Five years…. I can’t believe it’s been five years since Katrina hit New Orleans and I started production of DESERT BAYOU. Five years since I found myself with a small film crew in the deserts of Utah. Five years since I began hearing all those horrifying, heartbreaking, gut wrenching stories. All those stories that were filled with unimaginable pain and despair and all those stories that gave us hope, even if just for a minute.
And on this day of remembrance, it seems that, to many Americans, it is simply August 29th, not the fifth anniversary of one of the most frightening, most angering natural and man made disasters in this country’s history. Sure there are a few special interest stories on the nightly news, but for the most part, people have forgotten. The US government, who so strongly stated it wouldn’t forget New Orleans and that it would do whatever it took, no matter what the cost to rebuild the Gulf Coast, left a long time ago. The wards most effected by Katrina have been left to be rebuilt by entertainers like Brad Pitt, whose Make it Right Foundation is doing more for New Orleans than any government agency could ever hope to. I think its great that Spike has followed up his film with another, a beautiful effort to try to keep the focus on a city that still needs so much help. But when actors, entertainer, filmmakers and most importantly, the great people of New Orleans, are the only people left trying to make a difference, something’s wrong.
When nearly 600, primarily African-American evacuees landed in Salt Lake City, Utah in the middle of the night in early September, 2005, skewing that state’s demographic for people of color by 10%. When they were immediately searched for weapons and drugs upon exiting the plane. When they were placed on a military base in the middle of the desert living under curfew and suspicion. When the Attorney General of the state of Utah went on television and said that the majority of the New Orleans citizens that had landed in Salt Lake were rapists and murders. When the Mormon Church, with such a checkered history with African-Americans can’t be bothered to help in any official capacity. All this after being left to die on an overpass in the only city they ever knew. When every state, local and federal agency failed these people at every level, something’s wrong.
The people who landed at Salt Lake City International Airport that night were the people who drove us to our hotels, served us our drinks, cooked us amazing meals and welcomed us with huge, warm smiles whenever we visited their city. They were American and this country as an institution failed them. So if I sound pissed, if I sound like I have an axe to grind, I do… With the state and federal government’s handling of the rescue and clean-up efforts, with the Utah State government’s callus and ham fisted treatment of their new guests, of the Mormon Church’s inability to admit they had and have an outdated and racist worldview where African-Americans are concerned. With these institutions, I do have an axe to grind.
But, in the face of this bureaucratic ineptitude, and despite it, it was the everyday people on the ground that gave me true and concrete hope. Hope that Americans are generous beyond question. It was the everyday Mormon family in Murray, Utah who offered up their homes and made sure that there were warm meals and new clothes for every one of the evacuees. The commanding officer of the military base, which, despite a task he may not have been trained for, treated everyone fairly and with love and even shed a tear for what had happened in New Orleans. For the mayor of Salt Lake City who defended an unpopular position of wanting these new arrivals to stay and make the city their home. It was people who didn’t have any vested interest, who didn’t have a dog in the fight, who came out of the woodwork, rolled up their sleeves, picked up a shovel and got to work helping people that had just lost everything. In the end, Utah really cared.
But most of all, the hope I still find to this day is in the Andrews and Pleasant families (the 2 families featured in this film). Clifford is a line cook in Wyoming and really building a life for himself. Curtis and I still talk a lot and despite having only an eighth grade education, has just seen a third daughter off to college. He and his wife Gwen have just celebrated 30 years of marriage. He, most of all, remains my teacher and inspiration. He has taught me how to be a better father and a better husband. He has taught me that from total destruction a beautiful, passionate and loving life can be made.
Alex LeMay is an award winning feature film and broadcast director. Over his 14-year career he has directed a number of acclaimed feature films as well as provided commercial media for some of the world’s top-tier companies, including Johnson and Johnson, Starbuck’s Coffee Company, CVS Pharmacies, Abbott Laboratories and Office Max. His award winning feature documentary, The Bulls of Suburbia caught the eye of Universal Studios, for whom he produced and directed the bullfighting sequence for the Academy Award nominated film Seabiscuit. LeMay is currently in production on his third feature documentary, Conversations With the Enemy: a Dark Comedy of Opinion, which examines the relationship between Europe, the US and Islam.