Charged with profound sorrow, galvanizing outrage and defiant resolve, Spike Lee’s extraordinary “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” renders the worst natural disaster in U.S. history — Hurricane Katrina’s unforgiving assault on New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities — as a perfect storm of catastrophic weather, human error, socioeconomic inequity and bureaucratic dysfunction. The four-hour HBO documentary will debut over two nights just in time to mark the first anniversary of Katrina’s landfall. Unfortunately, as Lee and his many interviewees repeatedly emphasize, rebuilding and recovery in the Crescent City have only just begun.
Many heartrending images here — the trashed homes, the widespread flooding, the rescues from rooftops, the discovery of human remains — are painfully familiar. But Lee takes time to explain the stories behind the stories, to unearth revealing details under-reported in other accounts, and to identify individuals among the faceless masses of unfortunates. He rarely imposes himself upon his material; he is heard only occasionally as an off-camera voice prompting dozens of interviewees.
Among the familiar figures giving testimony: New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, personable and passionate even when he seems slightly out of his depth; entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte, who persuasively argues the federal government was slow to respond to New Orleans’ plight because of the city’s unimportant (i.e., mostly poor and black) citizenry; and actor-turned-rescue-volunteer Sean Penn, who freely admits he waded through high water in flooded neighborhoods only after a local clergymen did so first.
But the real “stars” of the documentary are the locals who witnessed, reported and/or endured the devastation. Radio talkshow host Garland Robinette pointedly reminds viewers: “People think we got hit by a hurricane. But we got missed by a hurricane.” The flooding, he explains, resulted when water broke through under-financed and ill-maintained levees.
Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, a Lower Ninth Ward resident, provides an intermittent running commentary that ranges from profanely funny to frankly terrified. Like many Katrina survivors, she suffers from post-traumatic disorder.
Act one recounts events leading to the storm’s arrival, emphasizing the inability of President Bush, among others, to fully appreciate the potential for devastation. Viewed with 20/20 hindsight, FEMA director Mike Brown appears positively foolhardy while blithely expressing can-do optimism on the eve of Katrina’s arrival.
Brown comes off even worse in act two, as the documentary details the ineptitude and inadequacies of the emergency response by FEMA and other agencies. CNN newscaster Soledad O’Brien can barely contain her disbelief when she questions how Brown could have remained so unaware for so long while thousands of desperate New Orleanians sought shelter at the city’s Superdome and Convention Center. Bush Administration officials — and Bush himself — are depicted as shockingly indifferent (initially, at least) to the post-Katrina plight of the local population.
Throughout act three, Lee focuses on the wide number of New Orleanians left homeless in the wake of Katrina, and the heart-wrenching impact on those who returned to ruined homes and dead loved ones. (Long-time Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard, who composed the documentary’s evocative score, is among the returnees.) Some vow to remain in the city. Others, however, acknowledge that resettlement in other places has made them all the more aware of the many failings in education, crime prevention and other social services that were endemic to New Orleans long before Katrina hit.
Act four tentatively suggests a glimmer of hope for the future. Notes of foreboding are sounded in interviews — some filmed as recently as two months ago — with experts who question whether the city’s levee system is now, or ever can be, sufficient. But the scrappy nature of surviving long-time residents is at once amusing and inspiring.