When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Lee, 2006)

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Certainly one of the definitive documentaries of the decade, if not one of the best films period. Spike Lee’s epic 4+ hour HBO mosaic on Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans, and the horrific aftermath of the event, crosses cultural and economic divides by recollecting stories, lessons, observations, and critiques from a diverse group of first-hand accounts. Everyone from Mayor Ray Nagin to Kanye West to Wendell Pierce to Terrence Blanchard compliment the countless other human voices without celebrity status, those still affected by Katrina in indescribable and innumerable ways. Lee intercuts archival footage, amateur video, and news reporting with direct confessionals eliciting a number of different emotions – anger, heartache, rage, guilt, sadness – and on and on. Lee also manages to get at the complexities of New Orleans itself, a city plagued by terrible infrastructure yet blessed with vibrant culture and sense of identity. The film creates a platform for a logical and justifiable questioning of the Bush Administration instead of pandering to political mongering, letting the facts of their failure speak for themselves. Because of the length and television format, Lee is able to create a strong rapport with each of his subjects, making every story sting with a certain tragedy and hope. After watching When the Levees Broke, recycled “historical facts” of Hurricane Katrina seem inconsequential, moot when considering the actual complexity of how and why New Orleans was nearly destroyed by indifference and lack of government will. We still don’t know, and may never will, the human and psychological toll of this event, but Lee’s film goes a long way toward beginning the process.

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