Review on Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: Part 1

August 27, 2006 – The devastation of the greater New Orleans area, during Hurricane Katrina’s rampant destruction, still goes unanswered as of this very day. New Orleans’ residents, both former and present, still await the arrival of insurance checks, F.E.M.A. checks and just a simple reason to return home. In Spike Lee’s documentary, When the Levees Broke, Lee details the horrific circumstances that people were put in as a result of the hurricane, the negligence and prejudice of our own government, and the continued suffering that still affects victims of Hurricane Katrina. The film is depicted in four acts that include commentary from leading officials, victims and prominent New Orleans’ figures.

Spike’s film starts with a description of the destruction that went on for over a week. The visions that filled our television screens back in September of 2005 are thrust before your eyes as you relive the sentiment and the sorrow that all outsiders remember experiencing as they watched New Orleans on television for days. But Spike goes way beyond just reliving the national sentiment. In fact, he seems to deem that the national sentiment was not enough, and quite frankly, it wasn’t. Colorful dialogues with Katrina survivors who scrapped for their lives, lost every bit of their financial existence, and even saved the lives of others are what make the first 2 acts of this documentary. On one account, there was a dialogue with a young woman and her granddaughter. The young woman explained how she went looking for her grandmother’s house and saw no evidence of it every existing other than the mere elements of a partial foundation. Upon checking on her neighbor’s house across the street, the young lady saw that her grandmother’s house had been uplifted by the torrential floods and carried across the street into the adjacent lot. When the young woman approached her grandmother, she was terrified at the possibility of a potential devastating response to the bad news. Once she told her grandmother, the elderly lady simply replied, “Oh, well…gotta move on.”

Acts three and four of the requiem focused more on the after effects of the hurricane. The elements that Spike described in the latter half of the film were not only appalling, but they were down right shameful. Spike made me ashamed to be a part of this governmental system. In the film’s conversations with political leaders such as Mayor Ray Nagin, Governor Kathleen Blanco and archive footage of George Bush, I was hardly reassured that I should be proud of the American system. These leaders continually pointed to how they could do little to comprise an effort that would meet the needs of the New Orleans’ community, but as Spike pointed out repeatedly, the government seems to have no problem with aiding those who are foreign to the nation. Spike ridicules F.E.M.A., the Army Core, Bush and his cabinet. The only governing entity that was of worthy use to New Orleans residents during Hurricane Katrina seems to be the National Guard, or so Spike would have you believe. As many scholarly leaders and public figures also pointed out, the government was just not present. Rather the decision to not be present was based on the class or race of New Orleans’ citizens is not clear, but Spike does seem to believe that it was one of the two.

Watching this film really makes a viewer wonder what went wrong with Katrina? Many inquiries that I have heard from people who have seen it consist of questions concerning the paucity of a proper government response, the lack of a civilized presence in the city in the days following the flooding, and the apparent corruption that was the stamp of the movie and in my take, the reality of the entire situation. But my concerns about some of the issues Spike raised are of a more unique source than most. Speaking as a black, well-informed, skeptical and foolish man, my concerns about this film and Hurricane Katrina are extensive, concerning, and 100% dubious. But you will have to see those issues, in Part II of my review on When the Levees Broke.

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