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.”