Spike Lee has made a career of cultural archaeology, reanimating American history and experience through African-American eyes in films that range from Bamboozled to Malcolm X.
But the four-hour HBO documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts -- debuting in two parts Aug. 21-22 and shown in its entirety Aug. 29, the anniversary of the hurricane -- is Lee's most literal work of archaeology yet. When the Levees Broke is a comprehensive, gripping film that sifts through the recent experience of Hurricane Katrina and what it can teach us about the America we thought we knew. Which is in keeping with most of Lee's previous documentaries. This is his third feature collaboration with HBO Films after 2002's Jim Brown: All-American and the 1997 Oscar-nominated documentary Four Little Girls, about the infamous 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church.
If Michael Moore's films expose the greed of the rich and powerful by using ordinary Americans as cannon fodder for his ideological battles, Lee's exceptional grace and talent as a filmmaker is his ability never to sacrifice humanity on the pyre of political mission. Lee interviews a wide range of people to lend a richer voice to the subject matter, regardless of class, color or attitude. They include actor Harry Belafonte, CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien and Grammy-winning New Orleans trumpeters Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard -- the latter of whom still lives in New Orleans and is also Lee's longtime film composer. The film is fleshed out by experts and evidence: the academics who saw the long tradition of incompetence and racism in the city, a host of Times-Picayune reporters (whose paper won two Pulitzers for its Katrina coverage) and the engineers who knew the levees were sub-par.
But the movie is elevated by its tapestry of humble, everyday New Orleanians, including Herbert Freeman, who watched his elderly mother slowly die while waiting for a bus to take them away from the Superdome, and Kimberly Polk, a mother who allows Lee access to the funeral where she buries her 5-year-old daughter who was swept away in the flood waters. Like all of Lee's best films, Levees is deeply political. Yet its sense of moral outrage is never gratuitous and always rooted in the anecdotal, human experience of his interview subjects.
And the film suggests there is plenty of blame to spread around. Lee's interviewees point accusing fingers at everyone from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and FEMA chief Michael Brown to a Bush administration whose key figures fly-fished, shoe-shopped and played air-guitar while the tragedy mounted. As several of the participants, including Blanchard, state, Katrina conveyed the out-of-touch nature of the Bush administration.
"You have to worry about a country that can look at a vast number of mistakes this administration has made that has directly affected people's lives ... you have to worry a country that can look at all that and still not see this guy for who he is," observes Blanchard, who once again provided the score for Lee's film.
As a horror film might, When the Levees Broke begins with a grinding build-up, as the city of New Orleans braces for a potential Category 5 hurricane. While the middle and upper classes avail themselves of airports and (by car) evacuation routes out of the city, the poorest line up outside the Superdome or hope to weather the storm the way many recall riding out 1965's devastating Hurricane Betsy.
But to Lee, Katrina becomes more than a storm; it's a symbol. Katrina comes on like some monster from the American subconscious, rising with the flood waters and illuminating in its wake a long legacy of racism, classism, poverty, shoddy public schools, high crime, political corruption. They all are conspirators in the drama.
While the first and second acts are devoted to the storm and its immediate aftermath, the latter two acts chart Katrina's lingering effects: battles with insurance companies who refuse to pay, and mounting anger at the administration, as expressed in singer Kanye West's impromptu pronouncement on live TV, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
Even after the waters recede, When the Levees Broke's second half shows a residual wave of injustice, a migration as devastating as the one documented in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
With utter disregard for family connections and psychological well-being, hurricane survivors are flown or bused to locations as remote as Utah and New York. Several black Americans interviewed for the film point to the parallels of how slavery also made people into will-less chattel, though other viewers will be unwilling to even entertain this analogy.
When the Levees Broke is, in many ways, an illuminating portrait of two segments of America -- the one that had its faith in America's democratic bedrock profoundly shaken by Katrina, and the poor and black Americans whose cynicism about American social justice was confirmed yet again. Lee's profound, troubling document of a disaster illuminates deep, horrible undercurrents in American life. If When the Levees Broke doesn't make you angry, then you aren't an American.
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