In summer 2008, actress Taraji P. Henson was enjoying a day off in New Orleans, a bit of rare time away from the set of the locally shot drama “Hurricane Season.” But rather than indulging in a plate of beignets or some other gotta-do New Orleans experience, she was seizing an opportunity to do an interview and talk up her film.

Forest Whitaker’s ‘Hurricane Season’ was set to be the first major dramatic motion picture about Hurricane Katrina — until its distributor decided to unceremoniously dump it onto DVD.

That was understandable. “Hurricane Season,” shooting under the working title “Patriots,” appeared by all accounts to be a big-deal film. Forest Whitaker was the marquee star, and The Weinstein Co. already had signed on to distribute, settling on a prestigious Christmas Day release.




Share And the plot? Well, that seemed like a slam dunk, recounting the magical post-Katrina season of the scrappy John Ehret High School basketball team and its emblematic post-storm struggle.

Henson, for one, was excited about the possibilities, certain that one element in particular would elevate “Hurricane Season” above other inspirational sports movies.

“I think Katrina is what’s going to do it — the storm itself,” she said. “Because she’s a character in this. Everybody in the world knows Katrina. I think that’ll be the draw, because I believe this is the first Katrina movie.”

There had been documentaries, of course. “Trouble the Water” even would go on to earn an Oscar nomination. But this would be the first major narrative release to deal head-on with that swirl of wind and emotion locals remember so well from the months, and years, following the storm.

Now, in 2010 — five years after the storm dumped a tragedy on New Orleans, and nine months after The Weinstein Co. dumped “Hurricane Season” unceremoniously as a direct-to-DVD release — New Orleans still is waiting for that first major Katrina movie.

There have been a number of narrative films that have referenced the storm — movies such as “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.” But the storm in those films and others like them is only a peripheral element, tacked onto an existing script as an afterthought.

Documentaries about Katrina — such as the Oscar-nominated ‘Trouble the Water,’ starring Kim and Scott Roberts, above — have been plentiful in the past five years. Narrative films, however, have been in short supply.

For many local movie buffs, it’s a source of both irritation and frustration — first, because a “real” Katrina film would serve as a way of validating our pain, standing as recognition from The Outside of all that we have endured and all that we have accomplished in the past five years. Second, because those of us who lived through the first five years of the Katrina rebuild know just how many great untold stories there are in the city, how many emotional tales there are in Gentilly, how many unbelievable stories live in eastern New Orleans, and how many absolute heartbreakers reside in the Lower 9th Ward.

Surely, it’s not still too soon to tell them. After all, Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” went into production in October 2005 — four years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It landed in theaters in August 2006, just before the fifth anniversary. Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” arrived even earlier, in April 2006.

So where are the Katrina movies?

“You know, sometimes when a story has been that ubiquitous over the news, it’s hard for Hollywood to figure out what’s the added element that will make people pay 10 bucks to go see it in the theater,” said actor, humorist and part-time New Orleanian Harry Shearer. “Were they not really busy and really effective this summer killing off 3-D, I would think ‘Katrina 3-D’ would be their obvious answer.

“Let’s face it, even television has had a hard time fictionally getting its arms around it. We all remember all the ‘gumbo parties’ we had watching (‘K-ville’). It took four years for David Simon to come down and sort of figure it out (with ‘Treme’). … It has baffled a lot of people.”

Harry Shearer (in white hat) shoots one of his roundtable ‘Ask a New Orleanian’ segments for the documentary ‘The Big Uneasy.’

In his new documentary, “The Big Uneasy” — which lands in theaters nationwide for one day only on Monday (Aug. 30) — Shearer chides the national news media for failing to explain what caused the levees to fail. To an extent, he said, they also deserve some of the blame for the dearth of Katrina movies.

“Because it wasn’t on a convenient off-ramp of the I-10, we never saw pictures of people in St. Bernard,” Shearer said. “We never saw people in Broadmoor. We never saw people in Gentilly. Television thought it had The Story at two locations, so it concentrated on that story, which was undeniably riveting and undeniably horrible. But I think because of that it missed the entire scope of the story. Therefore, people sitting there thinking about it now really don’t have a grasp on all the wonderful, amazing, horrible, dramatic, compelling stories there really were.

“You know, we who live in the city and had that unbelievable experience of that year, year and a half, two years of, ‘How’d you do?’ ‘How’d you make out?’ and hearing those stories pour out of everyone you know — you know how amazing the stories are, and how varied and how remarkable and how stunning the stories were. People in Hollywood didn’t have that experience. They basically saw that compelling and horrifying, but still limited, slice of the whole picture that we saw.”

Filmmaker Barlow Jacobs’ experience confirms that theory.

As a resident of New Orleans before and after Katrina, Jacobs did have those daily post-storm encounters with his neighbors, and he realized the potential — the need, even — for a compelling narrative about it all.

He reached out to filmmaking pal Zack Godshall, but they had trouble figuring out how to wrap their arms around the enormity of it. “Even when Zack and I were talking about it, the scope of it was so overwhelming,” Jacobs said. “When you’re looking at it, it’s like, ‘What story do you tell?’ There’s no one story that you tell that brings this massive tragedy into something you’re able to process.”

Actor and writer Barlow Jacobs, in the film ‘Low and Behold,’ which was honored at the 2007 New Orelans Film Festival.

They walked away from the idea, and Jacobs took a temporary job as an insurance adjuster in Florida. And then it hit him: He would tell a small, personal story — just one that happened to be set amid the ruin.

The independently financed “Low and Behold” — starring Jacobs, directed by Godshall, and written by both — would be about a newbie insurance adjuster making his way in the destroyed city. The people encountered by Jacobs’ main character — played by real New Orleanians, sharing their real thoughts — would help tell the real Katrina story.

“Low and Behold” would go on to be a success on the festival circuit, playing at Sundance and other notable festivals. It would win a number of awards along the way, including the Best Narrative Feature award at the 2007 New Orleans Film Festival.

Despite all that, “Low and Behold,” scheduled to land on DVD on Sept. 7, never caught the eye of Hollywood’s major distribution houses. As a result, it never received a major theatrical release.

Even if Jacobs’ story confirms Shearer’s belief — that focusing on small, personal tales is the best way to tell the Katrina story — it raises another troubling truth about Katrina movies: If you build it, Hollywood won’t necessarily come.

“People artistically love the project, but the marketing people are like, ‘Who wants to watch this story?’ ” Jacobs said.

But what if you attach such bankable names as Will Smith and “Blind Side” director John Lee Hancock to it? That’s what Columbia Pictures is doing with “The American Can,” a movie it’s planning about the Katrina experience of residents living in the Mid-City apartment complex from which the film gets it title.

Whether it ever will see the light of day is anybody’s guess. It still is listed as “in development,” that precarious phase of production in which films often wither on the vine.

Maybe it will happen, though. Maybe “American Can” will do what other storm stories couldn’t and become the first major Katrina release to hit theaters. If that happens, count Barlow surprised — not that it actually happened, but that it didn’t happen far sooner.

“Honestly, I’m surprised,” Jacobs said. “I thought we were going to be followed (by other productions), even in that year. I thought there would be tons of (Katrina) movies. … We kind of hoped that would happen.”

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