When I was growing up, my father made fried catfish sandwiches, similar to po’boys. He was raised in a small town near Baton Rouge, where they'd catch crayfish and catfish from fresh water streams and bring them home for my grandmother to fry. Seafood was a way of life, a cultural staple that nourished generations. In Nailah Jefferson’s feature documentary, Vanishing Pearls, black oystermen of Pointe à la HacheLouisiana address the importance of this cultural staple to their community, and how it’s been damaged by the 2010 BP Oil Spill, which was made worse by the bureaucratic mismanagement of funds to compensate them and rebuild the Gulf in the wake of the disaster.

Through carefully researched data, in-depth interviews with black oysterman, Gulf researchers, marine biologists, and the very face of the BP claims disaster Ken Feinberg, Jefferson crafts a deeply involving portrait of how strong, communal interests can be overtaken by corporate greed and incompetence.

We all recall the images of the shiny blanket of oil atop the Gulf, and President Obama on the news ensuring the public that BP would be held accountable for what they had done. But behind the sound bites and federal promises were black fishermen and oystermen who built their lives on the daily catch- on fresh oysters caught in a dredge and later fried to a stomach’s delight, and who weren’t receiving any governmental support when the news cameras left the scene. This documentary gives a layered portrayal of their lives before and after the spill.

Byron Encalade, Pointe à la Hache Oysterman
Byron Encalade, Pointe à la Hache Oysterman

Byron Encalade, longtime oysterman and the Louisiana Oysters Association President, emerges in the film as a passionate leader of the movement to recognize the plight of oystermen in the aftermath of the BP Oil Spill and demand follow-through from BP. At the beginning of the film, he gives a heartfelt testimony to Congress, then attends a Louisiana Town Hall meeting where Ken Feinberg, an attorney hired by the government to disperse funds to affected individuals and companies, talks in confusing generalities about how the claims process will work.

There’s a certain magic that happens structurally when later, we hear from Feinberg, deftly interviewed by Jefferson. His empty promises and errors become all the more evident when contrasted with the very grave circumstances of the black oystermen whose claims he denied, or offered a quick fix of $5,000. Many lost their livelihood- the joy of sailing out on a boat to catch oysters, only to pull up empty shells.

Born from generations of fishermen who overcame racist, sharecropping policies to keep black oystermen and fishermen from profiting from their work, these men and women live life by the water. Encalade notes that for some oystermen, it’s all they know. So, when Jefferson provides expert insight and candid footage of the worsening conditions of the Gulf over a period of three years following the spill, (when it was predicted by Feinberg and other experts to return to a normal state), it’s sobering. Even as she provides ample time for both sides to debate the seriousness of the spill and measures to correct the water with chemical dispersants, Jefferson never forgets the core of her film- the black oystermen, and how this debate impacts them. It is here that the narrative is the strongest, and the most potent.

In the words of Encalade: “The world must know what they’ve done to this community. This place could’ve been a paradise.”

AFFRM opened Vanishing Pearls in New York City and Los Angeles on Friday, April 18th, to coincide with the 4th anniversary of one of America’s worst environmental tragedies, followed by successive play-dates around the country. The rest of the immediate screening schedule for the film follow sbelow:

Day 5 of the BP Oil Spill | April 25 | DETROIT | Cinema Detroit

Day 6 of the BP Oil Spill | April 26 | MONTGOMERY | Pure Artistry Literary Cafe

Day 6 of the BP Oil Spill |April 26 | ATLANTA | Morehouse College (Presented by AFFRM partner Bronzelens Film Festival)

Day 7 of the BP Oil Spill | April 27 | SEATTLE | Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute (Presented by AFFRM partner Langston Hughes African American Film Festival)

Day 9 of the BP Oil Spill | April 29 | NEW ORLEANS | Sync Up Cinema

Day 19 of the BP Oil Spill | May 8 | HOUSTON | Houston Museum of African American Culture (Presented by AFFRM partner HMAAC)

Day 28 of the BP Oil Spill | May 17 | AUSTIN | Alamo Drafthouse

Day 30 of the BP Oil Spill  |May 19 | WASHINGTON, DC | Anacostia Art Center (Presented by AFFRM partner Parallel Film Collective)

Day 32 of the BP Oil Spill | May 21 | PHILADELPHIA | International House (Presented by AFFRM partner Reelblack)

Day 48 of the BP Oil Spill | June 6 | CHICAGO | DuSable Museum of African American History

Day 52 of the BP Oil Spill | June 10 | BIRMINGHAM | Sidewalk Film Festival

Day 55 of the BP Oil Spill | June 13 | COLUMBIA, SC | The Nickelodeon

Watch an exclusive clip from the film below, followed by the official trailer and poster: