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When the Levees Broke – A Requiem In Four Acts

Posted by admin | Posted in Movies | Posted on 30-09-2010


One year after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, director Spike Lee presents a four-hour, four-part chronicle recounting, through words and images, one of our country?s most profound natural disasters. In addition to revisiting the hours leading up to the arrival of Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane before it hit the coast of Louisiana, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts tells the personal stories of those who lived to tell about it, at the same time explori… More >>

When the Levees Broke – A Requiem In Four Acts

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I remember my mom saying you never know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes. This documentary achieves this goal – we walk a mile in the shoes of those who live in New Orleans just before, during and after hurricane Katrina. Particular attention is paid to the shameful five days after Katrina when our government did nothing to help the people of New Orleans who were stranded with no electricity, food or water.

I learned so much from this documentary about the spirit of New Orleans, the people that make up this unique place and how they were failed by local, state and federal government. It is astonishing. Spike Lee showed intense respect for the people of New Orleans, he did what he does best in the background completely hidden. He let the people speak for themselves and he made the correct choices. He let people of all income levels, races, and walks of life speak about what happened in intensely personal ways through the lenses of their own experiences. More importantly he let them speak in their own words including profanity, frustration, racial slurs, and raw emotion as well as through prayer, song and music and thoughtful criticism.

He also exposed the shameful inaction of the federal government. There were interviews with New Orleans Mayor Ray Naggin, the Louisiana Governor, Lt. Governor, former mayor, Al Sharpton, Harry Belafonte and many other local politicians. The most surprising and eloquent critique came from Al Sharpton. Both his media critique which was thoughtful and fair (referring to American citizens who were displaced by Katrina as refugees) and his reaction to Barbara Bush’s comments about how the hurricane was better for the poor people who relocated to Texas (not a direct quote – what she said was much more insensitive) while she was being interviewed in the Houston arena in front of the New Orleans natives.

He includes famous and notable people including, Sean Penn, Michael Eric Dyson, Harry Belefonte and others sharing their insights but he never let’s the expert, famous or intellectual voices take over; he never forgets the focus is the people of New Orleans. In this documentary you can feel his deep respect for them.

He gives a picture of their lives before, a history of New Orleans culture and what makes it unique and he uses the notable and learned effectively to set the background and add to the viewers understanding of what makes New Orleans special. The expert voices add to our picture of the issues related to Katrina but are not the primary source of information about the people of New Orleans and what happened during and after Katrina. New Orleans natives are the source of information about the experience of Hurricane Katrina and Spike Lee works hard to ensure that they are the focus. The experts are like a group of spices they add flavor but don’t change the substance of the dish; he uses experts to shed light on the story but never supplants or marginalizes the people who lived it in the discussion of Katrina and its lasting impact. This is part of what makes this documentary so powerful is you hear from people who lived it and are still living it.

He also uses actual news footage and interviews members of the media who covered Katrina including Soledad O’Brien and the radio talk show host who did the now famous interview with Mayor Naggin which is credited with embarrassing and shaming the Bush Administration into action; Lee chooses not to include the entire interview but it is available online.

Spike Lee also explores the power of the institution of the Presidency and how important it can be when wielded properly on behalf of citizens in need. It matters what the President and members of his administration were doing while people suffered and died for five days after the hurricane. President Bush on vacation, VP Cheney was out fishing, Condoleezza Rice buying shoes and seeing Spam-A lot while people suffered and died. Lee finds a contrasting example in President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson, another Texan, went to the Gulf region after a hurricane in the middle of the night with a flashlight to tell the people that he was their President and to lend aid and comfort right away; he put citizens above ego and he was there.

Spike Lee did what many documentary makers struggle to do, he found a way to let viewers like me share in the experience depicted on film. While I watched this documentary I walked in their shoes and I will be forever changed by this glimpse into their lives.

Rating: 5 / 5

This may seem like an absolutely ridiculous thing to say–but I wanted to approach “When The Levees Broke” with a totally open mind. While the flooding of New Orleans is easily one of the greatest disasters in American history, it is also one of the most politically charged subjects of recent years. While I’ve never found Spike Lee to be the most balanced of directors, I was curious to see how his epic documentary about the aftermath of Katrina would fare. I’m pleased to report that a concerted effort was made to include alternating viewpoints and perceptions. That’s why I attempted to leave my own preconceived ideas on the doorstep–I wanted to judge this piece on its merit as opposed to its (or my) political agenda.

Basically, “Levees” is constructed in four episodes–each roughly an hour. Part 1 details the incoming storm and its initial impact on the area. Here we see rescue efforts amid the flooding and many harrowing images of people just trying to survive. Part 2 deals with the immediate aftermath, as the evacuees are staged throughout the city awaiting assistance. Here, we start to share in the real frustration of everyone that assistance is slow and, in some cases, nonexistent. Part 3 documents a period of time where the evacuees adjust–waiting for a chance to return to their homes and/or rejoin their families. And Part 4 comes as people start to return to the city–to the horrors and reality that all is lost. The latter parts continue to focus on opportunities missed by FEMA to care for the victims, the Corps of Engineers to adequately defend the city, and the insurance companies who failed to make good on their obligations.

But most of the criticism is left for the national government and, in particular, the Bush administration. And, again, whatever your political leanings–this is definitely a topic that needs to be examined. Through news footage and interviews from major participants including Mayor Naggin and Governor Blanco, you get a real perspective on what was going on behind the scenes. It may not be the most flattering portrait one could hope for–but it is surprisingly fair. And it is necessary to view our shortcomings as a nation facing disaster–if, for no other reason, than to prevent them from happening again.

It is heartbreaking what was left in the wake of Katrina. But it’s even more upsetting to think it may have been prevented–or at least, after the storm, given more import by those who might have made a difference. Many of the documentary’s subjects are New Orleans residents who put a human and personal touch on the catastrophe–and Lee has, thankfully, selected a diverse group from different socioeconomic backgrounds. That’s what makes “Levees” most effective–looking at a broad canvas.

Most of the interviewees are noticeably and justifiably frustrated by the situations and much political talk ensues. I think the criticisms, in most cases, are apt. However, the one thing I wished “Levees” would have done more is to acknowledge the stellar support from individuals who made a difference working within the organizations that are widely being disparaged. There were many people who worked within the system who were not villains–yet these people (many who worked for months on the streets of New Orleans or with the evacuees) are largely dismissed. This is a shame for them and a blemish on an otherwise exemplary documentary. KGHarris, 11/06.
Rating: 5 / 5

Phyllis Montana LeBlanc for President! Or, at least Secretary of Keeping It Real. Ms. LeBlanc, a passionate and articulate victim of the 2005 New Orleans flood, is one of many Big Easy residents who appears in the Spike Lee mega-documentary film WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE. Her commentary proves to be one of many unforgettable aspects of this must-see work.

Of course, by calling New Orleans residents victims of the August 2005 floodwaters, I oversimplify. As WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE documents, for forty years responsible powers knew the New Orleans levees could not withstand the pressure of a hurricane such as Katrina but did nothing. The Bush administration and F.E.M.A., who knew what was going to happen days in advance of the hurricane, did nothing. And when the storm subsided and people needed rescue, food, and water, the Bush gang and F.E.M.A. dragged their feet, allowing preventable death and misery for several days before acting.

WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE cuts no corners telling its story. About the only lowlight of those tragic summer 2005 days it misses is Laura Bush’s telling comment, where she referred to the storm as “Hurricane Corrina” at least twice in the same interview.

While the illegal, immoral war in Iraq got most of the credit for the fall of the Republicans in the 2006 elections, the federal government’s willful disregard for New Orleans had to be on voters’ minds, too. As I write this in March 2007, Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco has announced she will not seek re-election because of low poll numbers, so it seems the people are repaying Republican Lite Democrats such as Ms. Blanco, too. WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE closes with the Fats Domino song, “Walking To New Orleans.” Another Fats Domino song, “So Long,” speaks to the responsible public office holders who knew what could happen but turned a blind eye. May they get theirs.


Rating: 5 / 5

I’ve heard this criticism of Spike before this and I have never understood where it has come from. I guess if you spend your life and career documenting lives and creating stories about people that society has left behind, and if a large portion of those depicted have been black, I guess you get called a “racist!” Spike does see racism everywhere but let me ask you this: what black man of his age, who grew up where he grew up, doesn’t have some of those tinges simply from being burned by the system? Every writer pours some of himself into everything he does, fictional or not.

I watched Hurricane Katrina and the various reports on CNN and other news outlets with a dull horror thinking about a National Geographic doc I had seen in 97 or 98 about hurricanes and tornados. They predicted, especially a through a chilling and prophetic artist’s conception, exactly what happened in New Orleans in 05. An weather offical (I can’t remember his offical post) said the levee’s were a “two edged sword.” If the water ever went over them, the water would get as deep as the levee’s are tall. That’s exactly what happened. As Spike points out in his excellent commentary that’s like, as the best commentaries are, having a second movie included, that’s what caused the destruction. Hurricane Katrina side-swiped New Orleans.

Through stunning interviews with most of the prinicipals involved with this tragedy, from Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco to Shelton “Shakespeare” Alexander and Wynton Marsalis, he cuts to the main human tragedy at the heart of the story. There are more black people in this doc than white people but hey, that’s the majority of the people that got screwed by their government, from all sources except for the Coast Guard. There’s enough historical information to answer questions and it’s long enough (FOUR HOURS!) to give enough time to everybody to say their peace.

My favorite moments include Soledad O’Brien’s “interorgation” of Michael Brown that shows what happens when reporters have the guts to ask tough questions and see through the lies and the avoidance that politicians always do when their backed into a corner by the truth. The analysis of the levee’s and the warnings that were basically ignored by President Bush the day before the storm.

Spike’s commentary is funny as well as insightful to his filmaking process. He proved to me that he wasn’t racist when he says things like, “George Bush doesn’t care about poor white people either.” over footage of two white women talking in front of one of there torn down houses. He praises the two white guys who told Dick Cheney to go **** himself in Misissippi as well as the white lady who told Condie Rice “How dare you!” while she was shopping for shoes the day after the storm.

This documentary does what all good documentaries do. They answer questions while raising more while at the same time raising your awareness above and beyond where it was before.

Bravo Spike!!

By the way, the single largest death toll from a hurricane was in Galveston, Texas in 1900. The death toll from that was over 6,000 from a total population in the town from a little over 37,000! That is the greatest natural disaster in US history. Check out “Isaac’s Storm” for more info.
Rating: 5 / 5

Directed by Spike Lee, this documentary bears witness to the tragedy of Katrina, the ineptitude of the U.S. government, and the very human drama that affected so many people in the city of New Orleans. Using images that will tear at your heartstrings, archival footage, music and lots of individual stories, this is a full exploration of exactly what happened.

There’s lots of anger here, and lots of sadness. Death and horror seem to be everywhere There’s a man who tells the story of how his elderly mother died while they were seeking immediate shelter in the Superdome and how, four days later when he was finally evacuated he had to leave her body. People were herded like animals into the Superdome for days and days. There was no water, no food, no working bathrooms. It was hot and humid. There was no escape. Other people were left on ramps above the highways and when they tried to walk off, they were met with guns from residents who didn’t want them in their neighborhood. Reports of looting were everywhere. And the mayor and governor were arguing about what had to be done. Where was the U.S. government? Why were they able to send help to victims of the Tsunami the year before in Indonesia and could not send troops to help their own people.

Every single aspect of the Katrina story is horrible. There’s even a segment when the cameras focused on the bloated bodies found in the aftermath. Later, even after the worst was over, the trailers that people were promised took six months to get. And families were split up when they were evacuated to other states. Then, the insurance companies reneged on paying insurance claims. It was just one awful thing after another.

Some of it can be blamed on the endemic racism that has always been present in New Orleans. Most of the people in the film who were affected the worst were African Americans, although there certainly were many whites with equally horrible stories. Mostly, though, all of these people were poor. They didn’t have the means to run from the city as they didn’t own cars. All of them had been through hurricanes before. They had sat them out then. They had survived. But Katrina was different.

Applause to Spike Lee for making this film! He doesn’t appear in it but it certainly shows his unique view of the world. Of course I had seen news footage in the past and I remember following the story as it was happening. But this film took not only summed it all up, it added historical perspective and introduced individuals who, by the end of the program, I could identify with.

Yes, this documentary will haunt your dreams. You will be saddened. But see it anyway. Just be prepared for the worst.

Rating: 5 / 5

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