Blaming Bush, Not Nature
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
For all the obvious reasons (race, social activism, a pronounced taste for in-your-face controversy), Spike Lee would appear to be the inevitable choice to direct HBO’s “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” a four-hour documentary marking the first anniversary of that globally televised horror show known as Hurricane Katrina — particularly as it laid waste to one of America’s most passionately loved cities, New Orleans, and the predominantly African-American residents who were either unable or unwilling to flee in time.
Mr. Lee, whose many feature films include “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X,” and “Inside Man,” as well as documentaries such as “4 Little Girls” and “Jim Brown: All American,” went down to New Orleans three months after Katrina struck. Together with cameraman Cliff Charles, trumpeter Terence Blanchard (who composed the film’s score), and a small film crew, he made eight trips to the city in all, interviewing almost 100 people.
Yet after watching the first 120 minutes of this epic, two-part documentary (the remainder of the film airs this evening at 9 p.m.), some may wish that a slightly more contemplative director had been handed the job. If nothing else, one who would have cut down on the proliferation of talking heads, most posed before walls sporting pretentious faux-finishes — a strangely inappropriate choice for a film about poverty and destruction — and paid a bit more attention to wind, water, and rain.
According to HBO, “Spike wanted to present multiple points of view,” and multiplicity is certainly on display. However, the opinions are almost entirely of one stripe. Notables such as Governor Kathleen Blanco, Mayor Ray Nagin, Wynton Marsalis, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, the Reverend Al Sharpton, Harry Belafonte, Douglas Brinkley, radio host Garland Robinette, along with dozens of heretofore anonymous locals jabber away. The latter are generally more interesting. Between shots of bent-over trees, flattened street-signs, and popping roofs, one observes that the sound of Katrina was “like having a freight train in your ear for hours on end.” Another wonders aloud, “What if this is God’s will, for us to die?,” while yet another remarks that, as the floodwaters rose, the weather became “hot, very hot. … It was Africa heat.”
But Mr. Lee isn’t especially interested in nature, let alone God or his acts. He is interested in levees, particularly inadequate ones, and in the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers who built them failed the city. (The Corps has publicly admitted that this is true.) What happened to New Orleans, in his opinion, was a “manmade” disaster, not a natural one. New Orleans was devastated not by a gargantuan tropical storm, but because inadequate levees were unable to hold back the storm surge unleashed by a hurricane whose center had bypassed the city.
As Mr. Belafonte explains, the levees were not robust enough because the people who were supposed to be saved by them were insufficiently important, either racially or socially. They were America’s losers, and President Bush, Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown, Homeland Security chief Ron Chertoff, Secretary of State Rice (filmed shopping for shoes and taking in the Broadway musical “Spamalot” as the disaster unfolded) simply didn’t care enough about them to act with appropriate haste. As Rev. Sharpton states sarcastically, “They could have done what we did, go right there and talk to the people. Activate the National Guard, activate the military. Oh, I forgot — they were in Iraq, making democracy free for those abroad, while those at home had nothing.”
Billed as a “requiem,” much of Mr. Lee’s film feels too jittery and impatient to be more than intermittently moving. His strategy is to throw anything at the screen that might stick. After a while it’s like watching 20 different CNN Katrina specials jammed into one. There’s a fair amount of BBC around, too. “The war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina — the perfect storm,” intones one British reporter with a doleful sneer, enjoying every minute of it.
At moments like this (and they are numerous), the film feels more like a work of agitprop than a documentary genuinely interested in exploring its subject. You see ruined houses, floating corpses, black grandmothers stranded in attics as the floodwaters rise, thousands waiting for help in the Superdome, and you’re supposed to think: Bush did this.
The president didn’t come off well during the disaster — to put it mildly — nor did the heads of FEMA, Homeland Security, and other assorted government mediocrities, but this is hardly news. (Bush’s notorious line to Mr. Brown, “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie,” is replayed three times in succession, in case any dimbulbs in the audience don’t get the point.)
What Mr. Lee never does, however, is interview someone who might offer a counterpoint, someone who can provide even a second way of estimating the tragedy and its participants — particularly anyone as forceful, articulate, and sarcastic as Rev. Sharpton, and Messrs. Belafonte, Brinkley, et al. When a four-hour documentary can’t set aside a few minutes for a balanced analysis to anyone who would scrutinize Mr. Lee’s own opinions, viewers should rightfully become skeptical.
Parts Three and Four of “When the Levees Broke,” cover everything from crime to global warming to insurance companies to jazz funerals, but do little to alter the dynamic. The key quote comes from Mr. Marsalis, who calls Katrina “a signature moment in American history … that shows us everything that’s wrong with us.”
The question for viewers to decide is whether Mr. Lee’s film is part of what’s “right” with us.