Documentary Review — “Mossville: When Great Trees Fall” captures environmental racism at its deadliest

The image is stark and iconic — a lone house, fenced, construction site devastation all around it — a single man resisting the march of  “progress.”

But there’s no vast supply of balloons to lift Stacey Ryan’s trailer “Up” and away from this Louisiana industrial Hell. And his hold-out status, surrounded by 14 petrochemical plants in one of the most polluted places in America has us fearing for his health and his life more than the tiny, ruined town of Mossville, which he represents.

“Mossville: When Great Trees Fall” is an infuriating film that captures “environmental racism” at its most obvious, a film shot at a little known but infamous ground zero example in the American South.

Stacey Ryan, a mechanic and lifelong resident of Mossville, is our tour guide and main historian for a town “founded by free slaves” after the Civil War devastated — you could say “targeted” — by a power structure and industries who decide that “not in my backyard” doesn’t apply to working class places populated by mostly powerless Black people.

The few hold outs  there, when we meet them, are religious people who remember a “safe” place village, founded by seven families, covered in fruit trees.

They thrived by not being noticed, not living on land the powers that be coveted. But they were invisible, unable to stop the vast processing concerns that Louisiana allowed to buy their way in and make the place unlivable for those who remained.

Ryan shows filmmaker Alexander Glustrom old TV interview footage of his parents, his mother protesting that “The color of my skin doesn’t make a dog — a guinea pig!” But that’s how firms like Axiall and those that preceded and followed it treated them.

Fires and explosions, “shelter in place” accidents, leaks into the water supply, dioxin in the blood. Mossville residents started dying of cancer.

Here’s footage of then-Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal singing the praises of a South African biochemical and energy concern, SASOL, moving in — thanks to state incentives.

Glustrom then takes us to Secundo, the company’s Apartheid era plant built next to Zamdela Township, “the biggest source of carbon dioxide on the planet.” South African activists speak of companies like SASOL treating poor people as “disposable others,” the ones governments and companies decide “can live in the pollution.”

Because nobody with money or influence would stand for it.

An environmental lawyer laments the uphill battle the few survivors in Mossville are fighting, and the film’s third act lets us see how all this is winding up. Big Petrochemical’s predations and pollution won’t stop at Mossville. More affluent towns are within the reach of wind and water runoff from there.

No wonder nobody talks about Bobby Jindal any more.

“Mossville: When Great Trees Fall” is earning limited release before airing on PBS later this year.


MPAA Rating: unrated.

Cast: Stacey Ryan, Erica Jackson, Van Jackson

Credits: Directed by Alexander Glustrom. A Fire River Films release.

Running time: 1:15


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