TV Review: Spike Lee HBO documentary captures human face of Katrina

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Spike Lee's four-hour-long documentary about Hurricane Katrina and its terrible aftermath is hard to watch.

David Lee
Musician Terence Blanchard walks the streets of New Orleans in Spike Lee's HBO film, structured in four acts. Acts I and II premiere tonight, and Acts III and IV, tomorrow night.
Click photo for larger image.

'When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts'

When: 9 p.m. today and tomorrow on HBO. The entire film will be shown 8 p.m.-midnight Aug. 29, the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Director: Spike Lee.

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"When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" isn't just compilation footage of the greatest domestic natural disaster of our times.

Rehashing the monumental incompetence of the federal, state and local governments would be too easy for a filmmaker of Spike Lee's talent and anger.

What Lee manages to do over the two nights the documentary is broadcast on HBO is humanize the victims by giving them a chance to put their Katrina experiences into their own words, creating a fresher, if no less heartbreaking, context for understanding the scope of the disaster.

The result is a breathtaking, often depressing and always riveting account of the nation's rapid descent into the contemporary heart of darkness that was New Orleans nearly a year ago.

Opening with Satchmo's incantatory "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans," the documentary sets the scene for what is to come by jumping between the city's glorious past and dismal present with surprising fluidity.

By establishing the basis for New Orleans' party-minded optimism early on, the heartbreak everyone realizes is just down the road becomes even more pronounced.

The cable news footage that defined the carnage for most of America is here, providing a visual narrative that is as compelling now as it ever was.

Lee brings in the voices of ordinary citizens who were affected by the rising waters. We hear about the horror of the Superdome from people who suffered through the fetid heat, stench and hunger with no hope of rescue by authorities who always promised more than they could deliver.

We're mesmerized by the dignity of exhausted survivors recounting their time in hell with a lucidity and attention to detail worthy of novelists. Their use of profanity supplements their moral outrage, as when a survivor describes how close she came to attacking a female guard at the airport for looking at her as if she had lost a measure of her humanity.

The whole width and breadth of the Katrina experience is contained in this documentary, including the belief that many had that the levees were dynamited on purpose so that rich, white neighborhoods wouldn't flood.

The ear-witness testimony of ordinary people positive they heard explosions before the water overwhelmed them is contradicted by community leaders, scientists and other ordinary people who ascribe mundane reasons for the sounds.

Still, it makes for a fascinating dialogue within the documentary. Lee resists what must be a natural urge on his part to side with the conspiracy theorists.

Besides interviewing ordinary people who had to make do without resources for days in the valley of death, Lee lined up interviews with notables such as New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, CNN's Soledad O'Brien and rapper Kanye West, whose infamous "George Bush doesn't care about black people" statement resonated with blacks across America.

Nearly 100 people are interviewed, although one could argue that it isn't exactly evenhanded. No one from the Bush administration was in a hurry to be interviewed by Lee, though there is plenty of footage of President Bush laughing and acting inappropriately during the crisis.

The president's offhand compliment to FEMA director Michael Brown that he was doing a "heckuva job, Brownie" comes back to haunt him in spades.

One of the most effective scenes in tonight's broadcast features a stinging denunciation of Secretary of State Condi Rice by author Michael Eric Dyson. Noting that at the height of the crisis, Vice President Dick Cheney was out West fly-fishing and Rice was in New York shopping and attending "Spamalot" on Broadway, there is no rebuttal the Bush administration can make that wouldn't sound laughable.

Amongst the footage of cops looting Wal-Mart, Canadian mounted police arriving in New Orleans before our own federal government and bodies floating on water or piled on highways like human compost, there is no way to rationally process it all.

Sometimes "When the Levees Broke" achieves a poetic revery by simply being a tragic montage of good intentions and hellish incompetence.

Tony Norman can be reached at or 412-263-1631.


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