While most Hurricane Katrina documentaries focus on the disaster itself, FEMA’s failed response and the immediate aftermath in New Orleans, Desert Bayou begins by examining the largely unexplored experiences of evacuees forced to relocate to distant parts of the country—specifically, Utah. So we follow 600 black evacuees as they travel to a state that is more than 99 percent white.
What follows is a fascinating study in passive-aggressive racism. Though the governor pledges a desire to help and welcomes the hurricane survivors, their treatment upon arriving suggests their presence is not entirely appreciated. Upon getting off the plane, the exhausted travelers are searched for weapons. They’re then taken to a military base 45 minutes outside of Salt Lake City, where they’re forced to abide by an 11 p.m. curfew, which seems less like a rule to keep the evacuees safe than a rule to make the white people in Salt Lake City feel safe. All the evacuees are given background checks, and though none are considered to be any sort of risk, rumors of dangerous New Orleans criminals spread through the nearby white populace.
The documentary comments on the unfair stereotype that impoverished black people are all ex-cons and crack addicts, and then the film does something inexplicable. Out of the 600 evacuees, the film chooses to narrow its focus and follow the lives of Curtis and Clifford, an ex-con and a crack addict, respectively, thus perpetuating that stereotype.
At this point, Desert Bayou becomes scatterbrained. Instead of continuing the fish-out-of-water story, it simply profiles two of the survivors and their families. Then it jumps back to New Orleans and treats us to unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that certain levees were deliberately broken in order to divert water from the homes of rich, white folk. Then we jump back to Utah, where Clifford and Curtis are attempting to settle into life in Salt Lake City, where Curtis struggles to get a job with his criminal record and Clifford relapses back into smoking crack.
The film ends by trying to paint a forced portrait of a New Orleans reborn, while simultaneously showing that Clifford and Curtis have found new, worthwhile lives in Salt Lake City. Of course, all of this is sabotaged by a “Where are they now?” coda, which gives us depressing statistics on New Orleans while revealing that Clifford has dropped out of school and his family has left him. What was the point of this documentary again?
Directed by Alex LeMay