“This film is not about me,” says the voice on the other end of the line. It belongs to Harry Shearer, the voice of Mr. Burns, Homer Simpson’s boss, as well as Ned Flanders, Homer’s devoutly Christian next-door neighbor, and dozens of other characters in Matt Groening’s iconic animated series. Has the bassist of Spinal Tap actually made a documentary about the flooding of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? The subject of The Big Uneasy, which screens this weekend at O Cinema, hits close to home for the comedian/radio host, who is a part-time resident of the southern city.
When he decided to tell the story behind the failure of New Orleans’ levees, Shearer was determined to stay out of the way, and initially that meant remaining behind the camera.
“I didn’t want folks to be watching the film and saying, ‘Why is this guy from The Simpsons talking to me about engineering?’” Shearer says from his hotel room in Washington, DC, where he recently met with congressional staffers about his film.
Until very recently, the Los Angeles native, who got his start in show business as a child actor, would have never considered himself a documentarian. The light bulb moment arrived in the form of a town hall meeting that President Obama hosted in the Jazz Capital in October of 2009.
“He told a roomful of people who had, I’m sure, voted for him and were devoted to him that the flooding of New Orleans was a natural disaster, which they all knew was not true,” Shearer says.
In The Big Uneasy, Shearer argues that the catastrophe that befell the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 could have been prevented. When it came time to determine who was to blame, he did not have to look very far.
“This was done by the Army Corps of Engineers,” he says. “We, the federal taxpayers, paid them to almost destroy an American city. Their efforts made things worse.”
The Corps, according to Shearer, “set the stage for this disaster by building a [protection] system that was woefully inadequate, but also … helped destroy the wetlands in the south of Louisiana that historically protected New Orleans from hurricanes and storm surge damage.”
To structure his film, Shearer focuses on three industry experts who were loud dissenting voices against the Corps long before calamity struck. Geotechnical engineer Robert Bea, who has been teaching at the University of California at Berkeley since 1989, called the flood of New Orleans “the greatest man-made engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl.”
South African geologist Ivor van Heerden lost his position as deputy director of Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center after refusing to heed the university’s requests to refrain from talking to the media about this issue. One of the radio programs in which he appeared was Shearer’s Le Show on NPR.
Most poignantly, Corps engineer and whistleblower Maria Garzino was censored by her superiors after she concluded the city’s hydraulic pumps would not prevent the flooding of New Orleans.
These untold stories beg the question of whether Shearer was disappointed in the mainstream media’s coverage of the flood. He doesn’t mince words.
“There’s no maybe about it,” he says. “It’s reprehensible and lamentable and every other word that rhymes with those.”
A major problem with the news footage that made its way into millions of American homes was that it only told a small part of the story.
“The national media … stayed near Interstate 10, so basically what they saw was the poor African Americans who were afflicted by the flood. They depicted it as this sort of subset of what it really was … but aside from that they did a fine job,” he says, with a healthy measure of sarcasm.
Shearer’s disdain extends to Spike Lee’s four-hour HBO documentary When the Levees Broke, which was missing a key ingredient, he says.
“The basics of journalism, as I remember them being taught, are the five W’s: who, what, when, where and why. Spike’s film, like all of the major media coverage, left out the why. I was determined that [my] film would be all about the why,” Shearer says.
What was paramount throughout The Big Uneasy‘s nearly two-year journey to the screen was to rectify people’s misconceptions.
“I had 98 minutes to undo five years of media misinformation,” he says.
Which brings us back to Shearer’s reluctance to appear in front of the camera. Viewers who saw an early cut of The Big Uneasy wanted to see this man of a hundred voices up front and center, if only for reasons of clarity.
“Originally I wasn’t even in the film, but [preview] audiences said that they needed to somebody to tell them, ‘Here’s what’s coming next,’ so I agreed to do that,” Shearer says.
Despite everything his city has gone through in the past six years, Shearer also wants to assure his viewers that, for the residents of the Big Easy, life does – and will – go on.
“It’s still recognizably New Orleans, with all of its quirks and all of its wonders,” he says. “It doesn’t have all of its people, and it has some new problems while it solves some of its old problems, but it’s still the place that I fell in love with.”
Rubén Rosario is a freelance writer and video store manager living in Miami. He currently writes a film column for SunPost Weekly.