How One Filmmaker and Katrina Survivor Continues the Fight for New Orleans

by Inda Lauryn A little more than halfway through the 2008 documentary Trouble the Water , we f...

by Inda Lauryn

A little more than halfway through the 2008 documentary Trouble the Water, we find ourselves with the film’s subject, Kimberly Rivers Roberts, as she explains that she lost the master tapes of her music in the storm. A temporary relocation has taken her to relatives in Memphis, Tennessee, where she was greeted with a copy of her music she had sent them before. Not only does she take this as a sign, but she makes the CD her new master tape and performs along to a track called “Amazing.”

“Amazing” presents an autobiographical view of what had been Roberts’ life until Hurricane Katrina hit. This is the moment we learn where the optimism and patience in the face of adversity comes from. This is where we see more of the charm and charisma of her personality shine through and where we learn why Kimberly Rivers Roberts, aka Queen Black Kold Madina, is a survivor and the very embodiment of what Mikki Kendall and Jamie Nesbitt call hood feminism.

Roberts was a survivor long before Hurricane Katrina hit. In a TEDTalk she did in June 2015, she explains that the week before the storm hit landfall, she bought a small camcorder off the street for $20. Like many others, the resident of the Lower 9th Ward had no transportation to get out of the city when the evacuation came. Instead, when the storm hit, she turned on the camera, talked to her neighbors who also stayed behind and got firsthand footage of what would lead to what is now known as the worst manmade disaster in history.

The result was the documentary Trouble the Water, which premiered three years after the storm hit. Roberts and her husband Scott approached filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Leesin (who produced Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11) with the footage they shot while they were relocated to Alexandria, Louisiana. When the film premiered, it had a far greater impact than Roberts had intended.

“I was always looking for ways to make money,” she said in an interview with For Harriet. “And I figured because I wasn’t able to leave that I’d get something that the news might want to buy. I cut the camera on and began filming. I had the desire to document what was happening at the time. I was also thinking that maybe I would have something to show my kids.”

Roberts decision to document her life was driven by more than a desire to create an opportunity for herself. She wanted everyone to see the truth about what really happened in New Orleans during and after the storm. Interestingly, she didn’t know the levees broke when the water began to rise, thinking it was all rainfall. However, the aftermath of the storm gave her more firsthand experience with institutionalized racism and bureaucracy.

When asked if she has watched Trouble the Water recently, she replied that she’s seen clips of the film and feels it highlights a “classic case of racism.” She said, “It was happening all over America. If I had been white, they would have hurried up and got me.” Roberts also noted an intersection of race and class, noting that the poor and disenfranchised were shortchanged and left to fend for themselves.

The documentary put her on a journey to not only find opportunities in her own life but also to help rebuild New Orleans for the ones who lost what little they had in the storm, her “relatives by the baptism.” Furthermore, it helped her with her goal of showing the real story.

Roberts said, “My hope for New Orleans was that people would see the film and know the truth [of what they] had experienced. My hope was that we would speak for the thousands of people who didn’t have a camera, who didn’t have these filmmakers to help them get their story out. My first hope was to tell a story that everyone could understand and believe, that it wasn’t just me.”

Not only does she feel that the film shows the most accurate picture of what happened to those left behind than what the country saw on the news at the time, but she also feels it shows the shortcomings of the system. Furthermore, the film included images of Black people helping Black people, images many did not see on mainstream media outlets at the time.

Roberts feels that her film showed there was more to the Lower 9th Ward than what people saw. She explained, “The Lower 9th Ward is still the only community on the Gulf Coast that has still not recovered. People who have money and power have recovered, financially and physically, maybe not emotionally all the way. People of the African-American community, homeowners and middle class or whatever, still suffer. Not just African Americans. Poor people period.”

In the years since the storm, Roberts continued to document and show the conditions of the African-American community after Katrina, using herself as a base to discuss socioeconomic issues and injustices. She said she tries “to be a leader in helping people see or at least have the discussions so people can take action toward getting the help that is needed in areas like this and hopefully for the future, people will look at disaster and disaster recovery differently for the African-American community. I just feel it’s my duty to be a spokesperson because of the platform that I have and I continue to film and document even 10 years later.”

In fact, she explained that people taking matters into their own hands has been the true means of survival for the Black and other poor residents of New Orleans. She said, “Overall I think the most powerful tool since then has been people empowering themselves, using this as an opportunity to think about how they can raise themselves up. I think people raising themselves up has been the most empowering tool for poverty and people not having jobs, being persistent and pushing hard and working hard and not taking ‘no’ for an answer, fighting hard against the isms and the systems designed to keep people down.

“I think that’s been the most effective tool in changing the system and people changing their own situations. People have had to find their strength. And unfortunately those who don’t find their strength or can’t find their strength, they get left behind. I always encourage self-power. Men and women, we got to know who we are. We [have to raise] our own selves up out of these isms designed to keep us all down into death and keep our children down.”

Roberts knows the system was not designed for people like her and has since used the exposure she got from the documentary to create her own opportunities.

“I started my own record label called Born Hustler Records,” she said. “I write and produce music for myself, for film, just opening up my own door.” She explained she didn’t wait for a deal but made her own way as an independent artist.

Roberts also took the opportunity to spread her talents elsewhere, by starting the Amazing Unbreakable Speakers Bureau. “I found out that when I speak, people appreciate my point of view and look forward to what I have to say about certain situations. It empowered them and inspired them, so I started a business off of that. Seeing who I am and what I can do inspired me to start a business.

“Why work for someone else when I can use my talents and my own skills for a life I wanted to live for myself? [I started] my own film production company, just doing my own work, doing the things I believe in. Since Katrina, my life has really been just about that: trying to find the energy and... to keep pushing on the issues that I believe in and trying to make it work for me. That’s been my life for the past 10 years since Katrina happened.”

While Roberts worked to empower her larger community through her work, she also focused her activism and energy on the empowerment of women. “I’ve been an advocate for women’s shelters here in New Orleans. After Katrina, there was a big population of women, some of them homeless because of dislocation, here; some of them just can’t afford the rent. [There are] homeless women and children, battered women, just a whole bunch of people have been going through it. In honor of my mama, [who] died when I was 13 years old, that’s my way of honoring her and giving back to my community. Raising awareness, fundraising, anything I can to help women connect with their true self and true power to help them overcome their ills and become a truer them. Empower women with self-knowledge.”

Of course, she also wanted to teach her daughter Sky, whom she had shortly before promoting the documentary. Roberts keeps a close eye on the educational system that she and her husband have previously said should have better prepared people about disasters. She explained that Sky attends the public Martin Luther King Charter School, which received a B in its evaluation from the Louisiana Education Department.

Roberts also said, “I hope that I can be a positive example and just try to be the best mom I can be, understanding my situation when I was her age and trying to, like every parent, trying to avoid the life that I had to live. Just be the best queen that I can be to show her what’s possible for her and what’s in her reach, see that great female example of empowerment.”

While Roberts keeps the lessons she learned from her experience with Hurricane Katrina, she keeps moving forward. She is currently working on a new documentary Fear No Gumbo and an IndieGoGo campaign to raise the funds to complete it. She explains the documentary picks up right after Katrina, focusing on a young woman “who has come back to her community… and who has found out who she is in her community and using the platform to discuss issues that plague that community in hopes of bringing consciousness about the recovery after Katrina.”

With Fear No Gumbo, Roberts goes further into the aftermath of the storm and hopes to start a dialogue about disaster recovery in the African-American community or “raise a consciousness about the recovery” and encourage people to take action. She challenges the bureaucracy and zoning laws that still threaten to leave the Black and poor residents of the city in the depressed conditions they faced before the storm. She also exposes the exploitation that occurred by opportunists using the experiences and trauma of New Orleans residents without crediting or compensating them.

Roberts has been all about uplifting her family by the baptism and expresses her desire to share herself and become an example to her daughter of what freedom can be. In a way, she follows the early 20th century Black women’s club movement of lifting as we climb. Even with her personal ambitions, she has no desire to make the journey by herself. In an interview with The Context of White Supremacy, she mentioned that she uses film as her weapon.

“I’m telling these stories,” Roberts declares. “I’m telling our stories. I’m telling my people’s stories. This ain’t nothing exclusive to Kim Roberts…. Fear No Gumbo is the story of the African-American community, the Lower 9th Ward and 9th Ward community after Katrina, so that’s family. I brought my people in this thing… I brought my community and showed… that we are great people. Hopefully, I’m an example of nothing can stop us…. I’m telling our stories and our [lived] experiences.”

Through these stories, Roberts hopes not only to inspire her daughter to be the best she can be but also to help the larger community understand it’s own power and “take action to bring about change.”

Roberts sees herself as a modern-day Harriet Tubman and jokes that she should have her DNA checked to find out if the two are related. “[Harriet Tubman’s] stories live on forever and resonate with us because of the strong actions she took [for] the things that she believed in. She believed in justice for all and freedom for all. And she didn’t just believe that sitting on her ass—she took action.

“Maybe I’m kin to her. Hopefully, my legacy will be that, too. Kim Roberts didn’t just do that documentary and do a ‘poor me… I’m so poor, so down.’ No, Kim Roberts took actions on the things that she believed in and used the tools that they gave her not just for her but for her people. So hopefully they’ll compare me to Harriet Tubman sometime.”

The fact that Trouble the Water received several awards and nods including Oscar and NAACP Image Award nominations and the Sundance Grand Jury Prize is not why Roberts’ song “Amazing” is more than simply rap braggadocio. Her drive to keep surviving in a country that devalues her very existence makes her an embodiment of hood feminism. In her TEDTalk, she admits that she still cries and still suffers from PTSD because of her ordeal. (She was able to receive medication and counseling.) She fully understands her position as a Black woman living in America and what it means in terms of how she is seen as a citizen.

“It’s an everyday fight being an African-American woman, so you have to fight for that [citizenship]. I have to... fight and take everything given to me as an American citizen. So the fight continues. I fight for my citizenship, for my citizenship to be recognized as an American every day somehow, someway.”


Inda Lauryn is an editor at For Harriet, writer, radio host at Mixcloud and co-host of the podcast Black Girl Squee.

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