"When the Levees Broke"
by Spike Lee
Airing on HBO Monday, August 21, and Tuesday, August 22.
SPIKE LEE'S NEW DOCUMENTARY about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, When the Levees Broke, is an interesting piece of work. The film is alternately moving, depressing, and annoying. It is also long. Exceptionally long. Clocking in at just over four hours, and broken into four one hour acts (the first two air tonight, the last two tomorrow night), it is an emotionally overwhelming presentation of an American city beset by a tragedy from which it may never recover.
As in Lee's first documentary, 4 Little Girls, the director eschews the use of a narrator; allowing his subjects' stories to tie the piece together instead. Another holdover from 4 Little Girls is the composer, Terence Blanchard, whose music is both touching and haunting.
The first act focuses on the hurricane itself, and the people who stayed in the city through the storm. From the get-go, one is struck by the blasé attitude that the citizens took towards the massive hurricane; despite the fact that President Bush, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, and Mayor Ray Nagin all called for an evacuation of New Orleans, many residents decided to stay. Their attitude was summed up by Fred Johnson, identified in the film as a "cultural activist," who said "[E]verybody who's afraid should leave, but I ain't for that leavin'." Those who couldn't afford to leave but still felt unsafe went to the Superdome to ride out the storm.
One of the theories raised by Lee's subjects is that the levees were blown on purpose in order to flood the city's infamous 9th Ward. Lee neither embraces nor rejects this argument, but he does give some background into the reason why so many black residents claimed they heard explosions the night of the storm. "During Hurricane Betsy [in 1965] there were rumors, and it became almost an article of faith with people in the community, that the 9th Ward flooded because of an intentional breach of the levee," recalls Marc Morial, former mayor of New Orleans. "It was never investigated; it was neither proven nor disproven." The noise the residents heard was most likely a barge crashing into the walls holding back the water, but the conspiracy theory, a product of the racial paranoia that infects many of Lee's interviewees, is largely uncontested and is the beginning of an annoying undercurrent throughout the documentary.
The first act also pays homage to one of the few institutions to rise to the challenge of those dark days: the United States Coast Guard. "There's one agency we should single out for a job well done," according to Morial. The USCG took it upon themselves to rescue as many people as possible, by flying as many sorties as they could and ignoring regulations on flight time by running 16 hour shifts. (As with any other organization, Coast Guard pilots are only supposed to fly a certain number of hours in order to avoid fatigue and causing more casualties.)
While the first act does its best to portray the human tragedy, the second act focuses on the political tragedy. No major political figure emerges from these interviews unscathed. President Bush takes his share of abuse (his now infamous attaboy-- "You're doin' a heck of a job Brownie"--is replayed by Lee three times in rapid succession for full effect), but Blanco and Nagin aren't exempted by their political affiliation or race. The two receive particular criticism for letting political backbiting (Nagin, a Democrat, supported Blanco's Republican challenger, Rep. Bobby Jindal, in the gubernatorial contest) and internecine power struggles get in the way of helping the people of New Orleans.
While FEMA is portrayed as incompetent, and the Army Corps of Engineers as criminally negligent, Lee misses a golden opportunity to examine another of the key factors into the destruction of the levees: terrible mismanagement by the organization designed to keep the levees functioning, the Orleans Levee Board. In a piece that came out two weeks after Katrina's landfall, MSNBC's Lisa Myers reported that the Levee Board, among other wasteful purchases, blew $2.4 million on a fountain. Former Republican board member Billy Nungesser stated that they "misspent the money. . . . any dollar they wasted was a dollar that could have went in the levees." Nungesser was fired for trying to cut down on this wasteful spending; in his opinion, the board was "a cesspool of politics, that's all it was. . . . [Its purpose was to] provide jobs for people." At the time Myer's article was written, only two of the 11 construction projects underway were related to flood control.
Another hero, at least according to Nagin, was Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, "the black John Wayne dude." When Honore showed up "that's when things changed," says Nagin. Lee isn't so generous. One of his subjects recalls the military evacuation as a return to the indignities of slavery; mothers were separated from children, the strong and the weak were put into different groups, people were piled together. It's one of a number of insipidly racist comments that hurts Act II. Another comes from Harry Belafonte, who claims that New Orleans' residents were "racially of no importance" to Bush. And Lee also portrays whites trying to protect their property from looters as idiotic rednecks: When one man tells Lee that he returned to the city only because he had a 9 millimeter handgun and two shotguns as protection, the director incredulously asks if this arsenal wouldn't be more useful in the hunt for Bin Laden.
Not all of the celebrity interviews were as silly as Harry Belafonte's (or as self serving as Sean Penn's--while being interviewed by Lee, Penn comes off looking like Superman instead of the bumbling, oafish celebrity that brought his own personal photographer to New Orleans for publicity and managed to sink the boat he was trying to rescue people in). Wendell Pierce, who plays a detective on HBO's The Wire, was born and raised in New Orleans. His 80-year-old father lost the house purchased upon his return from service in the Second World War. The insurance company that he paid premiums to for decades paid him only $1,000 for his loss. "The insurance companies . . . There's a special, special circle in hell for them," the actor says. It's hard not to agree with him as Lee exposes the chicanery the insurance companies have engaged in to avoid paying out damages.
The documentary closes with a warning that all of this could very easily happen again. The Army Corps of Engineers has yet to bring the levees back to their pre-Katrina strength, and Lee invokes the specter of global warming as an additional cause for urgency. The fact that this hurricane season has been incredibly mild--through almost three months there have been only three named storms, and none of those has reached hurricane strength--doesn't help Lee make his case.
Also in Tuesday's portion of the documentary, Lee glances at the rising levels of black on black violence in New Orleans and finds only one solution to the problem: keep the kids in school. And that's all well and good, but his solution (pouring more money into the broken school system) won't fix anything. He ignores the one thing that might really keep kids in school: strong families. In New Orleans, 60 percent of children are born out of wedlock (and 96 percent of teen births are out of wedlock). Single parent households tend to be poor households. They also tend to be uneducated households, as children of single mothers drop out at higher rates than those of two-parent households. Poverty and ignorance are two surefire causes of violent crime, and could be greatly alleviated by a concerted effort to get families to stick together.
All in all, the documentary works on a couple of levels: It is a great memorial to all those who lost their lives in the third deadliest hurricane of all time. Lee also does a good, if incomplete, job in trying to assess blame. As with most of Lee's work, however, the racial commentary is annoying, unenlightening, and unrelenting, and only detracts from the truly painful images Lee brings to the screen.
Sonny Bunch is an assistant editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.