Deepwater Horizon: the Enemy Is Us

The award-winning film The Great Invisible airs on PBS for the fifth anniversary of the largest spill in U.S. history.

Who’s responsible for the largest marine oil spill of all time? If you think it’s BP, film director Margaret Brown is here to explain why you’re wrong.

Winner of this year’s SXSW Grand Jury Award for documentaries, Brown’s The Great Invisible comes five years after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe covered the Gulf of Mexico and the surrounding beaches and wetlands with oil slick. A native of Mobile, Alabama, and a Peabody Award-winning filmmaker, Brown honors the 11 men killed, their families, surviving crewmembers, and the still-suffering locals, and tells the story that unfolded here after the major news outlets left. “I wanted to make something that was deeper and longer,” she says: “I wanted to show: Why did this happen?”

The answer, according to Brown, is America’s insatiable thirst for low-cost energy. It’s easy to point fingers at the oil industry, she says. “But [cheap fuel] is something that we’re all asking for.”

The film centers on the people tasked with meeting that demand—both in the field and in the offices of major corporations. She begins with Doug Brown, Deepwater Horizon’s chief mechanic. “We drilled the deepest oil hole in the world,” he says, giving voice to a culture thick with machismo. “I knew my job was dangerous,” he tells the filmmaker, “that’s why I took it.”

Margaret Brown shows oil traders, suited and sucking cigars, as they discuss America’s fossil fuel dependency and how renewables can’t seem to compete in a world accustomed to instant gratification. “The sun don’t always shine and the wind don’t always blow,” two traders say in unison. The pair would have been easy to caricature, but Brown manages to flesh them out—and suggests that they shouldn't shoulder all the blame: They are simply part of a culture-wide, unending clamor for oil. After all, just five years on, BP is running its largest fleet of oil rigs in the Gulf ever. President Obama, meanwhile, is encouraging drilling in the Atlantic and the Arctic, and Shell could be drilling the Chukchi Sea by this summer.  

What’s most disturbing—if not unexpected—is how the local community continues to suffer.  Directly following the oil traders’ interview, the film cuts to Bayou La Batre, Alabama’s seafood capital. Food pantry volunteer “Mr. Rosie” is hosting a free spaghetti lunch for over 300 out-of-work oyster shuckers, crab pickers, and fishermen. “All the people around here who are hungry—they can come get ‘em a free meal on Saturday,” he says, opening an oversized can of tomato sauce.

And it’s true that people have been a big part of the cleanup effort here; they have helped by donating funds, supplies, and time. But The Great Invisible is a sharp reminder that we humans are the central mechanism of the ongoing global disaster: “We are all part of the agreement,” Brown argues, “whether we know it or not.”

“The Great Invisible” premieres April 20th on PBS’s Independent Lens series—learn more about the film here: