On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig bursted into flames in the Gulf of Mexico, claiming eleven lives and causing the biggest petroleum spill in this country’s history. In the following three months, while the sea-floor oil gusher oozed out 2.4 million gallons a day, the accidental tragedy captured this nation’s attention. And for a brief moment before the capping on July 15, it seemed change and progress were not just platitudes propagated by pandering politicians, but genuinely possible.
CEOs from the five major oil companies—Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron—were brought before Congress to confront and reform the incompetence and myopia of their safety prevention and response plans (plans that, unsurprisingly, they spent less than 1/10th of 1 percent of their profits on). Settlements for those affected by the explosion were being slowly, but surely doled out. Concerned citizens took to social media, tweeting photos of animals drenched in oil. Indeed, the collective outrage necessary for advancement was there, until it wasn’t.
Following an all too predictable cycle of the hyperactive 21st century, focus on the explosion was ephemeral. Eager to channel our indignation at the latest and greatest national calamity before actually solving the current one, it seemed just about everyone was content with moving on. That is, except for filmmaker Margaret Brown, who flew down to the South a month after the catastrophe and wouldn’t leave until the completion of her brilliant documentary, four years later.
The Great Invisible is something of a marvel—a balanced, unabridged portrait of life before and after the BP disaster. In an attempt to offer up a thorough document, Brown manages to capture a wide array of people on camera. From impoverished families in bayous around the Gulf to affluent oil executives, she leaves no side of the story untold (save for BP, who repeatedly declined to speak with Brown and her crew).
Our initial entry point is Roosevelt Harris, a seemingly altruistic food pantry volunteer who serves as a beacon of hope to all those he comes into contact with. “The minute he starting talking it was just crazy,” said Brown. “We knew that he was going to be a character. He’s brilliant.”
Speaking in aphorisms, Harris traverses around the community in his cream-colored pickup truck, handing out food, compassion and moral support to anyone who needs it. Since the spill, the number of unemployed residents in Louisiana and Alabama has only increased. “People who were shucking oysters 6 days a week are now doing it 2 days a week,” explains Brown.
Brown proceeds to paint an appropriately dire picture: “Every time we went back down there we kept asking people, ‘How is it going?’ And it was never back to normal. It was always markedly less than it had been.” Most of the residents enveloped in the bayous, where “graduating from Middle School was a pretty big deal,” know how to do little else than crab picking and oyster shucking. Their “livelihoods and harvest,” as Brown describes it, were stripped away from them.
No matter, Harris, a 70-something African-American who emerges as the documentary’s heart and soul, remains optimistic and upbeat, undeterred by his grim surroundings. In one of the film’s more heartbreaking sequences, we see Harris urge his fellow residents in the Bayou La Batre to come to a meeting where a Claimants attorney will be present to take on legitimate cases. Desperate to bring justice to those hurting, Harris even goes so far as to offer transportation to people without means to attend. Unfortunately, Harris’s greatest fear is realized when no one shows up, forcing him to admit, “People around here are skeptical about doing things.”
While some may classify that inactivity as laziness or indifference, Brown suggests the contrary. “I don’t think these people are lazy at all. This is a community of hard work and seafood people who started working when they were six years old.”
The bigger problem, Brown insists, is that “Katrina happened right before that and none of those people got help. They just don’t really trust authority or people to help them. they’ve been beaten down.”
But if Harris, a friend and fellow La Batre citizen can’t bridge the gap between local folk and authority, who can? Born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, Brown seems to believe that this is simply another example of a systemic overhaul. “I think people like that have been ignored for so long they’re just hopeless. The way I saw it was a lot of the people at the bottom end of the class system didn’t know or understand how to fill out those forms, and they were told they didn’t really need a lawyer and they don’t really trust lawyers anyway.”
That distrust described by Brown doesn’t end with authority though. In the immediate aftermath of the oil spill, apoplectic Southerners cast their disdain towards the North. Feeling like misunderstood and undervalued pariahs, banners like “Your wallet: the only place Obama want to drill” were created in response to the President’s six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling.
“The South is where the Gulf of Mexico is, and a third of oil petroleum comes from the Gulf…I think people down there feel a pride in that,” Brown says. “And it’s just as old as the hills: the South thinks the North doesn’t understand it.” Of course for most, what is out of sight is also, conveniently, out of mind—a luxury inhabitants of the South can’t afford. “You can’t escape it,” Brown says empathetically. “If you lived on the Gulf coast, it’s still going on. You go swimming and you come out of the water and you have tar on you.”
In most documentaries, this is where The Great Invisible would conclude—offering up a clean and concise, if oversimplified ending in which the powerful are evil and the powerless are virtuous. But Brown has no interest in insularity or convenient resolutions. Interspersed with damning news footage and home videos from Doug Brown, the chief operator on Deepwater Horizon now dealing with post-traumatic stress, the doc then shifts its spotlight onto a group of oil executives from independent companies.
Serving as a sort of Greek Chorus, Brown incorporates these industry veterans who, she insists, “felt like ‘Well why don’t more people understand what we do?’ They felt like maybe the American public should understand how we think and what we do.” And the film delivers, for better or worse, on their desire to be understood.
A more propagandistic documentary would vilify these affluent white men drinking whisky, smoking cigars, and condemning the American populace for believing “cheap gasoline is our birthright.” But Brown sincerely believes all our pain is self-inflicted. “I don’t think those guys are the cause of it. I think we’re the cause of it. It’s a system,” says Brown. Pointing the finger and feeling self-righteous, she believes, “Takes the blame off people for filling up their car and using it. They [the oil companies] are just giving us what they want.”
Before I leave Brown’s home in Laurel Canyon (she’s subleasing it while promoting the movie), she recalls the origins of her political awareness. “I was at a Pixies concert,” she says with a warm smile, “and there was a Greenpeace and Amnesty International booth in the hallway, and it said ‘sign this.’ If I hadn’t had that… I don’t know, maybe I’d be working for the Republican Party.” After we agree about the terrifying alternate timeline in which she works at Fox News, she thoughtfully adds, “It’s weird when you think about what galvanizes people to act, and it’s so weird that that’s what galvanized me to act: a rock concert.”
Whether The Great Invisible will galvanize people into action has yet to be seen, but for those looking to be informed then enraged, it’s a good place to start. As the credits tell us, not much has changed since 2010. Congress has not passed any new safety legislation for the petroleum industry; the U.S., at 4.4 percent of the world’s population, still consumes 21 percent of the world’s petroleum; BP’s current fleet of drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico has expanded to the largest in the company’s history; and Doug Brown is still awaiting his settlement from the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
However, instead of being mired in despondency or complacency, Brown takes a page out of Harris’s playbook of positivity and concludes, “There are so many things that we can do, but it starts with understanding how we’re all connected to this factory under the Gulf of Mexico.”