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Thanks to the Deepwater Horizon Spill, the World is No Longer Black Fishermen’s Oyster

Film Review: Vanishing Pearls

The hard-hitting new documentary Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe á la Hache, which premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival this week, is full of pearls of wisdom. In the documentary, director Nailah Jefferson holds these truths to be self evident: That 2010’s Deepwater Horizon explosion, massive oil spill and BP’s supposed cleanup and settlement efforts (or lack thereof), have laid waste to the traditional way of life of an African American community in the Gulf of Mexico.

photo of a man on a boat looking down at a table covered with oystersphoto Courtesy Perspective PicturesNailah Jefferson’s new documentary depicts the slow death of an African American fishing community impacted by BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster.

In what is arguably the best nonfiction film about oil drilling in the Bayou State since revered documentarian Robert Flaherty’s 1948 classic Louisiana Story,Jefferson reveals that the culture of Pointe á la Hache’s shrimpers, crabbers and oystermen – most of whom are African America – is under siege. Vanishing Pearls focuses on third generation oyster fisherman Byron Encalade, who explains that their seafaring lifestyle offered Blacks in this Deep South state “independence” and an alternative to “sharecropping.” Over the years, plumbing the depths of the Fertile Fisheries Crescent – the highly productive region stretching from Mobile Bay to Sabine Pass on the Texas/Louisiana border and including the Mississippi Sound and surrounding waters –enabled these proud descendents of slaves to rise above Jim Crow peonage and become self-sustaining workers and owners not reliant on “Mr. Charlie” and/or government subsistence programs for their survival.

The 90-minute film shows how all this changed when Hurricane Katrina was followed by the April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion. For about three months after the Macondo blowout began, 200 million-plus gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico, wreaking havoc not only on the environment but, as Jefferson sensitively reveals, on the human beings whose livelihoods, as well as a unique culture, depended upon this rich ecosystem. Jefferson’s narrative is helped along via sublime underwater and aerial cinematography.

Vanishing Pearls alleges that the drilling rig explosion was followed by more manmade calamities: BP’s botched cleanup efforts, prevarications and efforts to weasel out of paying just and full compensation to those impacted by the disaster. Jefferson depicts the slow deaths being suffered by the African American fishing community and others most directly impacted by the explosion and gargantuan spillage. The film follows Encalade, president of both the Louisiana Oysterman Association and the South Plaquemines United Fisheries Cooperative, as he struggles to persevere in the face of adversity.

Although BP ballyhoos both its cleanup and payout program with slick promotional TV ads and the like, Vanishing Pearls alleges that the company didn’t deliver on its promises. It shows how the fishermen are nickeled and dimed with small settlements that, if accepted, relieve BP of any future liability and compares their plight with attorney Kenneth Feinberg, whose Washington law firm, Feinberg Rozen LLP, BP hired for more than $1 a month to deal with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. Many of the desperate, out of work oystermen, who – when they returned to their ships more than a year after the eco-tragedy couldn’t find enough oysters in the Gulf waters to enable them to continue making a living – relent and accept their meager payments out of sheer desperation. While the tragic spill was accidental, the film suggests that BP’s subsequent hardball payout tactics targeted a historically oppressed minority group without political clout in elite circles and the means to hire high powered attorneys like Feinberg and can therefore be regarded as a case of environmental racism.
Whereas the world was once the independent Encalade’s oyster, now that the Fertile Crescent has become infertile, his wife laments, “They took his pride and everything” away. Encalade’s daughters discuss their once proudly self sufficient father’s now having to rely on government programs like food stamps, as well as family support, in order to survive. Encalade confesses that to cope with his colossal reversal of fortune he takes Paxil and sees a shrink “BP has destroyed my whole life,” he admits. And along with it, a proud Black community: Encalade is unable to teach his grandson to trawl, breaking a vital cultural link of knowledge handed down from generation to generation, a rupture that may prove to be irreparable. In a state where demagogic Gov. Huey Long once called, “Every man a king” Encalade has been pauperized. These Louisiana fishermen may never be able to “laissez les bon temps rollez” again.

Vanishing Pearls also strives to expose BP’s claim that it has cleaned the Gulf up. The film contends that BP used the dispersal Corexit which, which among other things, sank the very visible oil from the water’s surface, rendering the oil “out of sight, out of mind.” But when Hurricane Isaac struck the area two-plus years after the drilling rig explosion, tar balls washed ashore. And in 2013, a four-mile stretch of oil was seen along the coast, which is shown onscreen via an aerial shot.

Nailah Jefferson is originally from New Orleans, has worked with Lee Daniels, PBS, and produced the 2009 documentary, Historically Black. Vanishing Pearls is Jefferson’s directorial debut of a feature length film. Vanishing Pearls, which is in competition at Slamdance in the documentary feature category, should be seen as part of the cinematic surge of Black-themed films released the past year – from 12 Years a Slave to Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom to Let the Fire Burn,the documentary about another manmade calamity, the 1985 aerial bombing of MOVE in Philadelphia.

Vanishing Pearls is an environmental film with an ethnic edge. This compelling, documentary moves a long way from Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story that extolled oil drilling in 1948, and offers a more jaundiced look at an energy industry that threatens to make nature and culture vanish. Unfortunately, Jefferson’s nonfiction film remains all too timely: On Jan 21, former Halliburton manager Anthony Badalamenti was sentenced to a year of probation, to perform 100 hours of community service and pay a $1,000 fine for destroying evidence following the Deepwater Horizon eco-debacle.

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic and co-author of The Hawai‘i Movie and Television Book.

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