When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

As horrifying as the actual events were, almost more disturbing was what Katrina revealed about the way the nation still thinks and feels about black people — whether in the media or in the culture more broadly.

–Michael Eric Dyson, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster (2006)

He floated around the corner and then he died. Swelled up this big. And his name was Eddie.

–Michael Knight, resident of the Lower Ninth Ward

We need a different government.

–Cheryl Livaudais, resident of Yacloskey, St. Bernard Parish

“We started listening to the wind,” says former New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass. “And that sound, I’ll never forget that sound, the wind hitting the glass, at the Hyatt, and those glasses started breaking. And that’s when you saw the true power of Mother Nature.” It’s about 18 minutes into When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, and Katrina is just appearing in the streets of New Orleans. As interviewees describe their first impressions of the storm, following a sequence focused on how they “first heard” about its approach in the days before it made landfall, the film shows news footage of driving rain and wind, empty streets and dark skies. It’s the start of an ordeal that continues to this day.

More accurately, it’s the start of revelations, digging into a longstanding system of shortcuts, inefficiencies, and instances of willful ignorance that produced the national catastrophe now called “Katrina.” The hurricane was only one step in the process, a spectacular and extremely camera-ready step. Other steps have to do with class and race divides in the U.S., forcefully exposed by the storm and its aftermath but hardly caused by it. Other steps have to do with a daunting lack of respect, responsibility, and preparation by representatives of “the people.” According to Spike Lee’s moving, astute, and carefully structured opus, all these many factors contributed to Katrina. And none of them has been resolved or even much attended to in the year since the levees broke.

Epic, sobering, angry, restrained: Lee’s four-hour documentary has already been variously described, as viewers note its limitations (no attention to Mississippi or other areas hit, beyond New Orleans) and its emphasis on individuals (personal stories, like those told by Paris Ervin or Garland Robinette, linger in your mind while more official-seeming interviews, with Mayor Ray Nagin or Gov. Kathleen Blanco, recede). Lee has already spoken on the question of focus (“Because of the historical significance,” he told the audience at the film’s New Orleans premiere, “We chose to focus here. That was my vision. I wanted to concentrate on New Orleans”), but if the geographical scope seems narrow, the historical and political range is deep.

The four parts rise and fall in stirring narrative rhythms, beginning with the story of the storm that actually missed the Crescent City. Act II looks at experiences during the storm, Act III the aftermath (including effects on the Big Easy’s musical past and present), and IV the broader historical and future contexts, including the faulty levees, loss of wetlands, and global warming, as well as the area’s exploitation (Brinkley says, “The state of Louisiana has long been used as almost a colony or a place to extract resources”). The introductory montage, rolling out under Louis Armstrong’s “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans,” push together beauty and horror, elation and fear. Old New Orleans streetcars and paraders appear in jittery black and white, set alongside a sign indicating a “Hurricane Evacuation Route,” as footage of demonstrators in favor of the “glory” of segregation collide with a shot of Christ atop a church and another sign, this one written on the wall of a flooded home: “Dead body inside.”

This sequence ends with footage of stranded New Orleans citizens waving to choppers from rooftops, leading to the film’s first scene proper, the Congressional Hearings of 14 December 2001. But even as Nagin asserts that he’s come to bring the “facts,” the film goes on to show that these are hardly agreed on, that those involved are still shuffling culpability, and that, despite official proclamations that “We will do whatever it takes to help victims,” too many remain unhelped, abandoned, and entirely frustrated.

Including pieces of interviews with more than 100 people, the film offers up a variety of victims and observers, politicians, critics, and “expert” talking heads. The one thing all agree on is the astoundingly inept response to the storm, on multiple levels. Even as Nagin recalls his feeling of dread when he knew he had to call for mandatory evacuation, because “So many residents… rely upon public transportation.” Similarly, residents of the Lower Ninth Ward observe that “evacuating can get kind of costly,” which means that those who have survived previous storms, like 1965’s Betsy or those who literally don’t have the money to leave, don’t. (The film leaves open how the mayor or anyone else handled this problem, and doesn’t mention the citizens of NO and other cities who transported people and supplies without specific instruction from an agency or authority.)

The hurricane itself only shows up briefly in the film, though scary moments reverberate, sometimes literally, as when someone who stayed in the Superdome remembers the wind and rain pounding at the roof: “It sounded like a New York City subway train,” narrates NBC’s Brian Williams, as the film fills in with a loud crash and footage of folks inside the arena looking up to see the roof shake and rattle. Illustrating the fear of those stuck inside that night, with little information or guidance, this scene is followed by Blanco’s attempt at spin on 29 August 2005, that “reports from people inside the Dome that say the roof is leaking.” But, she insists, there is no “structural damage,” though “we have several hours to go” before the storm is past. Footage of the streets shows waves overtaking buildings, cars, and trees. “It was like that Daryl Hannah movie from a long time ago, The 50 Foot Woman or whatever the hell she was,” remembers Phyllis Montana-Leblanc. “That’s what Katrina was. She was peeling our shit apart.”

While the storm was surely frightening and real (“You can’t even hear yourself think after a while,” says Uptown resident Michael Selig), folks caught in the Lower Ninth Ward recalled as well hearing explosions, and recalling the 1927 flood when the government dynamited the levees to flood their area to save other, more prosperous wards (say, the French Quarter). Though Calvin Mackie, an engineering professor at Tulane, points out that these explosions were likely cracks in the levees booming open wide, Doug Brinkley, who wrote The Great Deluge, makes sense of the community’s nervousness: “These people that live along where the flood is, they have a long history of being ripped off, the 1927 flood… maybe the memory of Betsy was on their mind. It’s not a far jump to believe the urban myth that it got dynamited.”

John Barry, author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, reinforces the understanding of this “jump,” noting the “too many similarities between 1927 flood and Katrina,” primarily the deeply flawed levee policy of the federal government, then and now. The film uses this jumping off point to consider the many failures of FEMA and other agencies to prepare for flooding in the area, despite studies that predicted problems of the sort and size that occurred. As Lower Ninth Ward resident Robert Rocque puts it, “You know the old saying, ‘A stitch in time?’ Well, we don’t deal that way. We said, ‘If we look the other way, it’ll go away.’ and now it’s just coming back home to roost. All the stuff they’ve done for the last 40 years came home in a big way.”

This concept of home — as a place to be treasured and protected, or ruined by neglect — filters throughout the film, as homeowners stand before their wrecked properties and lament their losses. Some pitch tents on the grounds, like Cheryl Livaudais, who holds forth: “It cost the people their homes. I hope the politicians, the corps of engineers, whoever’s responsible, I hope that they can sleep at night… And that’s not this talking [pointing to the bottle she holds], that’s the freakin’ truth.”

Other homes lost include that of Levees composer and longtime Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard, who returns with his mother Wilhelmina to her Gentilly Woods house months after the storm, to find everything destroyed (her upset is heartbreaking to watch, almost too intimate, but that is one point that makes Lee’s documentary what it is, a miscellany of perspectives, none primary). Actor Wendell Pierce describes the iniquitous treatment of his father by the insurance company, adding, “The insurance companies: there’s a special, special circle in hell for them.” And when college student Paris Ervin returned to inspect his mother’s home, assuming she was alive and “dispersed” (as so many other family members were, to states as far-flung as Oklahoma, Utah, New York, and Texas). He had been informed by authorities that no one was found inside, but when Ervin got home, he found her body under the refrigerator, alone and dead for weeks.

Not everyone failed to perform, as Brinkley notes when he praises the Coast Guard for going off-book to find ways to rescue people, as well as the “Cajun Navy,” “locals steppin’ to the plate” (Sean Penn, who worked with Brinkley and others to rescue people, also appears briefly). But Brinkley and other interviewees — including Al Sharpton, Harry Belafonte, radio journalist Garland Robinette (who interviewed Nagin when he “went off,” “It’s awful down here, man”) also have too many choices when it comes to assigning blame.

While, as the film points out, the Army Corps of Engineers and previous administrations long ago set this disaster on its course (constructing and leaving levees that would collapse under Category 1 or 2 conditions), the disregard shown by the administration is especially brutal. The examples include the president (who said on Good Morning America, 1 September, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breech of the levees”), his mother, Mayor Nagin (Michael Eric Dyson laments that his “first instinct was not to protect his own citizens, but to go out to protect the business community”), Condoleezza Rice (spotted shopping for shoes at Ferragamo just after the hurricane), and Michael Chertoff (whose admission that a “Katrina scenario did not exist,” doesn’t get anyone off the hook. The film’s subjects tend to lay off scapegoat Michael Brown, though it includes the “heck of a job” moment, still appalling.

“Somebody needs to go to jail,” says Terence Blanchard.

If the response is a result of incompetence rather than deliberate choices, this hardly absolves the “deciders.” As Soledad O’Brien says, “It was baffling to me,” that when she interviewed Michael Brown, she had more information than he did. “He seemed to have no intelligence. They seemed so out of touch with the reality that people had been watching day after day after day” on television. The film doesn’t delve into the role of the media during Katrina, except to note briefly the demonization of black “looters.” But it does link such representation to the idea motivating local police to guard Jefferson Parish from suddenly homeless folks with guns, the notion that property had to be protected before people (this even as a cop appears on camera with an armful of DVDs, suggesting that no one felt much dedication to the social order that left them in this predicament). “It was a race thing,” asserts Anita Gupta, Assistant Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

O’Brien’s public outrage — televised in her interview with Brown, and certainly not the only instance where on-air journalists questioned the motives or capacity of their interviewees — is matched in the film by that of Kanye West, who famously declared during NBC’s Katrina fundraiser, “George Bush doesn’t like black people.” He admits the statement was as spontaneous as it looked: “When I went up to NBC, I wasn’t planning on making a statement… I knew I was gonna speak from my heart.” It spoke to an idea already circulating among many within and outside of the black “community,” that the Bush administration had no interest in those it long ago wrote off — poor black citizens (don’t call them “refugees”), getting poorer by the month under the current economic and education systems, which repeatedly leave the same people behind.

To drive this point home, painfully and necessarily, the film includes a couple of montages showing bodies as they float in streets or lie “on the side of the interstate,” images that are heart-wrenching but also truthful. In the case of Herbert Freeman Jr., the dire circumstance of waiting with his elderly mother for a bus to fetch them from the Convention Center. As they wait, for hours and hours, he describes his horror at looking over to see that she is, in fact, dead, slumped over in her wheelchair. Lee’s voice sounds from off screen, one of two or three times you hear him during his many interviews for the film, “The bus never came?” Freeman’s dignity as he remembers this moment is more powerful than any assessment made by a public figure in Levees. His mother, who had survived Betsy, was left at the Convention Center for another four days, before professionals came to get her.

This is what is most poignant and acute about Levees: it shows, generally and personally more than vigorously and academically, how the system works. Katrina was — and is — a disaster, but it is not anomalous as policy or practice. Blanchard sighs,

You have to worry about a country that can look a vast number of mistakes this administration has made that have directly affected people’s lives, you have to worry about a country that can see something like that and still not see this guy for who he is. I know I’m gonna get mail, I know I’m gonna get ostracized. But you gotta say that, because I’m worried about the country.

Levees, elegant and anguished, encourages you to see, and more importantly, to care about and act on what you see. The film shows what continues to go wrong in a rich, distressing array of images, from grief-stricken adults and exhausted children to houses smashed on top of cars and graffiti that reads, “Hope Is Not a Plan,” “Not as Seen on TV,” FEMA equated to “Five Endless Months of Anguish,” or simply, “Harsh.” The event is political in the most significant sense, and the film won’t let you forget it.

RATING 9 / 10