When the Levees Broke is a – Spike Lee – documentary about the causes, devastation and aftermath of the New Orleans disaster. Set up as ‘a requiem in four acts’ which each cover more and less known issues, When the Levees Broke endorses the old saying that indeed humanity is only two meals (or one flood) away from civilisation.
In the first act, Lee presents us with the build-up to Hurricane Katrina and the actual disaster. The second act shows things rapidly getting worse, the epic scale on which the federal and local governments failed and finally (finally) help getting underway. The third act focuses on the stuff that has not been reported on so much: what has happened after the evacuations. As it turns out this was a mess that extends way beyond the first weeks of fuck-ups and well beyond the rescue and evacuation. In the fourth act, Lee focuses on how this could have happened and what must be done to avoid it in the future. Not (just) by allocating blame, but also by offering scientific explanations. He also reports on the huge failings of FEMA, the organisation responsible for aid to the hurricane survivors.
The fact that Spike Lee’s usual metier is fiction and not documentary, does not harm this feature one bit. For Lee knows how to tell a story. The build-up that he introduces in the first act has loads of tension, and once the devastation hits he offers up full out emotion and upheaval, making the viewer feel shattered just having to watch it. Moreover, through the other acts, Lee gives us a peek at what happens to people who are beyond despair; what you find when you go through desperation and come out the other side: resignation, courage, a sense of humour, but also crime, anger and abandonment.
The usually opinionated Spike Lee keeps this documentary fairly neutral. Although like any documentary maker he manipulates opinion by the selection he makes of the footage at his disposal, largely Lee is just content to let people tell theirs stories. But then, the images (and the way Lee juxtaposes them with talking heads) speak for themselves. The archive footage really does not require any commentary. Bodies floating in the streets, houses reduced to a pile of rubble, Condoleezza Rice shopping for shoes at the ongoing of the disaster, and my personal favourite: Barbara Bush visiting a shelter for the people who have lost their houses and (on camera!) commenting that “these people are better off now than they were before”. That clip is just priceless in its display of contempt and ignorance. Even when Lee addresses the racial issue (that inevitably surfaces as part of the disaster), he offers up ample voices of a different opinion.
Having said that, When the Levees Broke is definitely fuelled by anger at the inconceivable devastation that could, to a large extent, have been avoided. One could say that anger is what keeps this film going, always present underneath every image that we are presented with. When the Levees Broke is fairly cynical from the start. As it should be because without anger, watching this (let alone experiencing it) would be unbearable. Not in the least because it is supported by a meticulously chosen soundtrack.
Through their stories, the talking heads with which Lee alternates the (archive) footage display the full range of human behaviour. As expected, we see people at their best and worst: sometimes uplifting, sometimes heroic, some apologising and taking responsibility, and some apologetic and passing the buck.
A special slight however is directed to the Bush-administration. Not that anybody can blame Lee for that, but really, those slights are unnecessary. Because the images with examples of the staggering ineptitude of the federal and local governments speak for themselves. As Lee points out, a whole series of governments were responsible for the levees failing. Clearly, that mistake goes back 40 years. Nevertheless, what is also very clear is that THIS administration is more concerned with keeping the residents of an oil rich middle-eastern country safe than its own inhabitants and chooses to distribute its resources accordingly. What surfaces is an administration that is made up of nepotism and an old-boys-network, resulting in inertia and a complete lack of care for it is poorest (and almost without exception black) citizens. It is a sad fact that the Canadian Mounted Police was present in New Orleans before the federal government, and even Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (Bush-hater extraordinaire) extended a helping hand before the Bush-administration did, for they literally left people to rot.
With the third and fourth act of his documentary, Lee continues where other have stopped filming and reporting. And that is why, even at a length of over four hours, When the Levees Broke is a fascinating watch. Four hours of misery is a lot to take in, even if one would do it in stages. But that’s kind of the point. After all, if we can’t even bear watching it for a (relatively short) spell of four hours, imagine having to live through it.
The final two acts portray a whole city suffering from posttraumatic stress. Add to that a city whose system was flawed before Katrina (wages are lower, schools are less good and unemployment is higher than the American average) and what one is left with after Katrina is an arrear that is almost impossible to overtake. What is interesting is that the only thing different between New Orleans and other American cities of the same size, is that New Orleans has a 65-75% black population. Makes one wonder, doesn’t it? So after all there is the Spike Lee vintage racial-critical note, but it is called for. And in all fairness, Lee manages to contain his anger to suit his purpose, and everybody (including those who have arguments against the race-issue) gets a say in.
What Spike Lee shows us in When the Levees Broke is the USA encountering its biggest growing pain so far on its way to adulthood as a nation. After the Katrina disaster, the USA can no longer credibly cling to its self-perceived image of great nation and example to the rest of the world. As Lee points out: it is not just New Orleans that came down; it was also America’s vision of itself. This event, even more so than 9/11, was the USA’s coming of age moment. Because in this instance, there was no pointing the finger at somebody else. In the aftermath of 9/11 it could be argued that: ‘they did this to us’. But the real Katrina disaster was Americans failing Americans. And through that themselves.
Considering the pressure on freedom of speech in current day America, Spike Lee is a hero for having the guts to point out that unpopular point of view.
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