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‘Vanishing Pearls’ Explores The Black Face Of The BP Oil Spill

By Margeaux Johnson · May 12, 2014

Louisiana reigns as “Sportsman’s Paradise”, luring tourists and sportsman to the warm fertile grounds that nourish the economy as well as the communities surrounding them.  Many bayou communities depend on the land for survival, foregoing formal education for the rough and tumble life of a fisherman.  Despite the physical difficulty of the job and disasters like Hurricane Katrina, these fishermen have been successful at making a stable living from the land.  In 2010, the BP oil spill put a dent in the lives of the fishermen in the bayou areas.  From the deterioration of the fishing areas to the destruction of the oyster beds, bayou fishermen were robbed of their ability to make a decent living.  Fortunately, BP promised to rectify the situation.  Commercials showed a thriving Louisiana, open for more tourism and touting the vast seafood that is a cultural landmark for the state.  While BP showed one side of the recovery efforts, many communities were not receiving the help it needed and African American fishermen were voiceless. 

Vanishing Pearls sheds light on the small community of Pointe à la Hache, La., a short distance from New Orleans, where a large group of African American oystermen await retribution from BP.  Many have opted for a quick pay out, which offers a very small payment in lieu of waiting for a larger offer. Others have taken action-going as far as London to attend a BP stockholder’s meeting.  Each oysterman, robbed of the ability to make a living, shares his personal story and dives in to the rich history of African American fishermen. New filmmaker Nailah Jefferson exposes the empty promises made by the oil giant and allows the oystermen to tell their stories of how the spill affected them.

At the center of the documentary is Byron Encalade.  Encalade is the president of the Louisiana Oysterman Association and a lifelong oysterman.  Encalade explains the importance of his profession and the history behind African Americans and the fishing industry.  Blacks in the area used fishing as a means to escape sharecropping and start their own businesses.  The documentary touches on the many political battles that aimed to deter minorities from establishing small fishing businesses, and explained how Encalade and many others learned the business at a young age alongside family and friends.  Encalade is a touching addition to the documentary.  He invites us into the close-knit community explaining its’ history and proudly showcasing the independence he and his family have achieved.  As he explains his small community’s rich past, it’s heartbreaking to realize that those days are gone. 

While touching on the history of blacks in the seafood industry, Jefferson spends a lot of time exposing the many shortfalls of BP’s promises. From hiring expensive litigation to handle the disbursement of funds to enacting modifications that would make it near impossible for eligible oystermen to apply for benefits, BP has not effectively handled its’ responsibilities to those affected.  If those issues weren’t enough, we also learn that many of the oystermen have applied for benefits and are still waiting for a payout.  With their livelihood gone, most of the oystermen rely on family members for support as their businesses close one by one.

The image of a recovering seafood industry crumbles as we encounter each testimony and uncover the unscrupulous ways in which BP continues to undermine the importance of the seafood industry to Louisiana communities.  Jefferson does a great job of showcasing the testimonies on both sides of the issue, allowing the audience to form their own conclusion-but never shying away from the fact that she is on the oystermen’s side.

Jefferson, a New Orleans native, does an excellent job of expanding the historical importance of the community.  As she chronicles the background of the fishermen, we learn more about the struggling community and their decades-long fight for independence.  This is a strong documentary that sometimes errs on the side of overstating the issue by harping on the emotion of the fishermen.  However, the real issue – which is exposing BP’s lies – may need a bit more overstatement for anything to get done.