Tuesday, August 29, 2006

When The Levees Broke

Considering it's been raining for the last six days, it's totally apropos that today, on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, HBO Documentary Films presents Spike Lee's critically-acclaimed epic When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Tuesday (8/29) at 8 pm.

From an interview with Spike:
"One of the significant things about the title is that most people think that it was Katrina that brought about the devastation to New Orleans. But it was a breaching of the levees that put 80 percent of the city under water. It was not the hurricane. And last week the United States Army Corps of Generals went on record and finally 'fessed up, and said that we fucked up. "
This is sure to be a heartbreaker, and I'm excited to be depressed off my ass. The flame for New Orleans and the Katrina aftermath has faded a bit, I hope this doc sparks a little re-ignition. If you were watching the Emmys on Sunday, consider this your prescription for spiritual/karmic balance.

When The Levees Broke [HBO.com]
Spike Lee Interview [HBO.com]

Just read the review by David Denby in the New Yorker:
Viewers seeking detailed information about the economy and the politics of New Orleans will have to go elsewhere. But anyone hoping to reclaim Katrina emotionally—to experience what the city went through in all its phases of loss, anger, and contempt—needs to see Lee’s movie, which is surely the most magnificent and large-souled record of a great American tragedy ever put on film.
On "Spike Lee's enormous documentary ..." [The New Yorker]


  1. Spike Lee appeared on Bill Maher and said that he thinks the levees were destroyed on purpose. That told me all I needed to know about this documentary. I'm Tivo-ing it for sis, but I have no plans to watch it.

  2. I saw this last week when it first aired, and in general, I would say Spike Lee does a better job than his comments on Bill Maher would suggest when it comes to airing all sides of the story. Granted, more time is devoted to the victims and letting them air their grief, but he also gives screen time to the mayor and governor, both of whom have been criticized for their actions. Also, last week's New Yorker had a great article on how the gov't backed away from its initial promise of $10 billion (or million? I don't recall) over 10 years... sounds a little like the post 9/11 time period when NYC was promised - what - $20 million - and what did we get?

    It's a tough documentary to watch, mostly because it illustrates the things you only read about. It's one thing to read about the filth and the heat, it's another to see image after image of dead bodies, of people stranded and frantically waving down helicopters, etc.

    Sorry this is long, but - also, near the end, they talk about the amazing levee system that The Netherlands has (it was profiled on the Discovery channel) and how building something similar is the only way to protect the lower ninth and other flooded areas. So what the the Army Corps of Engineers do? They rebuilt the sinking levees that didn't work in the first place. What a waste.

  3. word.

    to add on to Jaime, this from the generally raving Times review:
    Mr. Lee’s documentary boils with anger and a degree of paranoia. Was it really necessary to bring in voices who suggest that the levees were dynamited, when no tangible evidence is offered beyond people who recall hearing sounds of an explosion during the storm? Occasionally the film can’t resist taking a cheap shot, as when it makes a side trip to Mississippi just to show a visiting Dick Cheney being taunted with obscenities. Thankfully such lapses of judgment are few and far between.

  4. Anonymous8/30/2006

    In reply to T. That's the danger of prejudging. If you watch the documentary a lot of the New Orleans people themselves near the levees heard a loud popping noise right before the flood waters rapidly rose. They think the levee was intentionally blown. The Army Corps of Engineers says that was the sound was actually the sound of the levees breaking. Lee mentions both viewpoints in the documentary. He also adds a historical context so that the locals don't seem stark raving loony: in 1927 the levees were intentionally blown at the behest of New Orleans bankers to protect more expensive properties. The areas they flooded were predominantly white and poor at the time - the key word being poor. Katrina flooding to a lot of these people seem like an interesting coincidence to the 1927 incident. These are people with long memories who have been in the region for multiple generations and who suspect government because government has a longer history of hurting than helping them.

    It can also seem suspicious that the expensive properties of New Orleans remained mainly intact while the poorer regions suffered. Suspicious, however, until you learn that the the more expensive regions were protected by older levees, some as much as a century old, and the poorer regions - where the levees broke- by newer levees dating back to the 1960's. They don't make things like they used to, and the Army Corps of Engineers is notorious for cutting corners.

    Jaime, we're never going to construct levees in New Orleans the way the Dutch, or the Japanese, or the way anyone with some common sense and an expense account would construct a levee for one simple reason. Nobody has to live in New Orleans. The Netherlands is almost completely below sea level, rich, poor, middle class, everyone is almost equally affected. That isn't so true in the gulf region, which is by and large made up of relatively poor people. Here's the truth- in America the only sin is in being poor. If you're poor you don't matter. Yes, we talk about helping the poor but we don't actually mean it.

    And finally, people have been talking about the levees a lot and while they're important they neglect to mention that a lot of the natural boundaries that have been protecting new orleans have been stripped away due to development and other things...to quote grist: The Corps motto is "essayons," or "let us try," and its engineers love to build projects. But they especially love projects that benefit their influential allies in industry and Congress. One example was the $62 million Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a 76-mile navigation shortcut to the Port of New Orleans. An official Corps history conceded that "the costs were shown to be high and the benefits ... speculative," and critics denounced it as a storm-surge shotgun pointed at the city's gut. But under pressure from its friends at the port and Louisiana's congressional delegation, the Corps approved it. It has destroyed 20,000 acres of marshes, and has never attracted many ships. But the Corps has defended it, and still spends $13 million a year dredging it.

    Scientists believe the outlet intensified Katrina's surge by as much as 40 percent.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Man, it's sooo times like this that make me wish that I had HBO. I kicked the box (i.e. gave up my addiction to television) several years ago. Oddly enough, I think programming has actually gotten a lot better since then.

    Hmmmm, maybe I'll eventually go back to the box afterall ...

  7. I`m going to watch out for this film. The "powers that be" are always trying to hide the truth from the people, world over.
    I`m glad I`ve discovered your blog. Your a fantastic writer with lots to say.


  8. You know, I'll give the show another chance and watch it after all. It's just that he left a bad taste in my mouth when he explicitly said on Maher that the US Government deliberately blew up the levees to get rid of black people. Then he repeated the claim on CNN. He really disappointed me there. But I'll give it a chance.

  9. Anonymous8/30/2006

    I am not sure if this statement was taken out of context or what as I didnt see the bill maher thing. And I love Spike Lee but I still wonder what he was thinking with Get on the Bus.
    ANyways as an artist I think sometimes people say extreme things or out there things that emerge from the subconscious just to get people thinking outside the box and imagining different scenarios behind events-- just to get the juices flowing and emotional raw side of things out-- with the hope to get people worked up and eventually they get to a middle gound and see reality-- which may not be as bad as Spike Lee presented it as trying to consciously knock down levees to get rid of black communities, but maybe now people think this is a little worse than they initially thought. It may be a natural disaster, but we had the money and resources to do a much better job than was done here. And bottom line is poor people and lots of black people suffered here and everyone else got away and these are facts. So on some level Spikes statment is very true and our society is making a conscious decision to get rid of or silence & ignore minorities and the poor. ANd its more insidious here because everyone thinks he's being extreme by saying that but look at the facts. What happened? The poor and black died and were still are ravaged and the rich and white escaped. THis is murderous and insidious and is more of a conspiracy theory because its so obvious that we can't see it! ANd these are the facts all around us. Look at New York city-- you have rich white people in manhattan and poor minorities in the outer boroughs struggling to get by on $8000 a year. A Shaniqua's resume at goldman sachs will get thrown out while Bill Smith will get a job without practically even an interview. Its all around us.SO what Spike is saying is true and not really extreme at all--it was just consolidated into a soundbite. As an artist you can do that and go to "extremes"-- its checks and balances...

  10. I am really glad that Katrina is still fresh on the American conscience. I really am. I, however, am from Laurel, Mississippi (a part of Jones County, the 2nd worst hit place outside of the coast). We are about 150 miles north of the Gulf Coast. So, it pisses me off to no end that New Orleans gets allllllll this coverage, while places in MS were completely wiped off the map. Those little towns in that 150 miles are destroyed. There are miles upon miles of NOTHING but debris. There aren't even house/building frames. It's all gone. People are still living in trailers and were kicked out of their hotel rooms months ago. MS really got the shit end of the stick on this one, and we were the only ones that were actually destroyed by the hurricane. If you tell the story, tell the entire fucking story. You can't do that without Mississippi.

  11. the thing with MS though is that you were hit by the hurricane. There's nothing that anyone could have done, really, to stop that. NO, however, represents a massive fuck-up of the human variety. The Levees should have held and they didn't. The escape plan for a city of that size should have been better, and it wasn't. I'm not saying that the suffering of MS is less than NO b/c I don't think that anyone thinks that's true; I certainly don't. Rather, the thing that resonates with people in NO is that the government failed the people there before the storm even hit. Put another way, what happened to MS was an act of nature, what happened to NO was an act of government.


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