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Music Movie Mondays: Being “determined to make it” requires Kimberly Rivers Roberts and Scott Roberts to “Trouble the Water”

July 19, 2010

A regrettable two years after its release, I finally saw Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s Trouble the Water last night. I wanted to see the documentary for some time, especially given that its principle subject is a female rapper who shares cinematography credit with PJ Raval, an independent filmmaker who currently serves as a faculty member of UT Austin’s production department. I feel a little sheepish that I have to unlearn my impulse to lump it in with post-Katrina stories like Treme, as it exists within a different medium and tells a complementary but different set of stories.

I also feel a little silly that I prioritized the 2009 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature over the title I now believe should have won. Trouble the Water may have lost the Oscar to Simon Chinn and James Marsh’s Man On Wire, an otherwise fine and visually arresting profile on tightrope walker Philippe Petit that suffered from a truncated ending. But at the risk of comparing two otherwise unrelated documentaries, the stakes are much higher for Kimberly Rivers Roberts (aka Black Kold Madina) and her husband Scott than a French stunt man who walked across the Twin Towers in 1974.

In 2005, the young couple survived Hurricane Katrina as the levees broke and the storm ripped through their ninth ward neighborhood. They attempt to rebuild their community amidst governmental negligence following the storm’s turmoil.  Importantly, Rivers Roberts comes equipped with a camera, documenting the weather, helpless rescue units, nervous troops stationed in the city between tours of Iraq, inadequate resources, missing and relocating family, and the stories of traumatized family, neighbors, and friends traumatized who are determined to carry on. 

I struggled to write an entry for Trouble the Water. There’s no word I can find to convey the enormity of this story or the heroic civic actions of this brave couple and their loved ones, though thankfully the documentary resists the urge to write its cultural onus in capital letters. What’s more, it already made several critics’ Top Ten lists for 2008. Folks like Manohla Dargis rightly emphasized Rivers Roberts’s vitality as a documentary subject. And while the work of several popular recording artists are featured, their presence is relegated to the background. Which is for the best, as Rivers Roberts and her husband provide the heart and orientation point for this story.

Rivers Roberts’ contributions to the documentary were known to me going in. As a matter of fact, my friend Curran specifically recommended the movie because of her personality and rapping talent. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by how authoritative her presence was in telling this story, as she guides the narrative and informs its look and tone as a cinematographer and interviewer. And I loved the candor, triumph, and pride with which she spits “Amazing.” These are scenes I hunger for as a moviegoer. These are rare moments. That Oscars aren’t bestowed upon them probably further illustrates their significance. 

I also love how evident the couple’s partnership is throughout the documentary. We tend not to see many loving, supportive couples in mediated images of black people, especially not within heterosexual relationships. Instead, we get images of abandoned women struggling to make ends meet and the ghosts of men broken by the system. This is a relationship that can create a family, an enterprise, and a must-see documentary. A cataclysmic storm, an inert government, and institutional racism prove sizable but hardly insurmountable challenges. Just because this family and many of their friends and family felt as though they lost their citizenship by the treatment they received during this horrible time doesn’t mean they can’t find the strength in each other to build themselves up.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. aliciamaud permalink
    July 20, 2010 6:32 am

    This quickly made it to one of the top spots in my favorite doc list…and that still from the preview quickly made the most-frequently-recurring-image list for my nightmares. I’ve been barely able to articulate more than “You MUST see this,” so thanks for this…now I can refer people to this entry to explain why it’s crucial viewing.

  2. July 21, 2010 9:11 am

    Ok, that’s twice now, that Fry Butters have gotten me excited about movies. I need to add this to my Netflix queue and stop just endlessly re-watching my Arrested Development, Home Movies, and Strangers with Candy DVDS….


  1. Music Movie Mondays with I Fry Mine in Butter: Trouble the Water « Feminist Music Geek

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