Director Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke
is the definitive document of the unmitigated disaster that was, and is, Hurricane Katrina. It's also a contemporary manifestation of an ancient tradition: an oral history, told by the people who lived it, with no narration and only the occasional use of archival cable and broadcast news footage in addition to Lee's own film. And a grim tale it is, an "American tragedy" subtitled "a Requiem in Four Acts," each of them about an hour long ("Act V," appearing on the third of the set's three discs, is a lengthy epilogue with new material not included in the original HBO broadcast) and focusing almost exclusively on New Orleans, as opposed to the Gulf Coast region in general.
Act I sets the scene; as the hurricane nears the Crescent City, some residents leave town, while others stay behind, figuring they'll just ride the storm out (Mayor Ray Nagin's "mandatory evacuation" order rings fairly hollow, as there's no public transportation provided for the many who don't own vehicles and thus couldn't get out even if they wanted to). The real problems begin after Katrina makes landfall on August 29, 2005. Displaced New Orleaneans crowd into the Superdome, soon to become a living hell for those stuck there; the incredibly poorly engineered levees break, flooding some 80 percent of the city; and people start dying by the hundreds, victims of drowning, lack of food, water, and medicine, and other causes. And so it goes. Act II finds the survivors struggling to keep it together while the federal, state, and local assistance they've been promised fails to show up; Act III traces the dispersal of these so-called "refugees" (as one man puts it, "Refugees? You mean they took away our citizenship, too?") all over the country, not knowing where their families, friends, and neighbors are, or even if they're still alive; and Act IV deals with the slow rebuilding of the city while insurance companies refuse to pay claims and money keeps going toward the Iraq war effort instead.
Several themes predominate here. One, of course, is the appalling performance of authorities on nearly every level, who ignored specific warnings about the levees and then professed ignorance after the fact; Lee doesn't have to go out of his way to make George W. Bush, FEMA chief Michael Brown, and other members of the Bush administration (not to mention his own mother) look bad, as they do an excellent job of that themselves. Another is the shameful ineptitude of the response; it's hard not to be disgusted when it's pointed out more than once that while we were able to provide supplies and assistance to Indonesians within two days of the 2004 tsunami, American citizens were virtually ignored for five days or more. Most of all, When the Levees Broke (which includes optional commentary by Lee for all four acts) leaves us feeling the sheer rage of the poor and dispossessed of New Orleans, where the population is 70 percent African-American. Confronted with the ignorance, arrogance, and callousness of the people whose job it was to protect them, they can point to just one cause: racism. --Sam Graham