Spike Lee: When the Levees Broke (2006) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Spike Lee: When the Levees Broke (2006)

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Spike Lee - with the help of citizens, musicians, politicians, and civil servants who lost so much from the catastrophic response to Hurricane Katrina - directs this exhaustive documentary When the Levees Broke.

Please help usI've said a few times over the course of the project that I was curious to see how Spike Lee's narrative sensibilities would translate to the form of a documentary, and we've seen a few of them now—I can't imagine one that more definitively exhibits his characteristic traits than When the Levees Broke. Here we see Spike employing many of the structural and aesthetic elements that distinguish his fictional narrative films in order to paint a comprehensive, politically incisive, multi-vocal picture and put human faces and stories on a disaster marked primarily by the government's inability and unwillingness to do so. It's an incredible historical document (and Lee signals his intentions by using that word “document” appropriately at the start of each episode).

What's so striking about When the Levees Broke now, nearly a decade later, is how fully and deeply the film is able to convey the destruction and loss suffered by New Orleans. The outrage felt at the time—which, as someone unaffected by the disaster, I remember as mostly as a broad-level moral and political outcry—isn't really the focus here. It stems from the agony of those affected, as it naturally would and should, but Spike's primary concern is to simply document the scope of total loss. The images and stories are apocalyptic, and by documenting so much of this human suffering the film is able to underscore the political and systemic failures with a view of their true cost.

The horror of it is what grabs me most strongly, but the film also does a good job evoking the spirit, history, and resilience of the city, and again Spike is able to do this by building up certain key players as characters with central roles in the narrative. That he's able to bring some sense of cohesion to our understanding of such a chaotic and uncontrolled disaster is incredible. You had seen this before—any new or changed observations with that extra distance of time?‏

St. James InfirmarySomething stirred inside of me the first time I watched When the Levees Broke four years ago.  I was horrified at everything onscreen, from the almost endless stream of photographs and videos of people who did not have the resources to leave New Orleans and the images of various bodies twisted and bloated in the flooded streets.  It was the end of the second act with the story of a five-year old child who drowned and the montage of dead that I started crying and just couldn't stop.  No explanation any of the various bickering and functionally useless politicians were of any consolation after the fact and watching scene after scene of rage and despair compounded how little the country understood or cared about what was going on at the time.  At some point I stopped being sad and started getting angry, then focused my anger into finding out what I could do to try and work toward a system so everyone has the same advantages I have.

The sad lesson of When the Levees Broke is that the media and political stranglehold on our country is so thorough that it doesn't matter if you're Republican or Democratic, if you don't have power you'll be the first to drown.  This is one of the things Spike does an amazing job of keeping relatively race-neutral.  His interviews don't focus just on the black citizens, in fact a surprising amount of humor and clarity comes from the rage of Judith Morgan and Cheryl Livaudais, but makes it clear that power is disproportionately weighed against the lower class of New Orleans who are primarily black.  Spike notices and exposes the imbalanced coverage piece by piece, pointing out how many people labeled the black citizens "animals", "looters", or "refugees" and the white "survivors" or just "gathering supplies".

When the Levees Broke echoes much of the discussion we had on Bamboozled on the podcast a few weeks ago on how the media shaped a specific narrative and it primarily hurt black people.  Spike comes to this conclusion fairly in what may be the most exhaustive cinematic document of a natural disaster outside Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl.  The job he and his editors did of assembling hundreds of hours of interviews and footage to a start-to-finish gripping narrative is nothing short of a miracle.  Each act has a clear through line in terms of history and the details are so well put together I could build a rough timeline of who was in each part of the world and when.  I say world and not just New Orleans because the Spike builds his case from the very bottom, speaking with the citizens who could not evacuate, to the very top with then-President Bush, and no one comes out clean.  Everything is treated with equal parts local flavor, urban myth, meteorological precision, engineering focus, and so much more but at its most technical it always grounds the ignorance and mistakes in human suffering.‏

Lead me through the darkTiny Kyle CommentaryIt's some of the specific details—about the literal day-to-day experiences of the tragedy and the procedural moments in trying to return and rebuild—that pack the most punch when it comes to relating the degree of suffering experienced by those involved. One of the most horrific sequences describes how residents often returned to mostly destroyed homes to find bodies of family members, despite the homes having supposedly been searched for and cleared of bodies by FEMA teams.

It's a chilling illustration of how systemic processes breed carelessness and emphasize a lack of empathy—surely the teams in charge of searching houses in the 9th Ward and other catastrophically destroyed neighborhoods had a stressful, seemingly impossible task ahead of them - but nothing amounting to even a fraction of that being felt by the residents whose homes they were charged with searching. One person remarks that a team had supposedly searched his mother's house and marked it as being clear of any bodies, yet when he got there all the doors locked and the home clearly couldn't have been entered. Lee runs this commentary over footage of another home being “searched,” as FEMA crew members lean in through a front window and look quickly around before moving along.

All of this is a painful way of illustrating via allegory the way the the government—many more steps removed than these FEMA response crews—abstracted themselves from the situation enough to remove the human cost from the equation and act as if response to the hurricane was a mathematical problem to be solved. The lack of urgency and compassion is damning enough, before even getting to the issues of neglect concerning the outdated and inadequate levees.‏

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryWhat's most damning about the government response is he doesn't have to rely on hearsay to make his case.  On the lowest level he's able to assemble footage from a collection of engineers and weather forecasters who made the case several times that the levees were not strong enough to withstand category 1 hurricanes, let alone the category 5 which struck New Orleans.  As he moves up each level the amount of contradictions which each politician speaks to culminates in the one-two punch of Bush in an interviewing saying "Well, I fully understand people wanting things to have happened yesterday" and then showing footage of him being directly warned before Katrina hit.

Spike uses a specific and painful rhythm to these moments.  Every moment of callousness from a politician is preceded and followed by images which either contradict what they are saying or highlight how little they really care.  Prior to Bush's statement on "people wanting things to have happened yesterday" he shows a woman and her child pleading with the media to treat them like humans.  Then in one of the most hypocritical constructions of media we watch Nancy Grace demonize New Orleans and we see a story of a black man who was shot twice with a buckshot-loaded shotgun for walking while black in a disaster zone.  The latter was not reported until this documentary, and the man who was shot never got justice for his injury.

There's a bitter and resentful tone right off the bat with When the Levees Broke which is almost indescribable.  It's not subtle, exactly, but the bitterness of those floating bodies paired against upbeat New Orleans music and the barely surviving citizens is never directly commented on by Spike.  This was an important step, especially since other documentaries by Michael Moore were distracting from the problem by putting the director front and center.  Spike's presence lingers throughout When the Levees Broke in his carefully balanced montage of rage and pain while only speaking twice in the film - both times to let the interviewees know it's ok to let go.  Then let go they do in some painful moments of sudden exhaustion and realization of what they've gone through and what lies ahead.‏

DirgeTiny Kyle CommentaryThe role of music is one last thing we haven't touched on yet that seems quintessentially Spike here—specifically in the mournful, big orchestral moments (reminiscent of He Got Game and 25th Hour) that evoke the scope of loss and sadness, rooting it in the lengthy American history and culture of New Orleans. This is frequently used to great effect during montages, both pre-title sequence and throughout the body of each episode, and it often leads into and out of diagetic musical sequences, as Lee continually follows and revisits parades, street orchestras, and other performances.

One of the most haunting scenes involves Terrence Blanchard, who also worked on the score with Lee, walking alone down an empty and destroyed street, playing the trumpet. It's a mournful, sad, slow tracking shot that allows the damage in the background to underscore Blanchard's performance, which seems both timely and unstuck in time.‏

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryIt would be one thing for Spike to give us solely that haunting image of Blanchard with his trumpet down the street.  That moment comes in the second half when Spike starts playing with the images more dramatically and in a less straightforward documentary fashion.  Blanchard is the opening jazz funeral dirge, echoed in an earlier favorite moment of Wynton Marsalis singing "St. James Infirmary".  But afterward we get a full bustling celebration of life as a crowd gathers around a casket named "Katrina" and they march along to the upbeat music.

There's no bitter tone undercutting this moment, they are saying the goodbye to the people many did not have the chance to.  This is why the ending explanations of why the culture of New Orleans is so important.  They give context to the pulse of life which finds a way of thriving in the worst circumstances and, without exception, Katrina is likely to be the worst disaster this country will endure in our lifetimes.  Not everyone did the right thing all the time, former Chief of Police Eddie Compass was hung out to dry after some unfortunate if needed statements, but the wounded look in his eyes still speaks to his determination to get aid to people.  Something the Mayor, Governor, and President certainly did not understand.

This is why Spike's motif of literally framing his interviewees with a picture frame is a key image.  They are not filtered, many times are positioned in front of their destroyed homes or temporary shelters, and always speaking the truth.  It's Spike's way of saying "Here, here is the image of destruction and agony which your media has hidden from you this whole time, and here it is in their own words and in the environment they refuse to abandon."  That's why I don't look at When the Levees Broke and feel sadness or anger anymore, but focus and grit, thinking about how best to help my fellow-man.  It's a document for disaster, but also a document for how we can fix our broken spirits and lead others on into a new and brighter tomorrow.

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Next, Miracle at St. Anna.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Really great review here. I have yet to see this documentary; I’ve always wanted to and partially feel obligated to. But, being from New Orleans and living through it all, I’m not sure if watching it all over again is necessary.

    • Thank you for your comment, especially in light of what you’ve already experienced. Considering how rough my own viewings were I can only start to imagine what it might be like for you. So very understandable, and we appreciate the kind words.

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