On August 29, 2005 the world watched in horror as Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, Louisiana. As with so many others who were mortified, American director/producer Spike Lee felt compelled to tell this story and the fruit of his labour resulted in his third feature-length collaborative documentary with HBO entitled When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.
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The impact of documentaries is that they address the realities of the world. Documenting history/reality, they are comprised of real people, world events, places, and social conditions. When the Levees Broke truly reveals that Lee was driven by the issues this tragedy addressed and incorporates all of the characteristics that distinguish his film style – consciousness, talent, and passion.
The documentary’s down to earth reportage gives it a home movie affect thereby making it more personal and relatable. Close to 100 people representing a wide range of opinions and from diverse backgrounds were interviewed. Each act depicts various phases of the events that preceded and followed Katrina’s catastrophic course through New Orleans.
Hurricane Katrina was one of six of the deadliest hurricanes to hit the United States as well as the most costly. Over 1,836 people died with New Orleans experiencing the severest loss of life and property damage.
When the Levees Broke gave Hurricane Katrina a human face and depicts it for what it truly was – a human tragedy, a modern American tragedy, a national disgrace. In the case of New Orleans, it was not so much the intensity of the hurricane that contributed to such cataclysmic loss but rather the failed infrastructure of the city’s levee system built by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
Scores of articles and reports (Congressional, etc.) purport that the levees were destined to fail from the onset. Yet despite sole responsibility for the levee failure and flooding laid squarely at the feet USACE, the Flood Control Act of 1928 provides the federal agency sovereign immunity from financial accountability.
The haunting images linger – scores of people jammed packed in the Louisiana Superdome (26,000 people plus), floating dead bodies, men, women, and children frantically pleading for help on roof tops as helicopters repeatedly flew by. Inept local / state /national government response and assistance were synonymous with this tragedy.
Lee’s objectivity is revealed via the array of viewpoints presented. He has personal connection, however, in that those mostly affected were African Americans as is he. Along with host of others, especially those in the documentary, he felt the government blatantly ignored the plight of African Americans– treating the displaced victims like refugees.
This is his premise from the onset and he uses the documentary to defend his point as opposed to coming to this conclusion afterwards. Lee simple informs and presents the issues. When the Levees Broke is a tribute to the Katrina victims, especially African Americans; but it also was an indictment of city and state government agencies, but particularly at the federal level.
Hurricane Katrina tragically exposed widespread loss of life caused by inhumane, gross negligence and most importantly how treatment/response based on race and economic status remains entrenched in American culture.
How do you or for that matter why would you build a doomed infrastructure? With the lives of so many people at stake how could and why would anyone respond so incompetently? If this were Burbank, CA, Martha’s Vineyard, or any other affluent U.S. community, etc. would such gross negligence and incompetence take place? The answer is absolutely not because people of colour and the underprivileged do not predominately reside in those areas. Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster.
The essence of its true catastrophic nature however, lies in the social injustice inflicted upon people of colour, the poor, the homeless, elderly, and disabled at the hands of the very government that is supposed to protect and serve them. All praises to Spike Lee and When the Levees Broke exposing this horrifying reality.