‘The Great Flood’: Hauntingly Poetic Documentary Recounts the Worst Flood in U.S. History

Bill Morrison’s documentary chronicles the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 by stitching together lost footage of the historic disaster into an elegiac visual poem.

In the coming months, much ink will be spilled over Noah, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky’s $130 million religious epic depicting chapters 6-9 in the Book of Genesis—a catastrophic 370-day flood that God unleashed upon the earth to punish “the wickedness of man,” with the aim of beginning anew using the microcosm of Noah’s ark.

But a new, decidedly less CGI-heavy film chronicling the most devastating flood in U.S. history—a flood that actually happened—will quietly hit theaters this week, and is worthy of your eyeballs.

Directed by experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison, The Great Flood documents the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the most destructive flood in U.S. history that killed 246 people across seven states and left more than 1 million homeless. After heavy rainfall during the summer of 1926, most of the Mississippi River’s tributaries had reached their capacity and, in early 1927, the river breached its levees in 145 locations, flooding 27,000 square miles from Cairo, Illinois, to New Orleans, Louisiana, and inundating hundreds of towns. The flood caused more than $400 million in damage ($5.4 billion today).

Morrison’s film consists almost entirely of recovered black-and-white footage shot of the actual flood, with celebrated jazz guitarist Bill Frisell’s moody, minor chord-heavy score laid over it (there is no diegetic sound, just Frissell’s bluesy tunes, which coalesce with the haunting imagery). The footage, shot entirely on 35mm nitrate negative, was obtained from archives all over the country, including the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Hoover Presidential Library, and various stock houses. Much of it has never been seen before. And, since the film stock is pockmarked and deteriorated—likely due to the flood itself—the bubbly, degraded footage creates a photonegative and, at times, hypnagogic effect.

The film opens with a CGI recreation of the flood, featuring aerial shots of the devastation, filmed in stark black-and-white. Entire areas are blanketed with water as far as the eye can see—that is, until you spot the occasional rooftop or tree poking up from the deluge. Then, the archival black-and-white footage kicks in of rural Mississippi prior to the flood—tight shots of African-American sharecroppers, including men, women, and awfully young children, feverishly picking cotton while an imposing white foreman on horseback looks on. In one unforgettable shot, a mother and her young boy, who can’t be older than seven or eight, are seen hauling gigantic canvas bags of cotton, bigger than even their own bodies, and awkwardly smiling at the camera. Later, scores of black men roll giant bushels of cotton onto a steamboat. The men are, amazingly, captured from a variety of different angles, from bird’s eye to eye-level to low-angle shots.

There is no text in Morrison’s film save placards—white text against a black background—that serve as chapters. The “Swollen Tributaries” segment displays footage of the rising Allegheny, Illinois, and Cumberland Rivers in mid-to-late 1926, which resulted in substantial flooding. There are stunning, Malick-esque close-ups of rain beating down leaves, soil eroding, and trees and homes being swallowed up by the vicious tide. A line of Model T’s is pictured with water up to the windshields, while a man clutches a tree for dear life.

The Great Flood is packed with poignant imagery. Hundreds of black sharecroppers are captured digging up and fixing levees at gunpoint; horse-drawn carriages (paging de Blasio) power through a flooded, house-lined street; schoolhouses submerged in water; a middle-aged black woman breastfeeding her baby aboard a handmade evacuation raft; a wide, static shot of cattle herders marching an entire horde of cattle through the flood, with water up to the cattle’s snouts and lassoes around their necks; and shots juxtaposing the (mostly black) farmhands traveling to refugee camps on makeshift barges with all their belongings with those of the (all-white) gentry clad in their Sunday best looking mighty inconvenienced while waiting for the railroad train to arrive and take them to safety.

The most infuriating section is titled “Politicians,” and focuses on Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, Secretary of War Dwight F. Davis, and Governor of Pennsylvania Gifford Pinchot first surveying the damage by speeding train, peering through sets of binoculars while casually puffing away at cigarettes and pipes in dapper three-piece suits, and later smiling for ridiculous photo-ops in front of groups of soiled, poor white children and elderly black women at refugee camps. In another scene, the pols casually look on—again, in immaculate suits and trilby/boater hats—as a bunch of muddy, overall-wearing black sharecroppers fix the levees. Politicians, they’re just like us!

But the film ends on a positive note with The Great Migration—scores of African-Americans boarding railroad trains packed with all their belongings and riding off to the north, where they settled in cities like Detroit, Memphis, and Chicago, spreading jazz and blues music there (which eventually evolved into R&B and rock ‘n’ roll). The film’s final shots are set in Missouri and Chicago as blues musicians Big Bill Broonzy, Son House, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Robert Lockwood Jr. are seen playing slide guitar as a group of black men and women dance in ecstasy to the music. By book-ending the film with depressing Jim Crow-era footage of Mississippi and shots of ecstatic guitar playing, Morrison’s film suggests that the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 was, without question, a blessing in disguise for many African-Americans.

When recently asked what new ideas or emotions his film offers, 12 Years A Slave filmmaker Steve McQueen said, “I was just interested in telling the truth by visualizing it. Visualization of this narrative hasn't been done like this before, and I think that's the thing. I mean, some images have never been seen before. I needed to see them. It's very important. I think that's why cinema's so powerful.”

Like McQueen’s film, which captures the horrors of American slavery, The Great Flood is a fascinating time capsule of a bygone era in this nation’s history; an elegiac visual poem that should be required viewing in U.S. history classes throughout the country.