Just days after Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 and long before the flooding ceased or credible help arrived, Kimberly Rivers Roberts stood before a documentary filmmaker’s cameras and promised something nobody had ever seen. She seemed to be boasting and hustling the crew and their audience as she upstaged her husband, Scott.
But Kimberly more than delivered. Armed with only a video camera, she had began documenting her block in the city’s poor 9th Ward as Katrina threatened the entire Gulf coast. She interviewed friends who were leaving town and others, like herself, who had no “wheels” and no way out. She offers a warts-and-all portrait of her community, documenting tight-knit families and small local markets, as well as drunks and junkies, like her uncle, who responded to news of impending disaster by nodding out on her front porch.
When the rains came, the levees broke and her world was drowned, Kimberly kept shooting while offering a narrative of surprise, fear and praise-Jesus resilience. “Trouble the Water” (7:30 p.m. HBO) complements Roberts’ footage with cable and network news reports and voiceovers from emergency-call centers. We see a stop sign beneath waves as we hear an elderly voice quavering in fear: “I am going to drown in my attic. I am going to die.”
With her film and with their actions, Kimberly and her family put a human face on the anonymous mass we watched gathered by the roadsides and near the Superdome during those horrible days.
“Trouble” follows Kimberly and Scott over the next two years, as she survives Katrina, leaves town for shelter, decamps to Memphis to find a new life and then returns to the 9th Ward. Every new chapter in her odyssey reveals a little bit more about our narrator — her mother’s addiction and early death; Kimberly’s life as a hustler and a survivor and as a drug dealer. Many of the heroes of this film — folks who risked all to help neighbors and save lives — have similar backgrounds.
This is not Anderson Cooper’s Katrina, or even Spike Lee’s Katrina. “Trouble” is a film from the street.
Kimberly reveals most of her personal story while rapping to a record she made before Katrina and feared she had lost forever. It’s a song called “I’m Amazing,” a ballad of personal loss and faith, of defiance and survival. Her life, like this film, offers a story more devastating, more revealing and more amazing than we had any right to expect.
Tonight’s other highlights
• Many have asked, and here is the answer: “Ugly Betty” returns next Thursday, April 30.
• A convicted killer (Henry Thomas) claims that new evidence can exonerate him on “CSI” (8 p.m., CBS).
• Michael’s money woes mount on “The Office” (8 p.m., NBC).
• Jack mulls popping the question on “30 Rock” (8:30 p.m., NBC).
• Erica revisits a friendship gone sour on “Being Erica” (9 p.m., Soapnet).
Dean Martin stars in the 1963 comedy “Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?” (9 p.m., TCM), co-starring Elizabeth Montgomery (“Bewitched”) and featuring Carol Burnett in her screen debut.