As far as dramatically cinematic topics go, there’s little to match the brutal reality of a city left devastated by a natural disaster. With director Spike Lee’s profound four-hour documentary, When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts, he not only taps into that drama but incisively explores a wealth of other cinematic staples, among them pain, sorrow, loss, deceit, neglect, abuse and the corruption of power.
Originally broadcast as a two-part series on the HBO network in the States, Levees sets out to tell, in sequence, the events that lead up to the Hurricane Katrina-inflicted flooding of New Orleans on 29 August 2005, and what happened during and after the levees had been breached and 80 percent of the city found itself under water.
Many of the images here we’ve seen before: the evacuees trapped in the crumbling Superdome; distraught families on the roofs of their homes with makeshift signs begging for rescue; boats motoring through flooded streets past dead bodies in search of survivors; Bush’s crass “Brownie, you’re doing one hell of a job” comment to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) boss Mike Brown while the stranded survivors were left without food or water; Kanye West’s off-teleprompt “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” comment during a national telethon; Dick Cheney’s “go fuck yourself” heckler.
What Lee does so well, though, is to mould these moments into a cohesive narrative, not just presenting the sound bites, but the stories behind the sound bites, all the while placing them in the greater context of the Crescent City’s social and political history. It’s not an easy story to tell, and Lee skillfully avoids – no pun intended – black and whiting it. The country’s worst natural disaster in its history didn’t happen just because one man screwed up, and a multitude of opinions have been collected and collated.
One thing that Lee does make clear, however, is that many, many people got it wrong: from the pre-storm predictions and FEMA’s woeful response, through to the government’s terrifyingly poor attempts to later set things right. Not a single elected body escapes Lee’s scrutiny, and some of the key players are interviewed, like Governor Kathleen Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin (though there’s zip from Brownie himself), as well as famous faces like Rev Al Sharpton, Harry Belafonte, Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Sean Penn and Kanye West.
But the real ‘stars’ of the piece are the people that lived through it, the residents whose lives were torn apart as quickly and brutally as their homes. Three months after Katrina struck, Lee and a small crew made the first of eight trips to New Orleans to conduct interviews and shoot footage, and here lies the heart of the movie. While the debate over bureaucracy versus humanity rages on, nothing cuts to the core sharper than regular people trying to tell their stories, but getting stopped in their tracks as they choke back their tears.
Hurricane Katrina didn’t get itself a neat little 8/29 promo tag for the Government to wheel out when trying to drum up votes, mainly because the US Government – state, federal and local – would rather you forget. When The Levees Broke will make sure you don’t.