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‘Vanishing Pearls’ Highlights Black Oystermen

Three years ago, the only thing Nailah Jefferson, a New Orleans native, knew about Pointe á la Hache was that it was one the places the weatherman pointed to during the news. That all changed when the Deep Water Horizon disaster occurred, spilling an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico off of Louisiana’s coast.

Although the oil spill made international headlines, Jefferson didn’t realize the severity and complexity of the accident until she took the hour long drive to the town. She soon found out that these weren’t just fishermen. These were African American fishermen – a term many don’t even know exists. And not only were they affected, but their histories, careers and families were, too. The worst part was that the situation was not improving; it was worsening.

From April 2010 to December 2013, Jefferson travelled back and forth from New Orleans to Pointe á la Hache, gathering the heart-wrenching tales of a group of anglers, who fought vigorously to maintain the only industry they knew. Now, the 32-year-old is ready to present their stories to the world – just in time for the oil spill’s four-year anniversary – with the release of her directorial debut Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe á la Hache. Find out what she had to say about her experience, and watch the trailer for the movie, premiering in New York and Los Angles theaters on April 18, at the end of the post.

JET:  Explain the title of the film.

Nailah Jefferson: I brainstormed quite a bit. I was talking to my sister and cousin-in-law one day. We wanted something to do with oysters and obviously something to do with fishermen. We were thinking different things like, “Oily Beds,” “Oily Pearls,” “Vanishing Bed.” Finally, “Vanishing Pearls” came up. “Vanishing” because this is a community on the brink of losing their heritage and their legacy that they’ve had for so long. “Pearls” because it is associated with oysters and also because these precious gems have been in the community for centuries and centuries.

JET: How’d you come across this story, and why did you decide to pursue it?

NJ: I was back home looking for projects. About a week after the spill, the son-in-law of the subject of the film, stopped by my house. When I told him I was looking for ideas, he told me I should come on down to Pointe á la Hache and meet his father-in-law. I said, “well, who is your father-in-law?” He said, “Byron Encalade, the president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association.” Even though Pointe á la Hache is 55 miles away from New Orleans, it’s really a world away. I’d never spent time on the bayous. I’d never seen this way of life before. It really just captured me once I was there –  the people and the scenery. Even though I eat the seafood, I never really thought about who caught it or how labor intensive it was. So I was sure this could be a learning experience for more people. Once I really got into it, things weren’t really recovering after the spill. I knew that this was a story that could hopefully help this community and their struggle to survive since the oil spill.

JET: There’s quite a bit of intricate and unfamiliar information in the film. How did you manage to break it down in laymen terms so audiences better understand the topic?

NJ: That was hard. That was a struggle, but I was very much in the shoes of the audience. I didn’t know much about this community. I didn’t know much about their history. I said, “well, if I don’t know anything, what are the basic things that I need?” You can get bogged down with information. It can become confusing, and at different points it did. So it was a process of trial and error. I think we streamlined the film to give you just enough science so you understand and just enough legal information so you get it. But at the end of the day, we wanted to give you a lot of heart. The most important thing is  that you feel what these fishermen feel.

JET: When people walk out of theaters after seeing your film, what messages do you want them to leave with?

NJ: First and foremost, I want them to know that there was this town of very proud people, who lived a life that they truly loved and fought hard to maintain it. Secondly, I want them to realize that the BP oil spill and the effects of it are still occurring. People have not recovered like the BP ads and commercials have said. These assertions that BP have are indeed false. People have not been made whole four years later. Also, I want them to know that we have to do a better job. When these disasters occur, a lot of times we pay attention for six months and they are kind of out of site out of mind. But we can’t forget about these communities who are still fighting for their lives.

JET: I’m sure watching the storyline unfold was challenging, but what has been your greatest joy in creating it?

NJ: My greatest joy is that after the fishermen saw it, they were pleased. They felt like all of these years of me annoying them and me saying, “oh please let me catch you on the phone” (laughs) was worth it. That for me was really gratifying. After years of people not representing them, someone finally paid attention.

About Najja Parker

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Najja Parker is a writer and editor with experience in multimedia journalism. Her work has been featured in various publications, such as SecondCityStyle.com and ChicagoTalks.org. She holds a BA in English and Theater from Spelman College and an MA in Journalism from Columbia College Chicago. When she’s not writing, you can find her playing in nail polish, creating some of the trendiest and coolest nail art designs. Follow her at @NajjaNotes.