nailah jefferson

Documentarian Nailah Jefferson of Vanishing Pearls

The next time you crack open an oyster, you might want to think about the Black folks in Pointe à la Hache, Louisiana. As seen in Vanishing Pearls, a poignant documentary opening today, their livelihood is based on that slurping and frying up you’ll do. And unfortunately, it could all be fading away.

“It’s not a pretty story, but we had a beautiful landscape and beautiful people,” says first-time director Nailah Jefferson. Chronicling 2010’s notorious Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Jefferson captures the untold story that devastated Pointe à la Hache, a close-knit fishing village of Black folks on the Gulf Coast.

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Digging into the worst environmental disaster in American history isn’t exactly the easiest topic to jump into, but Jefferson approaches it in a poetic, almost love-letter style rather than simply a deliberate rant about the environment.

“There was so much said about that oil spill and its impact,” she said. “I’m not sure that people even knew there was such a thing as Black oystermen, but there they were, and I thought it was an important story to tell,” says Jefferson.

At the center of Vanishing Pearls is a Black man named Byron Encalade. A lifelong fisherman and father to four daughters, Mr. Byron (as folks called him) learned the reefs as a boy prepping for the day’s catch before sunrise with his father, cousins and uncles. You can hear his love of that work in his voice and see it in his eyes. Jefferson said she could tell from the time she spent with him that “he just wanted to get back out on the water.”

As the film illustrates through historical photos, this community already had its share of long, silent struggles prior to the BP oil spill, from the times when a racist economic and political system effectively put Black oystermen into sharecropper status. More recently, Hurricane Katrina was another blow. Indeed, they know all about resilience and determination.

“Its raw,” says Nailah Jefferson. And it is: weathered hands, salty mustaches, beaten boats and all.

Jefferson didn’t set out to do this story, but it came to her at the right time. She grew up in New Orleans and caught the film bug in college at Boston University and while getting her master’s at Emerson College. She served as an executive assistant to director Lee Daniels, and moved back to New Orleans in 2007 to start Perspective Pictures.

‘Vanishing Pearls’ trailer

‘Vanishing Pearls’ trailer

About a month after the Deepwater Horizon spill happened (May 2010), an old family friend began to tell a tale of woes for the people in the bayou. “It was 55 miles away but a world away also,” she said, reflecting on her eventual repeated visits to the Black fishing village. “I was a bit embarrassed that I didn’t know more about it long ago.”

But she kept coming back, listening gathering, and documenting. “One year into production, I soon realized that the story was only beginning,” she says. As Jefferson zooms us back to that fateful April 20, 2010, when BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded 50 miles off of Louisiana’s eastern coastline, she reminds that it killed 11 men and severely injured several others. As the debris settled, 200 million gallons of oil eventually flooded into the Gulf unchecked. That’s at least 18 times more oil than was spilled as a result of Hurricane Katirina.

The estimated cost of the oil spill to the fishing industry was over $2.5 billion. Tourism fell off, as did seafood, because it was all thought contaminated. BP CEO Tony Hayward publicly vowed to “make things right,” but Byron Encalade confidently asserted to Jefferson that he highly doubted that was possible.

Using interviews with the Encalade family, members of the community and marine biologists, Jefferson covers a lot of different perspectives in her film. Mixed with strong information graphics and real footage from local briefings held on the matter, viewers get the sense that things actually ain’t right and might not ever get there.

Vanishing Pearls gives an up-close look at precisely how BP made their moves. The federal government forced BP to commit $20 billion as compensation to “all affected” by the spill. However, as the film shows in harsh detail, this money never flowed to the fishermen.

Jefferson’s documentary belongs in the lineage of films like Trouble the Water (executive produced by Danny Glover) and Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke—chronicles of the plight of Black communities in Louisiana against a backdrop of a devastated landscape and the connected fragility of both.

“We fought against a lot to get this film made—a lack of funding, scarce state support, and a misleading ad campaign by a multinational company to name just a few,” says Jefferson. “Despite this, we didn’t give up, nor did the people of Pointe à la Hache. As we release this film, my hope is that we can open people’s eyes to the gravity of what Gulf Coast communities are experiencing in the aftermath of the BP oil spill.”

Vanishing Pearls hits theaters today in Los Angeles and New York. Screenings in select cities follow afterwards. To find out when it will be at a venue near you, go to www.affrm.com/press-vanishing-pearls.