When the Levees Broke: Requiem in Four Acts–Spike Lee’s Poignant Documentary about Hurricane Katrina

Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

Director Spike Lee has made a career out of controversial statements, both on screen and off. However, in his new, more moderate and straightforward documentary, When the Levees Broke, he “simply” asks direct questions addressed to the New Orleans residents who survived the Hurricane Katrina. He lets his sharp camera record their tragic testimonies with care and concern and anger, but without any editorializing or voice-over commentary.

Having watched the four-hour work over the past two days, the results of Lee’s tamer strategysort of let the evidence speaks for itselfare even more shocking and devastating.

On the surface, there’s nothing in Lee’s approach to suggest the fervent anger and incendiary strategy that has marked his earlier pictures, particularly “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X.”

Instead, like Oliver Stone in his apolitical (and nonpolitical) September 11 drama, “World Trade Center,” he has opted for a humanistic and emotionally heartbreaking documentary about causes of the Katrina tragedy and its devastating price. The comparison with Stone is relevant since Lee and Stone have been two of the few American filmmakers to make contemporary and explicitly political movies.

Lee’s urgent questions are spread over four hours, and if you listen and watch carefully to how a diverse aggregate of Americans, particularly African American respond to his queries and camera, you’ll detect Lee’s rage, disbelief, and shock.

There’s of course the familiar Lee’s righteous indignation, one that was first targeted at George Bush the father (“Do the Right Thing was released in 1989 during Bush pere’s regime). In the press notes, Lee notes, ‘the documentary is meant as an indictment of Bush,’ he says of “When the Levees Broke,” which details in immediate yet objective way New Orleans’ devastation by Hurricane Katrina.

After witnessing the tragedy from the Venice Film Festival, where he was at time, Lee said he began flipping frantically between the coverage of the disaster on BBC and CNN (never trusting just one source of news).

Lee’s initial reaction, like that of most Americans, was shock and dismay by the slow pace and inefficiency with which the government reached out to the region.

Soon after, he decided to make a documentary of testimonies, consisting of primary archival footage, based on numerous trips to New Orleans to capture the grief and anger of the city’s residents and politicians.

Lee says he sees his docu as an indictment of FEMA, Department of Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, hoping that some of those responsible will pay for their negligent behavior, if not crime against humanity.

It’s hard not to notice that Lee’s docu follows one of his least overtly political movie and biggest box-office hit to date, the all-star heist movie, Inside Man, which was toplined by Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster, and grossed $88 million.

But it’s not the first non-fiction work Lee has made. In 1997, “4 Little Girls” was nominated for (but didn’t win) the Best Documentary Oscar. Race and social class, and the combination of the two variables, are most prominent in the new docu, since the Katrina tragedy has overwhelmingly affected poor African Americans.

Lee sees his work as an expression of anger and outrage. However, most critics have detected a more moderate approach, compared to his previous belligerent one. How to explain Lee’s “new restraint,” letting images and verbal testimonies unfold without such routine documentary devices as voice-over narration, first person or third-person, or structural segmentation of the four-hour film into the more conventional chronological order or chapters and titles.

Lee’s ‘passion for the disenfranchised’ is the reason why he was able to get such poignant witnesses from the citizens of New Orleans, says Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary, who also collaborated with Lee on “4 Little Girls” in 1997. ‘They’re happy to rise from the ashes with him. Nevis is quick to point out that the testimonies come not just from African American victims, and that Lee spoke to “all kinds of people in this film.’ And she is right: There are non-African Americans in the film.

Trying to explain Lee’s greater subtlety and even-handedness, Nevins says, “Lee has learned that you make more change possibly by presenting it in a fair-handed.” Age, and the corresponding milder sensibility (or more mature responsibility) that often go along with this biological factor, may be responsible too. At 49, Lee, who’s a family man with wife and children, may have softened since the 1980s, when anger dominated his life and work.

Lee low-budget 1986 indie, “She’s Gotta Have It,” helped launched the new era of black cinema with filmmakers like John Singleton (“Boyz ‘N the Hood”) and the Hughes brothers (“Menace II Society”). Indeed, blacks are more prominent as directors and movie stars than ever before. At present, there are at least a dozen African American actors who make big-budget studio films, such as Will Smith, Denzel Washington (a frequent collaborator of Lee), Samuel L. Jackson, and Wesley Snipes.

Nonetheless, the bigger problem is the lack of proper representation of African-Americans as executive producers and studio heads, those who possess power in Hollywood, defined as the ability to grenlight movie project and allocate to them the right budget and talent.

Lee has a point. While women have made huge progress and are now running most of the production divisions in Hollywood (both film and television) the under-representation and misrepresentation of blacks is glaring, considering their proportion in the general population. It’s estimated that at least 12-15 percent of Americans are African American, amounting to the huge number of at least 40 million residents.

Aren’t the studios first and foremost concerned with the bottom-line, i.e. making money According to Lee, they are, but only when it comes to certain type of black-themed films. The still controversial director holds that racism, both manifest and latent, over and covert, prevails in the movie industry.

“When the Levees Broke” airs on HBO in two parts: the first on August 21 and the second on the 22. It then re-airs in its entirety on August 29, which marks the first anniversary of the day Katrina hit New Orleans.

This truly tragic docu will also play as a gala presentation at the prestigious Toronto Film Fest, in early September.