When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)
Starring: Harry Belafonte, Terence Blanchard, Kathleen Blanco, Douglas Brinkley, Wynton Marsalis, Ray Nagin, Soledad O’Brien, Sean Penn, Wendell Pierce, Al Sharpton, Kanye West
Directed by: Spike Lee
Spike Lee‘s new documentary about Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke, is not only a detailed account of the natural disaster and how it affected New Orleans and its residents, but also a stark portrayal of the human failures that turned it from disaster to tragedy. It is as damning a document on the failures and betrayals of the Bush administration as Michael Moore‘s Fahrenheit 9/11, a look into the federal government’s seemingly complete disinterest into the sufferings of its own citizens so complete that in a just world, it could only result in major political fallout for the Republicans across the board in September. Of course, the last time a documentary like this came out, Bush was able to secure a second term, so I guess this means the neo-cons should have no trouble keeping control of Congress after the mid-terms, as the American people have proven that there is no screw-up spectacular enough to prevent them from rewarding this administration.
If I sound bitter, I promise you I’m not. It’s not bitterness; it’s outrage, the capacity for which was only increased by watching this documentary. However, given that it is a movie by Spike Lee, the film is surprisingly balanced and measured in its approach, and not the fiery polemic one might expect from the controversial director. Instead of injecting himself and his opinions throughout the 4 hour movie (originally broadcast in two parts by HBO), Lee allows those affected by Katrina and involved in the politics of the situation do the talking, only appearing a couple of times as a voice behind the camera when the interviewee’s responses would lack context without his question.
The film follows the story from the lead-up to disaster through to the hurricane strike on New Orleans to the aftermath, with residents battling flooding and poorly conceived rescue plans. He takes us beyond the scenes that played out on the 24 hour news networks by interviewing several New Orleans residents from different areas of different socio-economic classes. He continues to follow the story long after the news cameras have left, revealing how little assistance these residents have been given from organizations like FEMA (who have thousands of temporary trailers earmarked for those who lost their homes sitting in storage while forcing survivors to wait in bureaucratic hell) and the insurance companies who pay out next to nothing and currently find themselves the subject of lawsuits.
The imagery Lee provides is gripping and heart-wrenching, seeing people’s lives and livelihoods wash away when the levees, poorly built by the US Army Corps of Engineers, broke under the force of Katrina’s rain (although, as the film points out, the levees were not directly hit by Katrina, which never actually hit New Orleans, but rather, passed by). The interviews and archived footage of political figures like President Bush, Governer Kathleen Blanco, and Mayor Ray Nagin reveal how political forces compounded the devastation brought about by natural forces. The interviews of survivors give the viewer an idea of the real human costs of these mistakes and decisions, showing the anger and sense of betrayal survivors feel for those who have failed to act in the best interests of the residents of the Gulf Coast. Lee doesn’t need to fill the movie with rhetoric and controversial opinions, the testimony of those involved is enough to shake our sense of decency and outrage.
The film is as complete a look at the tragedy that will be captured on film, as Lee works hard to capture all angles of the event. It is an important historical document, that looks beyond the events of late-August 2005. His examination gives context on why some residents chose not to leave New Orleans after city officials issued a mandatory evacuation, and shows how things like global warming and the loss of wetlands along the Gulf Coast might have contributed to the devastation of Katrina (and, by extension, further damning the current administration for its environmental record). However, while its detailed and complete nature is a strength of the film, it is also part of its weakness. Four hours is a little too long to sustain an impact on the audience, and as the documentary progressed, it became a bit repetitive. My capacity for outrage is only so deep, and the length of this film taxed mine. Near the end, my attention began to wane, forcing me to rewind when new information that I missed started mixing in with older info.
I understand that it must’ve been difficult for Lee to edit out some of the footage and stories he was able to get from survivors. But, by including as much as he did, he did lessen the emotional impact he so effectively achieved in the first couple acts of his film. Ultimately, I think it’s best taken in over two nights, instead of trying to view all four hours in one night (as I did, albeit with an intermission break for dinner). It’s worth the effort, an important film that delves into a national tragedy that is only a year old and is already being forgotten under the weight of 9/11 anniversaries and the ongoing war in Iraq. Spike Lee has crafted a riveting, poignant, and impassioned look at Hurricane Katrina that answers a lot of questions I had about the event, but more importantly, a work that continues to ask the questions some would prefer we forget.