Images are what make films, and no footage shot in the past year could have provided more powerful imagery than that of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed lives from Florida to Louisiana to Mississippi.
Spike Lee's epic and complicated documentary, "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," poignantly weaves reams of astonishing footage into a complex, heartfelt examination of the fate of both a city and the nation that seemed to stand by as it was swallowed by the sea.
That it has taken the one-year anniversary of Katrina to bring the nation's worst natural disaster — one that went largely unabated by governmental relief — back into our collective consciousness says a lot. Lee doesn't beat this message into our heads, something he has been criticized for in the past. Instead, the director allows the people who lived through the disaster to tell their stories. The film follows dozens of them through the course of the past year as they recall what they endured — and survived — in their own words.
The four-hour documentary will air in its entirety at 8 p.m. Aug. 29, Katrina's actual anniversary.
Among those featured is New Orleans native Herbert Freeman Jr., whose mother died next to him as they sat stranded for days at the Superdome. He was told to leave her in the dome with a pile of other deceased people and a hand-scribbled note. Several days later, he says, when trying to go to say goodbye to her before being evacuated, a National Guardsman pointed a machine gun in his face and told him he had to get on a bus immediately.
Another interviewee, Paris Ervin, a college student from the city, says he was told by FEMA representatives that his grandmother, who he'd lost track of during the course of the disaster, was not found in her home. He returned there in November to find her body decomposing under the refrigerator in the kitchen. Due to bureaucratic hold-ups, he wasn't given her remains until two months later.
The haunting music of trumpeter Terence Blanchard, Lee's longtime score composer and a New Orleans native (he's interviewed in the film), along with countless still photos interspersed throughout the picture add texture and even further weight to these stories.
The official perspective comes from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Governor Kathleen Blanco, and an array of historians and engineers, as well as city, state and government officials — including those who built the known-to-be inadequate levee walls that failed to protect the city.
Celebrities with their own offbeat Katrina tales such as Kanye West and Sean Penn are also included, sparingly. In interviews and other footage gathered from media outlets, President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, former FEMA head Mike Brown and others are quoted extensively with scathing commentary from Lee's subjects sprinkled in.
Their feelings of disgust, rage and incredulity serve as a counter-narrative to some of the already self-condemning words and deeds of these officials.
Mike Brown tells CNN's Soledad O'Brien four days after the hurricane struck that he was unaware of the lack of food and water and basic health care at the Superdome.
Mr. Bush shows up in New Orleans for a press conference on Sept. 12 — 15 days after Katrina laid waste to the city. The president's mother, visiting the Astrodome in Houston, where tens of thousands of New Orleans residents were housed temporarily, happily declares that "so many of the people in the areas here were underprivileged anyway, so this is working out quite well for them."
Still, even given the film's critique of the Bush administration, blame can be placed at everyone's feet. Though Lee's film doesn't address this, the nation's Democratic leadership stood on the sidelines and said little other than inconsequential niceties.
What's more, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, appeared hardly up to the task throughout the ordeal. Where were Al Gore, John Kerry, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton when it was clearly time to criticize the Bush administration's response?
By the official count, more than 1,300 people lost their lives. More than 500,000 people were displaced. An entire city was nearly wiped off the face of the earth. Yet Lee seems to have heard more outrage from the Rev. Al Sharpton and Harry Belafonte than I've ever heard from prominent Democrats. And we wonder why race is invoked when the birthplace of jazz and the hometown of Mardi Gras felt abandoned by the nation.
In some heart-wrenching moments, Lee shows footage of people of various backgrounds screaming and shouting at news cameras: a young man holds up a baby and cries, "Where is the mayor? Where is FEMA?"
As a middle-aged woman in the convention center speaks, her tone turns from matter of fact to tearful as she explains that her mother is diabetic and needs insulin. "She's dying right now. Help me get her out of here," she finally cries.
Indeed, where the hell was the government? But, for God's sake, where were the Democrats? At one point in Lee's film, we hear a British reporter, in that educated accent Americans associate with unshakeable reason, describe "the black poor" as "America's forgotten" and "the real victims." If we can't take an honest look at ourselves, Lee's film reminds us that, perhaps, others can.
Lee was for years a lightning rod as much for his combative persona as for his films' controversial themes. When he released one of his early movies, the musical "School Daze," to some tepid reviews, he shot back that many of his critics couldn't even dance. His anger seemed to stem partly from some off-the-wall critiques.
As late as 2004, one notable film critic described "Do The Right Thing," a complex, electrifying film, "as the best film I know about African Americans." That's kind of like calling Annie Hall the greatest Jewish love story ever told.
Lee has said a lot in his career — sometimes too much, too often. But the gap between his contribution to American culture and the critical response to his work has been too wide for too long. With "Levees," he has taken a step back from the spotlight and crafted a work of art that we all need to see.
By Alex P. Kellogg
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved