NewBaby

What makes a generation a generation? Collective identity is often forged through catastrophe. In the United States, we bicker over cohort-establishing events: an endless war, economic collapse, the onslaught of illness. “Katrina Babies,” a documentary by Edward Buckles, Jr., released on HBO Max before the seventeenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, argues for the ordination of the storm as a defining American tragedy. Buckles’s memory piece springs from a well of frustration. The director, a Katrina baby himself, and his subjects, other Black survivors of both the storm and the government’s opportunistic response to the storm, make an observation that becomes something of a refrain: “Nobody ever asked the children how they were doing.”

In the late summer of 2005, Buckles was thirteen years old. The director’s wistful narration captures the back-to-school excitement in the neighborhood. He goes to a relative’s house for games and rice and gravy; it would be the last family gathering at the house, which was soon destroyed. Much of “Katrina Babies” consists of archival disaster footage interwoven with modern interviews; Buckles shot the film over a period of seven years, beginning in 2015, as the oldest of his peers were entering their late twenties. He frames his film with correlative scenes that communicate the depth of loss and dislocation. When we first meet him, he is primping a living room: attending to a throw blanket, organizing photos. Near the film’s end, the camera zooms out to reveal that the living room is a set, one that the crew comes to disassemble.

Although the mayor of New Orleans issued a mandatory evacuation order shortly before the hurricane, thousands of residents stayed, lacking the resources to leave. The Buckles family left town at the last minute, at the sudden urging of Buckles’s mother, whose son claims she has a knack for prophetic visions. Would Buckles have stayed, had he been an adult with the ability to make his own choices? He recalls being told by an elder, while watching footage of the storm in horror, that everyone he knew back home must be dead. He maintains a survivor’s guilt, even though the storm made him a refugee, in Lafayette. Obliquely, “Katrina Babies” is a study of the autonomy of the Black child, and of how the government abuses its youngest citizens.

One survivor, who stayed in New Orleans with her family during the storm, remembers hearing a loud sound, followed by eerie silence. The levees had broken. When she awoke the next morning, the street was flooded. Non-New Orleanians think this is a story they can understand, rooted in the universality of a merciless natural event. But “Katrina Babies” refuses to feed the notion that we all felt Katrina equally. Buckles stays close to the ground, letting the first-person testimonies accrete. Survivors recall spending days in their attic waiting to be rescued. Others describe the chaos at the Superdome, the football stadium that was turned into a public shelter. One high point is Buckles’s interview with twenty-six-year-old Arianna Evans. The documentary includes footage of Evans, at age nine, delivering an impassioned speech to a reporter about the conditions at the Superdome: “We just need some help out here.” (At the time, Evans’s grandmother was running out of insulin.) In the present day, Evans’s reserve is striking. She is no longer the prophet child.

“Katrina Babies” is deeply conversant with “The Shock Doctrine,” Naomi Klein’s exploration of how governments, in the wake of disaster, take advantage of a stunned populace to fulfill a political agenda. Buckles argues that P.T.S.D. from Katrina was not inevitable; the experience of young people in New Orleans was essentially engineered by an inhumane government. “Katrina Babies” also thoroughly indicts Bush-era media for its criminalization of Black New Orleanians. Survivors of the hurricane were shuttled to trailers contaminated with formaldehyde. They were forced to relocate to nearby cities that were not equipped to take them in. And, when they tried to return to New Orleans, they discovered that their city had been taken from them by gentrification prospectors and post-disaster tourists.

Buckles is now thirty. He is supporting the generation behind him—those who have no active memory of the storm but have had to reckon with its aftereffects all the same. When he filmed the documentary, he was a high-school teacher in New Orleans, trying to get his pupils into filmmaking. The kids are exuberant, when we meet them, but it takes only a few minutes of interviewing for their anxieties to surface. How many generations of Katrina babies might there be?

The football player Manti Te’o is now a saint. He was canonized by LeBron James. A week after the release of “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist,” a two-part Netflix documentary about Te’o, a wunderkind linebacker whose life was torn asunder by a catfishing scandal, James tweeted, “Manti Te’o you good brother!!,” with a raised-fist emoji. “Good” as in exonerated, granted entrance again to a fraternity that had ejected him from its halls. In 2012, Te’o, a native son of Hawaii, was a public hero for his resolve: he played a game while mourning the deaths of his grandmother and of his girlfriend, which had occurred on the same day. Months later, after it was revealed that his late girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, was a fake Internet persona created by Naya Tuiasosopo, Te’o became a pariah. Directed by Tony Vainuku and Ryan Duffy, this latest iteration of the explainer series “Untold” is a tenacious, sometimes lyrical dissection of sports media. But as a portrait of forbidden love? It halts.

Te’o did not just agree to speak for the documentary; he offered up his big, beautiful body to the production. In visual interludes that stud the conventional sequences of archival footage and talking-head interviews, he is made to genuflect on a church bench and float in the sea. He is elevated to a sacrificial figure. Te’o, his parents, and his friends provide his biography. As a child, Te’o was a disciplinarian’s wet dream. When his father asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, Te’o replied, “The best.” A gifted high-school athlete, he was heavily recruited by colleges, and went to Notre Dame, where he became a star. He navigated an intense triangulation—the expectations of Polynesian, Mormon, and football cultures—with grace. Tuiasosopo, born into a similar matrix, struggled by comparison. “I truly believed in my heart, being a natural-born male, I could never be who I wanted,” she says, recalling her alienation from “faith, family, and football.” Smartly, the documentary presses lightly on its main “twist,” which is that Tuiasosopo, who was exposed as Te’o’s male catfisher in 2013, has since transitioned. The light touch is out of respect, but also out of provocation: it suggests Tuiasosopo and Te’o as mirror images.

The documentary has a mandate, which is to eliminate all suspicion that Te’o was involved in the “hoax.” We need to believe his naïveté, in order to understand why he would maintain a relationship with Lennay, who dodged requests to meet him in person, and why he fell for an elaborate scenario involving a car crash, a cancer diagnosis, death, and resurrection. We need to link that naïveté to football fanaticism. And we must become repelled by the institutions—from Notre Dame to the N.F.L. to sports media like ESPN and Deadspin, which broke the story—that chewed up and spat out a vulnerable boy. Afterward, Te’o, the presumed first-round draft pick, fell to the second round. His image as a leader was utterly shot. It’s a tragedy, with no death.

“The most fucked up thing for me was what was the point in all of this?” Te’o’s childhood friend laments. He can’t fathom the possibility that Tuiasosopo may not have had a clear endgame in mind. He certainly can’t imagine that she was just as love-drunk and irrational as Te’o was. “The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist” has gone viral, echoing the original hysteria; this time, however, instead of being pilloried, Te’o has been exalted. It’s a different moment, one that Te’o, an emotionally intelligent and generous man, is fit to represent. In his willingness to forgive Tuiasosopo, he is the ideal hetero victim. Tuiasosopo, too, seems to have forgiven herself her trespasses—an act that carceral minds can’t abide. And so she has emerged as the trans villain. No wonder, as the film sidesteps the fragile truths of this tale, which are that all love is maintained on distortions, and that Lennay was real to the only two people who mattered. ♦

This content was originally published here.

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Michael Bourdon

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