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Spike Lee’s New Orleans
Hundreds of thousands of people, more than one fifth of them living below the poverty line, were devastated by hurricane Katrina. Though the government has continued to promise aid, a year later many have not received any. In fact, rather than helping, government policies have created overwhelming barriers of bureaucratic red tape to the poorest survivors’ recovery: for instance, almost $17 billion in federal grants designated for the use for home building resulted in not one house yet being rebuilt. Given that the situation continues to be dire—one where the poor, who in New Orleans are preeminently African-American, are the prime sufferers— it was fitting that HBO signed America’s most famous, and arguably most original, African-American director, Spike Lee, to direct and produce a four-hour documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Each act of the film depicts a different aspect of the events that preceded and followed Katrina’s apocalyptic course through New Orleans, especially through its black neighborhoods.
Though Lee’s films can be erratic— ranging in quality from his provocative near masterpiece Do the Right Thing to his more recent embarrassingly sexist and jejune She Hate Me, and his well-crafted, forgettable, bank-heist film (predictably his most profitable) Inside Man--he is an artist saturated in and deeply committed to African-American society and culture. Most of Lee's films have strong African-American themes and characters. He is also a dazzling stylist whose images and editing powerfully convey emotional mood and the texture of urban life.
In When the Levees Broke, Lee uses current and historical footage, music, and more than 100 interviews--with politicians like Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco; celebrities like Sean Penn, Harry Belafonte, Wynton Marsalis, a relatively mellow Al Sharpton; and a great many African-American and white residents of the city—lawyers, journalists, ministers, ordinary working people. The film makes it clear to viewers that although the entire Gulf Coast was shattered by Katrina, New Orleans and its mostly African-American residents were hurt the most. In Lee’s angry words, “What happened in New Orleans was a criminal act,” and “somebody has to go to jail somehow for what was committed down there.''
The storm and its aftermath have been analyzed in recent books like Douglas Brinkley’s richly evocative The Great Deluge, and in a flood of newspaper and magazine articles. But Lee’s mournful montage of dead bodies decaying for days in the streets and yards of the city, amid mounds of debris and pulverized houses, is more potent and painful than any of the written descriptions. So are the images of a New Orleans in ruins, with dazed-looking families carrying the few possessions they’ve saved, looking like the refugees that wandered through the eerie, rubble-filled streets of Western European cities after WW11.
His film, which is dedicated to the resilient spirit of the city’s people, also gives an often-eloquent voice to the stories and opinions of the storm’s victims. One man says that when the storm hit, it sounded like a “freight train in your ear,” and others talk about their time in the Convention Center as living in a stinking “sewer”—a figurative hell not fit for human habitation, without edible food, bathrooms that worked, and medical aid, and where feelings of paranoia and panic began to intensify.
And there is the memorable Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, a tough, profane, witty, extremely articulate resident of the 9th Ward (one of the poorest and most decimated of the city’s neighborhoods), who provides a heated and sometimes comic account of the inchoate evacuation from New Orleans and the callous disinterest of her own government. Like many of the people interviewed, a heartbroken Ms. LeBlanc sees Katrina as breaking both her own spirit and that of the city’s. Her view is echoed by countless other interviewees who returned to discover only desolation (“a ghost town”), and were overcome by anxious, despairing, even suicidal feelings—turning to medication to find some relief. But few were so depressed that they couldn’t still rage against the insurance companies (“they deserve a special place in hell”) and against the true villains of the situation—George W. Bush, the federal government, and FEMA (the city’s abandoned buildings were dotted with scrawled graffiti asking, ”Where is FEMA?)”
Lee mentions, but skirts over, the city’s pre-Katrina problems that still bedevil New Orleans while it’s struggling to recover. His documentary’s strength is its emotional reverberations, not its sophisticated analysis. And Lee is much too easy on the demagogic New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's ineffectual responses to warnings about Katrina.
However, Lee does capture the tragedy of a city where many of its uprooted citizens can never return, and those who have come back, however strong their will, face a long and painful process of renewal. A close friend of mine, who just returned from New Orleans where he did his small bit to aid in its recovery, said: "The city looks like a war zone. The residents would have been better off if Hezbollah rather than Mayor Nagin and the Bush administration were in charge of the reconstruction.”