We watched both installments of Spike Lee's HBO documentary WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE: A REQUIEM IN FOUR ACTS last night. Predictably, given the man at the helm, it was a moving, righteously upsetting, heart-afire experience; in fact, I think HBO should be hosting a Free Preview when they re-run the two parts together on the evening of August 29 (8:00 to midnight), the first anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, if they're not planning to do so already. This is the kind of forthright public address that one feels should fall under some kind of Freedom of Information act, rather than being part of a subscription cable service, especially with House and Congressional elections looming in November.
Speaking for myself, I don't watch television news anymore. I used to watch it regularly, but had to stop A) because it's too upsetting, and B) because it's too painfully obvious that what it reports is selective and biased and non-confrontational. For this reason, I was not that aware of the full dimension of the Hurricane Katrina situation. In advance of seeing this film, I was wondering how Spike Lee was going to spend four hours on the subject, and I was still wondering about that as Act I drew to a close; but the fact is, it's really not a documentary about Hurricane Katrina. It's about what happened before, during, and -- most importantly -- after Katrina.
And, on that final score, it's scary as Hell. More than once, it occurred to me that the only filmmaker who had come anywhere close to touching the same nerves that are strummed by Lee's elegiac epic was George A. Romero. I don't mean to trivialize the grave events portrayed herein by comparing them to the events in Romero's zombie movies, but Romero is the only filmmaker who has, prior to this, so effectively and prophetically shown that, to paraphrase the man himself, "when the shit hits the fan, we're screwed."
Some may balk at seeing this film because they know that, it being a "Spike Lee Film" (not a "Spike Lee Joint"), it's going to have an in-your-face point-of-view, perhaps contrary to their own. Yes, WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE has a point-of-view, and it's sometimes guilty of making an emphatic truth even more emphatic by turning sound bytes into hammers, but it's a documentary, first and foremost... and a great one, a film that ranks with Lee's most humane and passionate work. The raw emotional response of the participants in this, the biggest natural disaster in US history, is naturally subjective, but the accumulation of response gives all sides a voice while immersing the viewer in an over-the-head state of chaos and bureaucratic inepititude. It asks some tough questions -- like "Were the levees deliberately sabotaged to protect the French Quarter at the expense of the impoverished sections of the city?" and "Why should New Orleans rebuild slums when the same land could be gentrified?" and "Is there going to be a place for poor people in a country ruled by Big Business?" But it doesn't let these looming shadows get in the way of reporting the facts. The most chilling information to emerge from these four engrossing hours is that the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the lives of those most devastated by it was nothing -- nothing -- compared to the scattering of traumatized, uprooted, predominantly black families imposed by governmental and military intercession (which awakened racial memories of slave trading), and the continuing neglect of the welfare of stubborn New Orleans residents by those same parties.
One thing that struck me, by virtue of its coincidence, is that, in two pivotal cases, the only force that could make anything positive happen was the wake-up call of a man cursing. In one instance, it was the Mayor of New Orleans (Ray Nagin) breaking down and showing his anger and despair verbally during a radio interview, which prompted a visit from George W. Bush and a complimentary shower aboard Air Force One. In another, it was an Army General whose foul mouth alone turned what was threatening to become a violent police state back into a neighborhood, albeit a ruined one. Later, a glimpse of similar, mobilizing belligerence was conveyed in a Fox News clip, and I had the insight that perhaps this is why a lot of people will swallow any polarizing crap that Fox News gives them -- because it also gives them the illusion, à la Howard Beale, of talking to them straight. The relevance of the cursing has to do with shaking up the spectre of Political Correctness, embodied by FEMA's imperative to calmly follow company lines and protocol, which may have played a role in why they have been so singularly non-responsive to this predicament and its aftermath. The importance of language in understanding where sides really stand is further explored by Lee's close attention the media's adoption of the term "refugees" for those US citizens divested of home, family and property by Katrina, who were taken care of with none-too-subtle one-way-tickets out of town. "Send us your poor, your huddled masses," indeed.
WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE is a long film, and carries more stress than some people will want to take on in one or two sittings; it is guaranteed to extend the range of your anger and despair beyond the US government to the Army Corps of Engineers, the media, insurance companies, and that rising monolithic Moloch we call Big Business. I found it absorbing almost in the same way I find Michael Wadleigh's WOODSTOCK absorbing (above and beyond its musical performances): both films study, from a variety of angles, a technical disaster and social phenomenon involving close to a million people, and document how people of different social backgrounds coped under these extraordinary circumstances. While WOODSTOCK accentuates the positive in its ersatz Garden of Eden, Lee's film chronicles how the best and worst in people are summoned in a pressure-cooker setting closer to martial law. It's a tribute to human resilience and a eulogy to those whose resilience could be bent only so far before it snapped and was left to rot in the streets or be set adrift in the Mississippi swells. Interest is sustained not only by the enormity of the story's tragedy and drama and conflict, but by the rich human tapestry provided by its interviewees, ranging from the sage and polished Winton Marsalis and Harry Belafonte, to the winning outspokenness of Phyllis Montana Leblanc (whose indomitable spirit puts a fine and sassy wind into this movie's sails), to the Army Corps of Engineers rep who promises the people of New Orleans, without the slightest irony, that their levees will be rebuilt to "pre-Katrina specifications."
On a purely technical note, kudos to Terence Blanchard (an active participant in the story of Katrina) for an eloquent and sometimes heart-rending score, which has been given a remarkable 5.1 sound mix.