As the camera pans the streets of the Ninth Ward on the eve of Katrina, a reporter describes the scene, explains that some people didn't leave because they had no transportation and wonders if the storm is God's wrath raining down on New Orleans. Her sign-off: "This is me, reporting live, Kold Madina. We'll be bringin' y'all more footage very shortly."
The correspondent is Kimberly Rivers Roberts, and she is not a journalist but an aspiring rapper who calls herself Black Kold Madina. Just before Katrina hit New Orleans, Kim bought a video camera; she then used it to capture the damage and drama of the hurricane with a wit and painful insight beyond the gifts of Anderson Cooper. A week later she and her husband Scott Roberts were discovered by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, documentarians who had worked for Michael Moore. The resulting movie, Trouble the Water, is an endlessly moving, artlessly magnificent tribute to people the government didn't think worth saving.
As the waters rise to the height of a person, the Robertses act as a citizens' National Guard, a more caring and effective FEMA. They take elderly friends to their attic, share food with them, give them comfort. Outside, a neighbor, Larry Simms, stands shoulder-deep in the water, looking for people to save. And all the while, Kim keeps recording, giving witness to nature's fury and the government's indifference.
In their teens, Kim and Scott had both dealt drugs. Kim's brother is in jail. But whatever sorry state they fell in or led themselves to and however catastrophic their lot that last weekend in August 2005, these soul survivors radiate a faith that is deep, sustaining and perennially, impossibly hopeful. They don't pick fights with the police, soldiers and bureaucrats who were AWOL during the storm and who offer little help after it. Kim and Scott are unfailingly courteous. They believe that when disaster strikes, everyone's a victim.
And Lessin and Deal know that the best documentaries reveal politics through personalities. In the gritty, buoyant Kim they found a person who symbolized both the lower depths of urban life and the resilience, when faced with an impossible challenge, to rise to a level higher than flood tide. Maybe Kim, Scott and their crew were no angels before Katrina, but that doesn't matter--because in Trouble the Water, we see the lives of the saints.