When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
by Ben Poster
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That Spike Lee proclaims his intention for When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts—his documentary on Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the Gulf Region—to be seen as “the complete and final account of this historic event” is at once an apt introduction, and entirely unnecessary. Upon completing one’s viewing of this comprehensive four-act, four-hour epic, Mr. Lee’s intentions become instantaneously beside the point. My response to each detailed section, and the culminating piece as a whole, was emotional, purely: aggravated, overwhelmed, and even angered to some to degree. This is due in large point to the severity of the subject being addressed, but it’s not to overshadow Lee’s work in sculpting this film into a precise, cohesive, ‘complete’ whole that holds not just one, but almost all of the realizable potential that a documentary piece can hold—a record, a story, an implication, and even an outcry. All of these achievements can individually define a documentary piece, and decide its success or effectiveness. That Lee orchestrates all of them, and more, into this piece—and in a mere year after it occurred—is astonishing to me, and deserves to be considered, in my opinion, as one of the better offerings this country has ever produced in the field of documentary.
And that may be true (with a complete lack of irony), due to the fact that the event that it focuses on is the worst display of… almost everything else in this country. The sheer and undeniable failures of both respective powers and people portrayed in this film is literally almost too much to bear. If one were to take as a ‘true-ism’ that ‘truths tend to eat each other up’ each tiny true failure and shortcoming of an organization or official in this film eat upon each other until there is a obnoxious ‘fatness’ compounding mistakes. Just as a work like ‘Ulysses’ exercises the ever-expanding and representational implications of a mere day in the life of a man in a city, so too did the singular event of Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans, and it’s following lack-of-response represent the much broader and more common deficiencies that, when the time is right, as was the case here, can lead to disastrously dangerous consequences: Army Corps Engineers ‘settling’ to make not even a full-on ‘levee’ but rather an ‘embankment’ that, was knowingly only able to withstand a category 1 hurricane; decisions made as to the ‘worth’ of doing the job right when considered against the time and money required doing so; accounts of insurance companies dementedly creating loop-hole after loop-hole to prevent people who’ve lost everything from getting a mere percentage of what they had owned; gentrifying land-grabbers preying upon the recently impoverished for their profits soon to be turned—ones vastly outweighing whatever actual worth these people may have hoped to receive for their property; politicians paying only lip-service and making the ‘appearance’ of care and response far too late after the fact—and only then as a result of questioning lawyers, and accountants, (instead of the usual pollsters and backers), as to whether or not they should do the right thing here, because they were more concerned with who’d be paying for it; all of these are far-too familiar tropes to most of the people in this country, and as Lee displays it, they’re also all too familiar and common to the people in this country who most desperately depended on an exception to their rule.
This, as we all know, was an exception that did not appear. And though help did eventually arrive, the fact that it was ‘a few days late,’ (which seems familiarly negligible in exactly the same way), made enough of a difference for some to question whether or not New Orleans will ever be able to recover from it, or exist as the unique city that it once was ever again.
All of these questions and declarations; accusations, condemnations, and myths dispelled are presented to us by the people who lived through them. And for all the information that these people get across, from Louisiana’s gas and oil contributions, to school-system and storm statistics, Lee allows us to see them first and foremost as people, character parts in this awful play, whether they be nerdy professors are straight-shooting local survivors, and in doing so, he beds all of this information in a poignancy of people telling a story. That story is their story, uniquely, from their houses and mother’s lost, to their relocations and faulty FEMA trailers, it is a story that is exactly each person’s own and we feel it and fully ‘see’ it as just that.
But as their stories multiply, we start to feel it as our own story as well, not just as a result of their undeniable humanity in these times of unimaginable desperation and survival, but unfortunately, we identify with these story-tellers precisely because we too are characters in their same play: the person playing president is the same for us as it is for them, as is the secretary of state, as are the insurance companies and effects of gentrification and under-funded education. This isn’t just a story about the Gulf region, but rather the current state of all of America, told, in a starling and deeply saddening completeness, by and about it’s people, neglected and under-considered for the sake of far too familiar ‘higher priorities.’ It is an extreme case, but one exactly extreme enough to demand that these tendencies fall by the wayside for the cause of humanistic support and care. When that call continues to go repeatedly unanswered, we will no longer be able to claim that we hadn’t seen it before, for Mr. Lee has presented us with a poignantly framed mirror with this documentary, one that achieves in capturing all of the painful implications of what is to be the defining event of our time.
Ben Poster is a Chicago-based filmmaker whose endeavors include trying not to be a jerk and competitive ping pong.
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