It's entirely too early, of course, to describe any book, film or TV production as the "definitive account" of Hurricane Katrina's assault on (and the federal government's ill-serving of) New Orleans. Even so, Spike Lee makes a fair bid to be credited as providing one of the major reference works for subsequent chroniclers with his exhaustive -- but never, it should be noted, exhausting -- When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. The four-hour HBO documentary is set to debut over two nights, Aug. 21 and 22, just in time to mark the first anniversary of Katrina's landfall. Unfortunately, as Lee and his many interviewees repeatedly emphasize, rebuilding and recovery in the Crescent City have only just begun.
As I say in my Variety review: This extraordinary cinema-verite epic is charged by alternating currents of profound sorrow, galvanizing outrage and defiant resolve as it vividly renders the worst natural disaster in US history as a perfect storm of catastrophic weather, human error, socioeconomic inequity and bureaucratic dysfunction.
Many heartrending images here -- the trashed homes, the widespread flooding, the rescues from rooftops, the discovery of human remains -- are painfully familiar after hundreds of hours of TV newscasts. But Lee takes pains to explain the stories behind the stories, to unearth revealing details under-reported in other accounts, and to identify individuals among the faceless masses of unfortunates. While doing so, he rarely imposes himself upon his material: He is heard only occasionally as an off-camera voice prompting dozens of interviewees. It's almost as though he felt humbled by the import of what he was covering, and felt compelled to temper his dynamism to serve his compelling story. (Which may explain, by the way, why it's a "Spike Lee Film," not a "Spike Lee Joint.")
Among the familiar figures giving testimony: New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, personable and passionate even when he seems slightly out of his depth (and very funny when he describes taking a shower aboard Air Force One); entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte, who persuasively argues the federal government was slow to respond to New Orleans' plight because of the city's unimportant (i.e., mostly poor and black) citizenry; New Orleans-born musician Wynton Marsalis, who offers pithy history lessons about the city's racial and musical heritages; and actor Sean Penn, who volunteered for rescue missions in flooded neighborhoods, but concedes he waded through water up to his chest only after a local clergymen did so first.
(Also on hand: Kanye West, who admits that he fully expected reprisals after his impulsively impolite rant -- "George Bush doesn't care about black people!" -- during a prime-time NBC telecast dedicated to raising funds for Katrina survivors. Oddly enough, Lee neglects to mention that West's remarks were deleted by NBC when the live telecast was rerun in the West Coast time zone. In Houston, I remember rushing out to Best Buy immediately after the show to buy two West CDs, figuring -- wrongly, thank God -- that his albums would be banned from many outlets because of attacks from right-wing pressure groups.)
But the real "stars" of When the Levees Broke are the New Orleanians who witnessed, reported and/or endured the devastation. Radio talk show host (and former N.O. TV news superstar) Garland Robinette pointedly reminds viewers: "People think we got hit by a hurricane. But we got missed by a hurricane." (The flooding, he explains, resulted when water broke through under-financed and poorly maintained levees.) And Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, a Lower Ninth Ward resident, provides an intermittent running commentary -- like a one-woman Greek chorus -- that ranges from profanely funny to frankly terrified. (Like many Katrina survivors, she admits to suffering from a kind of post-traumatic disorder.)
As its full title indicates, When the Levees Broke is fairly evenly divided into four equally enthralling segments. (I can't wait to see the outtakes on the DVD.) Act I recounts events leading to the storm's arrival, emphasizing the seeming inability of President Bush (among others) to fully comprehend the potential for devastation of almost Biblical proportions. Viewed with 20/20 hindsight, FEMA director Mike Brown appears positively foolhardy while blithely expressing can-do optimism on the eve of Katrina's arrival.
Brown comes off even worse in Act II, as the documentary details the ineptitude and inadequacies of the emergency response by FEMA and other agencies. CNN newscaster Soledad O'Brien can barely contain her disbelief when she questions how Brown could have remained so unaware, for so long, while thousands of desperate New Orleanians sought shelter at the city's Superdome and Convention Center. (In an on-camera interview, O'Brien says of Brown, without a trace of irony: "He seemed to have no intelligence.") Other Bush Administration officials (and Bush himself) are depicted as shockingly indifferent (initially, at least) to the post-Katrina plight of a largely (but by no means entirely) African-American population.
Throughout Act III, When the Levees Broke focuses on the wide dispersal of New Orleanians left homeless in the wake of Katrina -- some are given one-way tickets to cities as far away as Utah -- and the heart-wrenching impact on those who return home to claim ruined homes and identify dead bodies. (Long-time Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard, who composed the documentary's evocative score, is among the returnees.) Some folks vow to remain in the city, and boldly defy real-estate developers who want to exploit the tragedy. Others, however, acknowledge that resettlement in other cities has made them all the more aware of the many failings in education, crime prevention and other social services that were endemic to New Orleans long before Katrina hit the city.
Act IV tentatively suggests a glimmer of hope for the future of New Orleans, even as many interviewees worry that the rebuilt city will be much smaller and conspicuously whiter. Notes of foreboding are sounded in interviews (some filmed as recently as two months ago) with experts who question whether the levee system is now, or ever can be, sufficient to protect the city. But the scrappy nature of surviving long-time residents is at once amusing and inspiring. In the documentary's most hilarious scene, a beer-swilling, blunt-talking Nawlins gal stands outside her FEMA trailer and proudly announces that, after long delays, she finally has indoor plumbing. Lee asks: "When do you think you'll get electricity?" Without missing a beat, she responds: "Whenever I decide to give somebody a blowjob, I guess."
By the way: In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am a New Orleans native. I should also add that if I have offended anyone with my remarks about the Bush Administration's response to the devastation of New Orleans -- well, as Edward R. Murrow once said in a completely different context, I'm not the least bit sorry.