Lost in the Movies: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

Mournful, occasionally playful, angry, and as direct as its maker's trademark personality, Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke assembles footage of the disaster and interviews with its victims into an elegy for New Orleans, a testimonial of Hurricane Katrina, and an indictment of the government that looked the other way. Katrina was not only a disaster of epic proportions, it was a turning point in American history. It finally unmasked President Bush and his administration as clueless, incompetent, and careless, and forever sank the estimation of his presidency. It revamped the media, empowering them going into the following year's election; it effectively turned conservatives against the president; it sank Bush into a popular miasma from which he never emerged. But if these were the indirect fruits of the disaster, they provided no consolation for the miserable, the dispossessed, and the increasingly hopeless Katrina left in its wake. The movie ends on a hesitantly hopeful note, as the city's citizens vow to move on, but it's been three years, the roots and results of the problem have not been addressed (and are not being addressed in the current campaign) and it seems increasingly likely that the glum scenario of a dispirited, dissipated metropolis will continue for the near future.

At any rate, Lee's film, which offers ample opportunity for its participants to vent their rage, is not solely or even mostly a political document. It is as much a spiritual work as anything else, not so much in the religious sense as in the humanist sense. Lee's primary tool in documentary filmmaking, noted on the basis of Levees and 4 Little Girls (a 1997 doc about the Birmingham church bombings) is the testimonial. Levees offers a good deal of first-hand footage, both of the disaster itself and the aftermath, but the overall impression is one of people speaking to the camera. Unlike 4 Little Girls, Levees was filmed in the immediate aftermath of the event, so these talking heads are filmed in medium shot, framed by the rubble of a still-decimated city around them.

I found that, given this approach, the first part of the film is not as powerful as I expected: much of the testimony is harrowing, but there is a certain immediacy missing as Lee covers the unexpected flooding from the standpoint of the aftermath. Yet the movie builds up steam as it goes along, and soon bears incredible weight, accumulated through horror story after horror story, facilitated by the wearied tones and expressions of its participants, and especially directed by the growing disbelief and rage at the absolute failure of leadership. We hear about mothers whose daughters were drowned before their eyes, sons who had to watch their crippled wheelchair-bound mothers float away, families who clung to rooftops as their neighbors floated along with the debris. And then, unbelievably, this terrible situation continues, and continues, and continues and no one steps in to intervene.

There's simply no excuse for what the government did, or rather, didn't do. We elect officials, and they make their appointments, based on a simple paradigm: we need help, they provide it. In August and September 2005, the United States Federal Government was guilty of negligent homicide. I recall that in the immediate wake of the hurricane, there was some eye-rolling at the prospect of people criticizing Bush. There they go again, people said, blaming him for a natural disaster! After all, he's doing his best. And then, as the reports emerged it became clear that Bush and "heckuva job Brownie" weren't doing their best. In fact, they weren't doing anything at all. They sat in the lifeguard chair, by the side of the pool, watching with a dazed expression while a swimmer drowned. Except in this case, it was thousands of swimmers, not one.

Lee is somewhat tough on Mayor Ray Nagin, who ultimately comes off well - if a bit glib; he's somewhat tougher on Governor Kathleen Blanco, who doesn't get much time to defend herself; and of course the director is merciless towards Bush and Brownie and the others responsible for the federal government's apathy. It would seem none of them wanted to sit down and defend themselves (I would assume Lee asked based, among other things, on his inclusion of George Wallace in 4 Little Girls), and their silence speaks volumes. Sometimes Lee's rage gets the better of him. Barbara Bush is excoriated, by Al Sharpton among others, for an insensitive comment about how the victims were now doing better than they had been, but within a few minutes Lee reveals how this is true for some of the victims, by their own admission.

Here as elsewhere, contradictions and excesses are hard to pin on Lee himself; the unanimity of voices (assisted by the aforementioned absence of those most culpable) tends to create the effect of chorus, with Lee as conductor, but then an intervening voice steps in to suggest that perhaps Lee isn't actually in agreement with his interviewees. Such as when a few New Orleanians vent conspiracy theories about dynamiting the levees, and Lee eventually brings in a few voices of authority to defuse the charge. Throughout the film, he interviews not only Sharpton, but Wynton Marsalis, Harry Belafonte, and Sean Penn (whom I often find insufferable, but who has to be really respected for putting his money where his mouth is and going down to New Orelans to assist in rescue efforts).

Yet despite the celebrity presence, the bulk of the testimonial is committed by New Orelans residents, white and black but largely poor, who lived through the warnings, the storm, the flooding, the rescues, the looting, and eventually the displacement. These people are allowed to speak in their own voice and are not prettied up into noble standardbearers; occasionally, their expression is crude, racial tensions and tempermental personalities are not covered up, and many eschew camera-ready stoicism to fume (you try being stoic when your home and family has been washed away). Ultimately, the subjects retain their dignity by virtue of their survival: the battering is endless, literally endless, as once some of them make it home they are confronted by insurance companies which refuse to play ball - adding one of the most offensive of many codas this film provides.

Some criticized Levees for focusing primarily on New Orleans' black community and the black aspects of its culture, but in doing so (and not exclusively, as the subjects are multiracial) Lee is being honest. This is his angle of attack, his approach, and he embraces it rather than seeking to create a "definitive," objective portrait which would perhaps be less personal, and at any rate impossible. As for Lee himself, his presence suffuses the film, but he does not narrate it or show up in front of the camera. His voice is heard offscreen occasionally, prodding his subjects, expressing frequent disbelief, laughing when they say something funny. You can sense his presence in the sharp editing, the building of arguments and lines of thought, but also the distinctive ways he defuses the tension.

The film's frequent use of New Orelans-themed jazz songs, and fondness for distinctively flamboyant musical parades, lends a simultaneously jaunty and mournful air to the proceedings, as does his extremely warm lighting, colorful set design, and eccentric prop use in the studio interviews. At the film's end he has every person who was interviewed hold a picture frame around their head and state their name for the camera. This includes not only the disenfranchised yet outspoken hurricane survivors, but also an angry old white guy who drops the "n" word, an Army engineer who dissembles on why new, better levees have still not been built, and the few officials (including the mayor and governor) who showed up to defend themselves.

In other words, despite his fierce anger and defiant attitude, there's an underlying longing for community and understanding that characterizes this film, and indeed all of Lee's work. It's present in Do the Right Thing, as white and black citizens engage in a tentative rapprochement following a devastating riot; it's there in 25th Hour, when Monty peers out the window to see the formerly aggressive city stereotypes smiling back at him; it's there in Malcolm X when Lee leaves the scene of the assassination to have joyous youths, from South Africa to Harlem, proclaim "I am Malcolm X!"

Lee may be many things, but he is not a pessimist, and it's this yearning for realistic, grounded, yet somehow transcendent joyousness which is one of his abiding strengths. This offers a resoundingly hopeful note on which to end his requiem, one that we all hope will be borne out in the years to come.

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