Sunday, August 20, 2006

"When the Levees Broke"

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.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

You should post your review on DailyKos.com. The HBO ad has been running on that site for over a week.

My husband and I have helped a Katrina evacuee get back on his feet in another Southern city. He would concur with the others who have discovered the failings of N.O. in regards to education, social services, crime etc. He is often shocked when local government fuctions as it is supposed to. He keeps inviting his friends to come see him here and says he is never going to live in N.O. again. He will visit often, but not live there again.

Anonymous said...

I watched "When the Levees Broke" tonight, Acts I & II. It was moving and emotional. Lee makes excellent movies and this documentary, although long, is no exception. It must be long to tell all of this. I just imagine my own family in this situation.
To watch the mayor and govornor each attempt to be blameless was really annoying. There were so many factors in all of it they all share the mistake of not taking serious action earlier. Much earlier. Hind site is always 20/20.
This is excellent. Watch it!!

Anonymous said...

State citizens pay the federal government tax money (the biggest amount on their pay stub) precisely because it takes a collaborative entity like FEMA was supposed to be, to handle multistate disasters of this magnitude. Unfortunately, FEMA was dismantled by this administration and a horse lawyer campaign donor was put in charge with no expertise. And let's not forget the federal de-funding of levee and infrastructure programs meant to fix this system the local politicians and the newspaper had been screaming about over a year or two beforehand. So get it straight... all roads lead back to an administration that quite frankly... doesn't care about black people.

Anonymous said...

I don't disagree with much of the review of Lee's film. I managed to watch both parts uninterrupted and as a local New Orleanian, I feel the "black" pain for the thousands of displaced live both white and black residents of my home town, in no particular order of importance less I be called a racist while imposing a balance of the New Orleans story concerning Katrina. Government response on every level was appalling (and hasn't improved much as of late) and why should any of us expect it to get any better? While our State Legislature takes up it's valuable time debating cock fighting in whatever Parish while the Southeastern part of Louisiana dissolves into the Gulf daily, is it any wonder why our National politicians and leaders aren't pouring their hearts out on our tragedy? It is our right as Americans--like the very irrelevant Belafonte and Sharpton who had nothing to do and contributed nothing but Bush bashing to the poignant film--to say whatever we feel about any politician, but self-reflection should always be a reciprocal activity when we choose that option.

The film was a true representation of feelings of displaced and/or recovering residents on New Orleans. But let's not forget who has been running the city of New Orleans since the election of Dutch Morial before we play a racist card. It's much too easy point out the splinter in my eye when the log resides in yours. If we as Americans denounce racism as the cause for all of our problems and then insist that "we as a race" deserve something more than we have collectively earned, have we not engaged in circular reasoning? Take a listen to Mr. Cosby for a full explanation of the Black Condition since I'm of the wrong color to speak authoritatively. His principles apply to any color or nationality; they are universally true no matter who may disagree with Mr. Cosby's specific pointedness.

The point I extracted from Spike's excellent film: If I depend on government, I get what I deserve. If I do it myself, however hard or impossible it may be, it'll be my own work and sweat equity invested. So when Mother Nature decides to take it away, it's between me and Her, not the President. Yes, government is the problem, but not one person: all of us since we are a government of the people, by the people and for the people who have turned it over bit by bit to politicians past and present who vote funds to the most effective voting block for the next election.

Bravo, Spike; get a clue Bush bashers. It's getting old . . .

Anonymous said...

What's getting old is Bush/GOP PR as a substitute for governance and accountability.

Beth McFarland said...

I've been a fan of New Orleans since I was 9 years old. My mother took me there on our way back to Houston after visiting my grandparents in Florida. I cannot describe the feeling I felt just from being there. Once I arrived, I knew it was a special place. I strolled down Bourbon Street, I had a Milk Punch at the Columns (yes, I was only 9) while listening to a live jazz band and I had my first of many dinners at Galatoire's. I've been coming back ever since then. My crazy road trips to the Big Easy during my college years have made college that much more memorable. I met a guy that had never been there and I told him, "What until you get there. You won't want to leave." He fell in love with the city and as a result I fell in love with him even more. We continue to go back and rediscover the city each time. Last time it was Kermit Ruffins at Vaughn's. I know I'm a little late for that, but all the more reason to keep returing.

Shubham Sapkal said...
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