October 8, 2006

Broken Levees, Broken Promises

Spike Lee's HBO documentary When The Levees Broke is a damning and intimate look at the government-sponsored catastrophe that followed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

John Harlow

On the morning of August 29 this year, I watched as assorted dignitaries and members of the media met on Biloxi, Mississippi's town green to mark the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall. The remembrance was attended by members of the local business community, officials from nearby Kessler Air Force Base, and leaders from federal, state, and local government. At center stage, Governor Haley Barbour sat alongside Senators Thad Cochran and Trent Lott. I sat in the back of the audience with a small group of local residents and fellow relief workers.

All photos courtesy Chris DeVeer
Gutting a Katrina-ravaged house in Biloxi.
After some brief introductory ceremonies, a short song, and prayer, the gathered dignitaries finally got on with it. Elected officials took the stage and praised military men. Military men graciously accepted the praise, and returned the favor by tipping their officious caps to business leaders. Business leaders humbly acknowledged the applause, but assured their audience that, no, it was in fact our elected officials, those selfless and devoted public servants, who deserved all the thanks on this special day. Members of the media snapped pictures and recorded sound bites. Afterwards, everyone walked across the street to attend the grand opening of the Beau Rivage casino and resort.

This brash and disgraceful echo chamber of mutual admiration for Mississippi's powerful and guilty served to drown out more somber and vital messages. Viewers around the world likely missed what remains glaringly evident to people who inhabit the region and people like me who have volunteered to help: That despite the courageous perseverance of residents, the heroic efforts of many citizens, and the astounding generosity of strangers from across the nation and the world, there is something very, very wrong going on across America's gulf coast. And with that weekend of remembrance now come and gone, we have lost yet another chance to show the world something of what this continuing tragedy has meant for the people of the Gulf.

This is the powerful social function served by Spike Lee's new documentary film, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Parts. In collaborating with Lee on the project, Sheila Nevins—the film's executive producer and president of HBO's documentary division—hoped to produce "the document of record about the disaster" (NYU Today). For over four hours of dense and harrowing footage, Lee delivers on that promise, turning an eye both intimate and unflinching toward the storm and its aftermath.

In what may be a surprise to some of his critics, Lee opts not to editorialize in When the Levees Broke, instead allowing Katrina's victims to tell the film's story on their own terms. The filmmaker's voice can be heard in the background on perhaps five or six occasions, but, even then, his comments come across as reserved and unobtrusive. That directorial choice is effective. With such poignant and telling words and images of residents, editorial comment would be out of place here, even, perhaps, offensively superfluous.

Taking out a moldy carpet.
In one particularly heart-wrenching moment, Terence Blanchard (well known to jazz fans as one of today's most exciting trumpet players) drives his elderly mother, Wilhelmina, to examine her home for the first time since the storm. Overwhelmed by the savage unfamiliarity of the wreckage outside and inside her home, we must watch painfully as Mrs. Blanchard is stripped emotionally bare. When she struggles to identify a once-precious object lying on the floor in one of the rooms, her son offers that the destroyed item is her old china closet. "The china closet don't have any business being over here," Wilhelmina chokes out mournfully. "It's supposed to be in the den."

It is these moments of difficult intimacy that give When the Levees Broke its substantive power. Cast against this backdrop, the political outrages that will likely already be familiar to almost all viewers (Condi Rice taking time off from the crisis to shop for designer shoes, Barbara Bush's offensively ignorant comments about the luck of the evacuees who found their way to the Astrodome, and, of course, the President's infamous "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job!" press conference) are rendered all the more unsavory. Throughout the film, the arrogant and deceptive political maneuverings amid all this personal tragedy are the most difficult incidents to swallow. In Act III, New Orleans attorney Joseph Bruno recalls returning to his office just after the storm and being elated to find working electricity in the building. The following day, though, he discovered the utilities had only been turned on for a photo-op with the visiting president, and were immediately turned off once the cameras had departed. Many areas of the city still lack power now, more than a year after the storm.

The film does, however, have its share of flaws. Most notable are the issues of scope and focus in Lee's storytelling. Even with over four hours of running time, the subject matter is too broad and too complex for the treatment it receives, and in places Lee fails to appropriately narrow or broaden his focus. The result is a sprawling, occasionally disjointed narrative that is part macroscopic investigative journalism, part intimate personal portraiture, and part summary of established media coverage. It is almost exclusively a film about New Orleans—where, after all, the levees broke—but on one occasion veers briefly and without context into a story about similarly affected residents in Mississippi. (This scene actually acts as a bit of comic relief, as one of the Mississippians turned out to be Dr. Ben Marble, of "Go fuck yourself, Mr. Cheney" fame. See Gelf's interview with Marble here.) Lee may have been better served by either limiting his scope to a more specific but representative subject (the residents of the 9th Ward, the role of the federal government in rebuilding, etc.) or expanding his project to examine the entirety of this story in all its depth and nuance.

More important than any artistic failings, however, is the immense hole in public dialogue that When The Levees Broke aims to fill. The unnecessary suffering of thousands and thousands along the coast was well-documented, if soon largely forgotten, in the weeks following August 29th, 2005. What the national media has given short shrift during the following year is the unfolding nature of this tragedy; that those most affected by the storm continue to face disproportionate difficulties as they attempt to rebuild; that much of the aid so generously and freely given remains undistributed to those who need it most, due to either gross governmental incompetence or willful and sinister intent; and that all the while the very same bureaucratic crooks who bear guilt for the unnecessary extent of this tragedy launch PR campaigns to exploit the event for their own political purposes.

Rubbish piled high outside of a Mississippi home.
Since the very beginning, we have heard again and again from journalists and politicians that Hurricane Katrina "did not discriminate," that she did not care if her victims were black or white or rich or poor. Yet in my nine months working as a volunteer with the rebuilding effort on the coast, I watched over and over as working-class residents got screwed. Their homes were less safe, made from worse materials, and of poorer design. They lacked the resources to advocate for themselves and navigate through the maddening labyrinth of bureaucracy. They got proportionally less, if anything, from their insurance. In many cases, their desperation was preyed upon by the disgusting profiteers who poured into the disaster zone for the sole goal of lining their own pockets.

Most sickening of all, I continue to watch as governmental and business interests exploit with cool calculation the anxiety and despair of residents who had lost everything, trapping the poor in old-fashioned land-squeeze scams by pouring taxpayer money into casino and condo development while withholding federally-mandated Community Development Block Grants from residents without explanation.

On these matters, much of the national media is decidedly silent. Although Lee's film may have its imperfections, at the very least it states plainly that America should finally be made to behold, unblinkingly, what she has allowed to transpire on her own soil. For this alone, it should be commended.

"One of the things I hope this documentary does is remind Americans that New Orleans is not over with, it's not done," Lee told HBO in a recent interview. "Americans responded in record numbers to help the people of the Gulf Coast, but let's be honest. Americans have very, very short attention spans...So hopefully, this documentary will bring this fiasco, this travesty, back to the attention of the American people. And maybe the public can get some politicians' ass in the government to move quicker, and be more efficient in helping our fellow American citizens in the Gulf region."

It is an honorable hope. As residents from Biloxi to the Lower 9 to Plaquemines Parish know all too well, sometimes hope is all you have to go on.

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Article by John Harlow

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