Spike Lee (with the help, according to the credits, of a number of NYU Film school interns) has crafted a lengthy, quite compelling look at Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Mixing news footage with talking-head interviews with survivors and those in power, this “Film Document” does an admirable job of detailing many of the key elements that made the disaster of Katrina far more powerful than simply the storm that hit.
The structure follows four acts, acts that do tend to blend into one another rather than creating cut and dry chapters differing from one another. The length of the film allows for contradictory accounts and recollections to butt against one another, with certain urban myths/theories such as the potential deliberate bombing of the levees given due course. Even Kayne West’s “George Bush doesn’t like Black people” remark is given ample reflection. The length also, unfortunately, adds a sense of repetition that reduces in part the effectiveness of certain sequences.
With the events only a year old, there is both a freshness and lack of resolution to the entire proceedings, with many interviews taking place when the anger is still at a boiling point. This is both a strength and weakness of the film, as it lacks an inevitable perspective that will come as time goes on, while at the same time conveying poignantly the anger and frustration felt by all of those participating.
Certain scenes seem to be overly obtrusive and blunt, certain points are literally battered over the viewers heads (the repetition of certain lines, for example, becomes a little too stylistically “cute” for my liking), but the general sense is of a well rounded anthology of a particular time in American history. For those that were glued to the 24 hour news stations (myself included) much of the first half will be familiar, with familiar footage played over and over throughout the hours. The second half, that concentrates more fitfully on those introduced in the first along with a look at the greater history of New Orleans, is thus all the more satisfying. For those that haven’t seen the footage from the convention center, or of the bodies floating and dramatic helicopter rescues, the film will surely be a revelation.
Regardless of this TV film’s merit as a festival film (noting that HBO documentaries are better than most films screened at the fest), When the Levees Broke provides an extraordinarily detailed look at this event, and its worth is sure to be felt increasingly as the memories fade and the anger softens with time and distance.