids falling over banisters”). In the midst of such terror, the evacuees were flown to a faraway place — indicated here by archival promotional footage of sunflowers, snow, and mountains — where the non-white population is less than 1% and authorities searched them as they got off the plane.
As narrator Art Hoyle notes, this conflicted with the usual rationale for searching passengers, pre-flight, has to do with preventing terrorism on board planes. Further, Rocky Anderson, Salt Lake City Mayor, observes, “They’ve just lost their homes, their jobs, their whole way of life. First thing they get when they get off the plane, they get frisked.” The logic was indeed unfathomable. “Search them for what? Some of them came in with just a blanket,” says Salt Lake City resident Karyn Dudley. At this point, it’s not hard to see why, as New Orleans resident (and this film’s producer) Master P puts it, “I think people [would] rather go anywhere but Utah.”
The indignities and doubts didn’t stop there. The evacuees were housed at Camp William, a National Guard facility 45 minutes outside of Salt Lake City, and informed they had an 11pm curfew. Utah resident Carolyn Crayton declares, “If they were of white descent, I think they would have put them closer to the city.” Salt Lake City resident and LDS church member Tamu Smith recalls her outrage on hearing this (she worked with the Red Cross at the base and was frequently mistaken for an evacuee, as she is also black): “Absolutely, I feel that this group was criminalized immediately, immediately, immediately stereotyped.”
Smith is also one of the few black members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, and welcomed the arrival of more black folks in the state (before, she laughs, “There was, like, 10 of us”). Desert Bayou briefly considers the problems posed by Mormon history, including the fact that founder Joseph Smith was overtly racist. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (perhaps best known for his friendship and public upset with Michael Jackson during the child molestation trial) observes that Smith proclaimed slavery “a divinely ordained institution, so it’s a lot of baggage.”
This baggage is made visible in the film’s heavy-handed illustrative inserts — a grumpy-looking white man leading his family across the street, an emailed explanation that slavery was not, in fact, divinely ordained. Mayor Rocky Anderson, who is white, underscores that his community was mostly “welcoming,” despite some missteps. These, he says, were at least partly based on a “natural” fear of difference, a tendency to see those who look or behave differently as “those people.” By way of example, the film offers Jan Felix, a white Utah resident whose comments evoke her interviewer’s overt surprise. When she suggests that the evacuees were “irresponsible” because they “chose not to leave,” LeMay’s voice off screen reveals his effort to hear her right. When he asks her to restate, she nods: “When someone’s irresponsible, they shouldn’t have pets or children.” A black evacuee suggests that no one could have ridden a bike out of the storm, a point helpfully demonstrated by an insert of a bike rider slammed by a wall of water.
Such testimonies and images are plainly anecdotal. And for the most part, the film’s collection of personal stories consider the storm’s ongoing and profound effects. But while Desert Bayou is an important addition to the continuing documentation of Katrina’s aftermath, it is occasionally awkward and frustrating, leaving some stories unfinished and providing scanty context.
Its most effective segments are focused on Clifford, unemployed father of two and drug addict, and Curtis, father of five, married to Gwendolyn, and ex-con (convicted of burglary some 20 years ago). Their new lives are difficult in Utah, as they try to find work and new homes (after Camp William). They suffer setbacks but also feel embraced by their neighbors. Curtis and Gwendolyn go so far as to call Katrina a “blessing,” that strengthened their relationship and brought them into a new situation, away from the hardships of New Orleans.
As the film thus shows both good and bad experiences, it also grants something of a platform for Boteach, whose efforts to help the evacuees led to the cancellation of his popular radio show in Salt Lake City. The film sets up a point-counterpoint sequence between his recollections of the controversy (which had to do with evacuees’ complaints about treatment at Camp William) and those of Colonel Scot Olson, who asserts, “I am unaware of a single instance that an evacuee could not express his concerns and did not receive an honest and direct response.” Their disagreement remains unresolved in the film, underscoring again the diversity of experiences of the evacuees and, it seems, those who meant to assist them.