On-line resources from the
American Studies Resources Centre at LJMU

Liverpool John Moores University

Letters from
New York
By Lenny Quart

Lenny has lived in New York for most of
his life, and here he presents a varied selection
of letters expressing his own
unique take on city life.
Lenny QuartAmerican Studies Today Online

Front Page

New for 2014

An Elite Liberal University
Going to an Elite School


A Victory in the Culture Wars?
An East River Island
A Plethora of Police Scandals
Facts and Intuitions
Exploring a Queens Neighborhood
The Bronx: For Better or Worse
The City in Flux


Brooklyn Writers
Whatever Happened to America's White Working Class?
Once More about Obama
Political takes
An ennui-free city
Comfort Food for the Literate
A Unique Street
Election aftermath
Back to Obama
Transit Follies
An Economically Beleaguered City
Oscar Tedium
Prose and poetry
A Painful Conclusion to 2008
A Celebration of Two Writers
The Political Process
Growing Up in New York
Oscars 2008
Celebrating the Forward
A Bohemian Oasis
A Word from a Convention Demonstrator
Election Post Mortem
Sidney Lumet: New York Director
The New York Subway
Times Square: Past and Present
New York on the eve of 2005
A Cheer for Self-Doubt
The Working Poor
A Vale of Tears
Spike Lee's New Orleans
Hasidim in Brooklyn
Slavery in NYC
A Cornucopia of Stories
A Painter in the City
Altman's Oscar Night
Bob Dylan: American Icon
Brooklyn Changing
Diane Arbus
Political Theatre
The New York Post
Public Life
Surviving the Inner-City
Transit Strike
Three Political Takes
The Sixties Redux
Memorials and Oscars

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Spike Lee’s New Orleans

Posted 3rd October 2006

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?)”

But for all the despair, "When the Levees Broke" reminds us of the jazz, the food, the flamboyant Mardi Gras, and the deep roots and distinctive neighborhoods established by its inhabitants that makes New Orleans and its culture worth preserving. It’s a special city, but also one that pre-Katrina was thoroughly corrupt, had a dysfunctional school and court system, and was rife with crime.     

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.”
L. Quart