When Harry Shearer decided to make his new documentary The Big Uneasy, airing in more than 150 theaters Monday night, he did not know that in the yet-to-air HBO series Treme one of the key characters becomes famous for his YouTube rants declaring the post-Katrina flooding of New Orleans an "unnatural disaster."
The character, a local professor played by John Goodman, complains that the media and the government have basically gotten the story wrong from the beginning, and even worse, the feds have not fully fixed the failed levee system to this day. Frustrated, the character goes off the deep end by the end of the series—literally and figuratively, apparently never to be heard from again.
Shearer cast Goodman, a fellow part-time New Orleans resident, as an occasional comic presence in The Big Uneasy (another Treme star, Wendell Pierce, adds some narration). But the rest of the eye-opening documentary is dead serious, and it’s far from a polemic. Instead, it relies on expert witnesses, most of whom could be considered "whistle-blowers" who expose and detail the main claim that Katrina’s impact on New Orleans was not a "natural" disaster but one largely man-made—and the response to it man un-made.
The Army Corps of Engineers gets much of the blame, for pre- and post-Katrina failures. The whistle-blowers meet their nearly inevitable fate of crushed or stalled careers.
The film will be shown one night only in movie theaters Monday. Go to the film site here for background, a trailer and much more.
Shearer, of course, is known to some from his many film roles, including This is Spinal Tap, his stint on SNL and his voicing of many characters on The Simpsons. But he’s also long been a presence on the left thanks to his writing and blogging and many years of helming his national radio program Le Show.
Here’s some of what he said from his home in New Orleans when I chatted with him on Friday.
I know you live in New Orleans part of the year, but what made you take the step of making this full-scale feature documentary?
It was a magical moment, watching Obama’s town hall meeting in New Orleans last year when he said in passing that the flood was a natural disaster—and my head exploded. It was a hijacking of this city’s narrative.
So I asked myself, "But what can one person do?" I decided making a documentary could be my answer.
But do most people even in New Orleans believe in that narrative?
People here know it’s an unnatural disaster. This leads to profound frustration here that national media just don’t get it.
Not even now, five years later? Have you been monitoring coverage this past week?
I’m not seeing much improvement. I don’t think most have learned very much. They still focus on "the wrath of Katrina." The levees gets mentioned in passing, but that doesn’t get fingered as the exact cause of the disaster.
So why does the media keep getting it wrong?
The real story is hard to explain, damn it, you have to do some work. But damn it, that’s their job. It’s not my job, and I feel I’ve had to come in and clean up their mess for them. One nationally known anchor said to me, "We just think the emotional stories are more compelling for our audience." That’s a New York media meme about New Orleans—it’s a place for emotional stories.
You’ve gotten a good deal of media coverage for the film, including that excellent PBS "Need to Know" segment—you were even on Mike "Brownie" Brown’s radio show—but no full airing of the film?
We went to HBO early on, we said we know you have a Spike [Lee] thing in the works, but what about our film? They said, maybe, but after hearing the premise they said it sounds like "Nat Geo" [the National Geographic channel]. NPR has refused to do anything.
What was the local reaction to your premiere in New Orleans last week?
It was overwhelming, and I was very moved by it, but I told them the film was not made for them but for rest of the country. Dr. John came up to me and said, "Thank God it’s not just us anymore." But we also had a press screenings in DC and New York and they went well.
I was trying to do something radical, I suppose, to assume the posture and responsibility of a journalist and not be a celebrity and appear all over it, and I think people saw that was what I was doing. It’s a tangled story.
What was the strangest thing that happened in making the film?
Maybe the oddest thing—in the location shooting we were taking photos across from the Corps of Engineers building here and were told we could not even take pictures. Believe it or not, the building is on Leake Street.