Spike Lee’s effort to offer the “definitive” story on the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, When the Levees Broke, fell short of the mark. While offering a decent summary of the events, the documentary (that premiered on HBO over Monday and Tuesday nights for more than two hours each night) went on too long and the predictable Lee slant suggesting that racism made the disaster worse leaves anyone with an objective eye scratching their head.
Ten or 20 years from now the summarizing of events may have more value than it does today. Sadly, the numerous montage segments of dead bodies floating in flood waters and other horrific images may also have value down the line, but are simply too familiar right now to have much impact. The attempt to offer the flavor of New Orleans’ musical history through seemingly staged parades was not only awkward, but considering the length of the film causes some serious “watchability” issues.
The interview heavy format struggles to keep viewers interested. It wasn’t until the second night that any emotion is evoked from the viewer as Lee follows an elderly woman back to her home after Katrina. Other stories, including a man forced to leave his mother’s dead body at the Super Dome, were sort of lost in all of the other interviews.
Certainly, Lee brought out plenty of worthwhile information. A computer-generated simulation of a category 5 hurricane called Pam that predicted devastation for the Gulf area went ignored. Cops were among the looters in the days after the disaster. A form of marshal law in one local parish, which refused entrance to those trying to escape the devastation.
He documents the incompetence shown by the Bush Administration in its response to Katrina. To be fair, there wasn’t much balance in this coverage, though I can almost give Lee a pass here as President Bush’s incompetence is well documented.
Lee does not get such a pass on his coverage of race in the affects of the hurricane. He allows people to suggest that whites were rescued before blacks without substantiation or rebuttal. The evacuation process is actually compared to the breaking up of families during slavery. He allows assertions that the levees were actually blown-up to flood the Lower Ninth Ward.
While showing the anger of Katrina victims is a worthwhile pursuit, allowing allegations like these to stand alone was simply weak. This was followed-up with a barrage of how bringing blacks back to New Orleans is critical, as if only blacks need to be returned home.
Lee offered a sad picture of unscrupulous businesses profiting from Katrina and a government bogged down in bureaucracy slowing the recovery. Yet, positioning this as racial issues hurts the film. For many non-blacks (including myself) who can testify to the fact that business and government screws us, too, the assertion no doubt leaves many wondering how a natural disaster became a racial issue.
Overall, When the Levees Broke will have some value as time passes. A good edit job would give it plenty more.