Judge Adam Arseneau left his heart in New Orleans. Also his keys. Dammit.
"Most people think that it was Katrina that brought about the devastation to New Orleans. But it was a breaching of the levees that put 80 percent of the city under water. It was not the hurricane."—Spike Lee
Cobbled together from hundreds of hours of interview footage, newsreels, and amateur video, assembled as a requiem for the city of New Orleans, Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke is a raging dinosaur of a documentary; large, powerful, and ferocious. Forget just within the small sub-genre of documentary film making—When the Levees Broke may be one of the most important films you will ever see.
Facts of the Case
August 29th, 2005. Hurricane Katrina. Not much more needs to be said in the way of introduction. New Orleans, a city six feet below sea level has always been extremely mindful of inclement weather. The city had not seen a seriously dangerous hurricane since Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and many Orleanians had simply become accustomed to weathering out storms. But when Katrina came barreling towards the Gulf Coast as a Category 5 hurricane, the levees protecting the city from flooding failed.
The resulting devastation from Katrina to the entire Gulf Coast caused $80 billion in damage, making it the costliest natural disaster in American history, with an estimated economic impact of over $150 billion. New Orleans was hit particularly hard, with more than 80 percent of the city submerged after the failure of its antiquated levee system.
Even though a mandatory evacuation order was issued, persuading citizens to evacuate the city had been met with a surprising amount of resistance, be it for financial or medical reasons, or simple personal preference. It goes without saying that the residents who stayed did not quite realize how bad things were going to get until their houses started collapsing. By then, it was far too late for anyone to get out of New Orleans.
As the days mounted up like corpses, it became alarmingly clear to the trapped residents of New Orleans, news stations, and the public at large that federal assistance was not coming. As conditions worsened, death tolls began to rise and looting became commonplace. Then began the finger-pointing—the federal government accused local government of mismanaging its own affairs, while local government accused the federal government of ignoring its request for aid and assistance, and on and on. Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco would take shots at each other before teaming up to collectively rain fire down upon FEMA and George W. Bush. Katrina was the hottest of hot potatoes, and nobody wanted to be stuck with it when the music stopped.
It took almost five days before the full resources of the American government mobilized its resources to rescue the residents of New Orleans and evacuate the city. Soon, displaced Americans were hurled out of New Orleans and dropped onto all four corners of the nation, left to fend for themselves. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts chronicles the events surrounding the catastrophic downfall of New Orleans, as well as the political and social fallout for the residents, who were displaced across America after their homes were destroyed in the Crescent City.
"Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."
Trying to wrap one's head around a towering documentary like When the Levees Broke is like trying to pick up a Cadillac with your bare hands. It is so large and overpowering and insurmountable that every attempt to simply absorb it in one sitting is met with one form or another of resistance. One experiences stunned disbelief, anger, incredulous anger, every emotion in the world trying to comprehend how such a disaster could ever occur in modern-day America. It breaks you up inside.
Divided into four acts, Act I focuses on the oncoming storm and its immediate effect on the city of New Orleans, while Act II focuses on the extended delay in rescuing New Orleans from disaster by the federal government and the outrage from its citizens. Act III concentrates on the aftermath after the disaster, the displacement of a million Americans across the country into temporary shelters, the effect on the evacuees and how the displaced are surprisingly unwilling to return to rebuild their city. Part IV shows the mismanagement of the levee project by the Army Corp of Engineers, insurance companies balking at paying out Katrina victims, and the inability of FEMA to provide support to Orleanians.
Surprisingly for the inflammatory director that he is, Lee keeps his film neutral in terms of his interview subjects, primarily focusing on black residents of New Orleans directly affected by the tragedy, but equally including interviews with poor white people, rich black and white Orleanians, politicians, news anchors, radio personalities, police, college bloggers, public figures, and so on. Not all government agencies are lambasted. Repeated credit is given to the United States Coast Guard for its immediate action and assistance during the crisis, as well as its deliberate disregard for the bureaucratic quagmire that bogged down other levels of government and hampered effective response. The film highlights the heroism of everyday people staying behind and helping to rescue the elderly and infirm.
The catastrophe of Katrina had a massive social impact on the rest of America, especially in how it perceived cities like New Orleans. The hurricane swept away all the tourist glitz from the city, revealing a deep-rooted infrastructure of poor citizens with no means to evacuate themselves from a city suffering a catastrophe. Unbeknownst to most of America, a surprisingly large percentage of the citizens of New Orleans either had no access to motor vehicles, had disabilities or medical conditions preventing them from evacuating, or were simply homeless. As the situation became more dire, more and more people simply started ignoring or dismissing the problem outright. Many saw the footage of those huddled in the Superdome or those wandering the flooded streets of New Orleans and scoffed, as if disappointed by the behavior of a disobedient child. As news channels rolled footage of devastated homes and hundreds of poor, infirm and elderly trapped in broken homes, the media shamelessly labeled the displaced residents as "refugees," as if their American citizenship had been washed away in the storm.
As the "real" inhabitants of New Orleans rose to the surface with the rising waters, a light shone onto the U.S. government's complete inability on every level to effectively assist an element of its population that, historically, the government has never effectively been able to help. CNN was filled with poor black citizens dying and struggling under massive volumes of water and smashed homes, and nobody had any idea how to even approach the crisis, let alone solve issues like health care or long-term accommodations. Residents were evacuated onto buses and planes, then dropped in unfamiliar cities with no support and kept waiting six months for FEMA checks. It was almost as if the government simply could not factor into its evacuation equations anyone who did not have access to a car to drive to safety. By the time they realized this problem had to be dealt with—and fast—most of the damage was already done.
If When the Levees Broke accomplishes anything, it is highlighting the surprising lack of accountability over the Katrina fallout on all levels of government. Numerous factors contributed to the destruction of New Orleans on various levels, but with the exception of the head of FEMA resigning, not much has really been done. The realization that the only people who have been punished are the people whose homes have been destroyed is an upsetting one. New Orleans was a catastrophic failure of management and bureaucracy that led to the wholesale destruction of an entire city and numerous deaths. If this had happened in a private institution, like a corporation or a business, the backlash would have been swift and ferocious—people would be sued, fired, excommunicated, whatever it took to save face and/or fix the problem.
In fairness, it seems less likely that the people in positions of authority and influence ignored such predictions. After all, it was impossible to ignore them—they were everywhere. Rather, the failure came by simply choosing to stay the course in the face of growing evidence to the contrary and hope for the best. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco get their fair share of criticism, but the film acknowledges that theirs was a near-impossible situation. Shame falls onto lame-duck FEMA director Michael Brown, who was revealed after his resignation to have falsified his resume and be totally lacking in disaster management experience, and the Director of Homeland Security's failure to declare Katrina an "issue of national significance," the self-described "golden key" to unlocking all sorts of federal aid and assistance immediately, circumventing endless bureaucracy and paperwork. On almost every level of government, everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.
Four hours of running time gives Lee plenty of opportunity to explore lesser-examined impacts of Katrina upon America, like the racial tension that spread across the southern United States as a result of the forced re-distribution of hundreds of thousands of black Orleanians into neighboring states. Land buyers have swept into devastated neighborhoods like the lower Ninth Ward (low-income and black) to convince the owners that the property is of little or no value in hopes of rezoning and creating urban gentrification. After Katrina, the crime rate in New Orleans spiraled out of control, prompting the city to call in the National Guard to maintain order. The city, which already had a critically failing school system with a 60 percent dropout rate suddenly had to deal with a drop in enrollments, meaning less funding from the federal government, which in turn exacerbated the already problematic support structure for youths in New Orleans.
All partisan politics aside, the situation speaks for itself. Over a year later, New Orleans still has barely recovered, homes are still rubble, people still live in emergency shelters and FEMA trailers, and on and on. Lee has created a powerful, moving tribute to a people and a city torn asunder that will stand as one of his finest cinematic achievements. It is a film passionate and forceful, but never blinded by anger or prejudice. It does not search for answers as much as it simply records the people and the city as a singular organism irrecoverably damaged by a tragedy of nature and government. Spike Lee calls his film a "requiem," and it fits the word well: it is a musical mass for the departed, full of song, singing, tears and laughter, devastating fact and gallows humor, a fitting tribute for a city that defied convention and danced to its own tune.
Visually, When the Levees Broke looks fantastic. The interview footage shot on film is clean, crisp, and colorful with no noticeable print damage. The patois of footage used to assemble the film varies in quality from source to source, but the clarity of the images showcasing the destruction of New Orleans is heartbreaking. The film features jaw-dropping footage of Katrina tearing through the streets of New Orleans and bloated corpses bobbing in the flood water. Devastated neighborhoods resemble something out of a battle-torn landscape like Iraq or Afghanistan. Six months after the storm, bodies were still being discovered in abandoned houses. The impact is devastating and overwhelming.
The 5.1 track is well-executed and effective, dialogue strong in the center channel with the rear channel reserved for howling Katrina winds, rescue helicopters, and environmental effects. A Spanish-language 2.0 track is also included. The score, a mournful piano/strings/trumpet ballad is provided by a New Orleans-born trumpeter named Terence Blanchard (who himself appears in the film with his family returning home after Katrina). One of the most poetic sequences in the film shows Blanchard walking down the ruined and devastated streets of New Orleans, slowly performing a one-man jazz funeral dirge for the ruined and abandoned city. Powerful stuff.
The primary supplemental features in When the Levees Broke are the four full-length commentary tracks by director Spike Lee on each act. Lee gives a relaxed and informative performance, providing anecdotes and bits of information that failed to make it into the film. He lets his own personal politics bleed into his comments a bit too often for my tastes, but this is Spike Lee we're talking about. My only criticism is that the sheer volume of material makes it difficult for Lee to keep up a constant stream of chatter for four hours continuously.
On the last disc, "Next Movement: Act V," a nearly two-hour supplementary, continues the tale of Katrina with extra footage and deleted interview material that did not make the film's final cut. As a feature, it is less rounded than the primary film, but makes a fascinating backdrop. Finally, "Water is Rising" is a seven-minute photo montage of the heartbreaking still photography assembled throughout When the Levees Broke, set to a New Orleans-style jazz score. Collectively this is a very strong set of supplemental material to accompany an already complete film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With a running time of four hours, When the Levees Broke is a gigantic gut pill to swallow in one setting. Do not even try to marathon this DVD documentary without consulting your own doctor first. It can be utterly exhausting even watching the film in four acts divided. The massive running time is necessary to do justice to the material, but it can be a serious struggle for the viewer.
Given the extreme length of the documentary, the film occasionally gets sidetracked on elements that are less deserving of attention. Lee cannot help but give in to conspiratorial tendencies here and there, examining accusations that the levees were intentionally dynamited, politically-charged statements about Hugo Chavez, that sort of thing. Being who he is, Spike Lee is unable to approach the problem without donning racially-tinted glasses, which is par for his course, but it can detract from the argument at hand. Still, for Lee, this is a surprisingly balanced and neutral film.
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts is a film as overwhelmingly furious and destructive as Hurricane Katrina itself. As much a requiem to a lost city as an investigation into the colossal mismanagement of a natural disaster cumulating in one of the greatest catastrophes ever to occur on American soil, When the Levee Broke is a show-stopping achievement. It is both a triumph for director Spike Lee and a rousing testimony to the people affected by Hurricane Katrina.
This film is less a documentary and more a four-hour emotional experience for the viewer; by the end, you feel impacted on such a deep and profound level, a level that cannot even begin to compare to those actually affected by the catastrophe, but a surprisingly strong one all the same. No documentary I have ever seen has even come close to this kind of emotional impact. Buy it, rent it, whatever—just see it. I kid you not when I tell you that this film is a pure triumph of documentary film making, simple and plain. This may be Spike Lee's finest work to date.
Somebody may be guilty for what happened to New Orleans, but it isn't this film.
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• Commentary Tracks with Director Spike Lee
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