One year after Katrina, another hurricane season is upon us, this time as a flurry of “anniversary” specials, documentaries, packaged articles, book anthologies and multimedia web features. As New Yorkers who’ve endured September 11 and now Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center well know, mass media revisitations of trauma — whether documentary or fictionalized — can be curiously apolitical. All too often, the disaster memorial takes a living, hurting wound, washes it clean and stitches it up, only to consign it to the archive of film history. Thankfully, this is not the case with Spike Lee’s essential When the Levees Broke — a ragged, uneven, boiling documentary that aired this week on HBO (with rebroadcasts on August 29 and September 1).
Clocking in at four, uninterrupted hours, it is perhaps too unfocused and unwieldy to intervene politically in the way that Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth did. But unlike that reasonable film, Lee’s work seethes with anger. Dissent is the one connective thread, tying together the 100+ talking heads who range from Mayor Ray Nagin to CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien to the unforgettable Phyllis Montana Leblanc, a resident of the 9th Ward who drops the documentary’s most biting one-liners. Often considered an “opinionated” filmmaker, what shines forth in When the Levees Broke is in fact Spike Lee’s ability to listen. His remarkable ear captures the humor, sadness, looniness, hostility, suspicion, resignation and optimism that underlie and differentiate the common outrage of New Orleans’ residents.
In its most affecting moments, the film also lingers on their silences and stumbles, the moments of inarticulateness when the full scope of the disaster (which, as the film points out, outstrips September 11 in so many ways) exceeds any one person’s ability to achieve sense. In one such instance, Garland Robinette, the radio host who conducted the oft-replayed interview in which Mayor Nagin angrily denounces the lack of federal aid, listens to a tape of the broadcast. Robinette begins to explain, “This is the thing that people have to understand, that America can no longer…” He never finishes the thought. “Sorry…it’s been a long few months,” is all he can muster through the sobs.
In another such moment, University of New Orleans student Paris Ervin recounts how, months after Katrina struck, police discovered his mother’s corpse under her refrigerator, even though FEMA had concluded the house was free of victims. Distressed by FEMA’s incompetence and the months of waiting for an official DNA test to establish her identity, he too breaks down before returning to conclude dryly, “According to the medical logs she did drown, in her own home.”
Moments like these mitigate Lee’s frenetic, sometimes obtrusive editing and transcend the genre of cable news from which much of the familiar footage is culled. At its best, When the Levees Broke recontextualizes and enlivens such stock material. The bloated, floating corpses that became emblems of government neglect are given names, histories, struggles to survive that ended tragically. “That guy’s name was Eddie,” says one witness. “He floated on beer cans for three days…I wanted to feed him but I couldn’t swim,” explains another of a neighbor whose body has yet to be found.
Lee himself does not attempt to arrive at a sensible, singular conclusion. This restraint is the film’s strength, and if it also constitutes its weakness, then it is not in the way most mainstream critics have identified. Lee has been criticized for reducing “Katrina to a black problem,” as Nicholas Kulish wrote in the New York Times. While Lee’s eye — and the medium of film in general — accentuates racial difference, it is also surprisingly attentive to the economic and physical vulnerabilities that shaped the fate of Katrina’s victims. Casually but insistently, the film emphasizes how the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the obese, the very young and mostly, overwhelmingly the poor bore the brunt of Katrina’s fury. Dilapidated wheelchairs abound, but vital medication is absent. To suggest that When the Levees Broke is only a “race film” is to ignore this stunning visual evidence.
Kulish and others have condemned one sequence in particular in which Lee “presents the utterly unfounded charges that the failed levees were blown up to flood poor black neighborhoods.” But this scene is in fact one of the film’s best, not because it endorses such theories, but because it unpacks the long history of neglect and enmity (from Hurricane Betsy in 1965 to recent redevelopment schemes) that makes such racial paranoia, if not factually accurate, at least understandable. A less confident director might have instantly dismissed such conspiracy theories, and the result would have been a less probing, less complicated film.
Where Lee falters is not in his multi-faceted account of race and class, but in his examination of the politics and economics that set in play this unnatural disaster and continue to mangle New Orleans’ reconstruction. The usual suspects are, of course, deliciously skewered: George Bush’s sinister disinterest, Michael Brown’s incompetence (he gets roasted by Soledad O’Brien who asks how her 23-year-old research assistant can have better intelligence than FEMA), Chertoff, Cheney, Condi and her Blahniks, Barbara Bush (the “President Momma” as Al Sharpton puts it), the insurance industry, the Army Corps of Engineers. But others, like Nagin who has consistently sided with business and property interests in the reconstruction, are largely absolved or made into heroes. With the exception of a brief query into Louisiana’s oil and gas industry, the film seems to suggest that Hurricane Katrina happened because bad people made bad decisions, rather than because of the systematic gutting of urban infrastructure and the heartless pursuit of neoliberal economics.
As an unofficial companion to When the Levees Broke then, I heartily recommend reading, cover to cover, Unnatural Disaster, The Nation‘s collection of essays on Hurricane Katrina edited by Betsy Reed. Largely focused on the reconstruction, this fine volume begins to answer the question that Lee’s film so forcefully asks: What will it take to do justice to New Orleans?