Tuesday, September 4, 2007
WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2007) dir. Spike Lee
“When the Levees Broke” is a four hours-plus comprehensive examination of the Katrina disaster and its aftermath. Produced by and aired on HBO the film is currently up for many Awards at this year’s Emmy’s. It’s an enlightening, passionate, informative, and above all, angry film about how the deadliest natural disaster in America’s history exposed glaring social, economic and racial inequalities in America. It’s a mesmerizing film made by one of America’s greatest living filmmakers – Spike Lee. I don't know if it qualifies only as television but it’s an Oscar-worthy film and I’ll go as far to say it’s one of the greatest documentaries ever made.
Through four acts (roughly one-hour each in length), every single aspect of the tragedy is covered using talking head interviews, newly shot aftermath footage, archived television broadcast footage, and testimonials from everyone involved from the highest levels of authority to the disillusioned victims. The first act tells about the disaster itself. In late August 2005 meteorological services foresaw the forming of Hurricane Katrina into a possible category 5 storm heading directly for New Orleans. The Mayor immediately called for evacuation of the city. For those who don’t know New Orleans is below sea level and is highly vulnerable to severe flooding from powerful storms. The only preventative measures against such as disaster are a series of levees engineered to block and divert the flow of water away from the city. As it was documented so dramatically on television New Orleans was indeed hit by the Hurricane, the levees broke resulting in massive flooding, the destruction of hundreds of thousands of homes and displacing a million citizens.
The second, third and fourth acts document the botched relief effort by the Federal Government, State Government and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Forget whatever you think you knew about Hurricane Katrina. This film exposes the small and large scale tragedies and little-told horror stories of ineptitude that resulted from this event with passionate anger and fury. No stone is left unturned. The most dramatic effect was the exposure of glaring inequalities of race in America. New Orleans is a predominantly black city with much of its population living in poor underprivileged conditions. Kanye West loudly proclaimed what everyone wanted to say but because of political correctness couldn’t - “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”. In its simplistic approach Kanye was surprisingly profound. Indeed evidenced by the treatment by the Government at all levels, George Bush and America indeed don’t care about black people.
The details about the gross miscalculations and bureaucratic blundering that saw the lost citizens of New Orleans go almost a week without seeing any semblance of aid, food or rescue is astounding. There’s some conspiratory expounding from some extremists as well, including accusations that three of levees were actually exploded on purpose in order to save the financially-precious “French Quarter” (which, indeed only suffered minimal damage). Another shocking revelation is that many affluent neighbouring parishes and communities barricaded New Orleans citizens from crossing into their borders to seek shelter.
“When the Levees Broke” is made so much better because of the intensely personal approach Lee takes, without imposing his personality into the film. Lee, who grew up in a musical family and frequently uses musicians from New Orleans in his films (including Terence Blanchard who composes the score), knows the city, its culture and its heritage intimately. Much of the film is about the ethnicity and traditions of its people and their unique attitude on life in general which helped them get through the lengthy aftermath. Lee’s subjects are so eloquent in their honesty. Herbert Freeman Jr.’s straightforward account of the death of his mother is shattering. He was forced to leave her alone sitting in her chair to seek shelter, but not before he left a handwritten a note identifying her body in her lifeless hand. We also get to meet the New Orleans resident Dr. Ben Marble who famously derided Dick Cheney, who was giving his token visitation to the scene when he shouted - not once, but twice - loudly for CNN viewers to hear - “Go fuck yourself, Mr. Cheney!” The camera loves Lower Ninth Ward resident Phyllis Montana Leblanc the most. Her profane frankness provides us with well-timed humour to contrast the sorrow.
The United States Government fumbled the ball big time during the Katrina disaster. On U.S. currency there’s a Latin phrase, “E Pluribus Unum”, which means “Out of Many, One", which refers to relationship of the U.S. States to the country as a whole. It appears George Bush and the Republicans have taken their adherence to free-marketism to such extremes, it should be changed to “Sulum Vir Pro Sui” – Every “Man for Himself.” Enjoy.
P.S. It’s too bad “When the Levees Broke” aired on television first, because it would have been a shoo-in for the Best Documentary Oscar. It is hands-down one of the best documentaries I've ever seen and will be on my top ten list of the best films this year. Can Spike Lee finally get some respect now?
Buy it here: When the Levees Broke