Film review Spike Lee’s sonorous, heartrending reflection on an American tragedy
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
Venice Film Festival
Saturday September 2, 2006
Festivalgoers at Venice, or anywhere else, are unused to having their attention-span tested by a four-hour documentary, especially when the screenings are subject to delay, as this one was, for mysterious “technical reasons”. But Spike Lee’s history of the Katrina disaster in New Orleans, sonorously-named When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, commanded everyone’s attention - and even opened a few tear ducts.
Anti-Bush sentiments triggered the traditional approving whoops: the unhappy US president is now the pantomime villain for all European film festivals with a doc or two on the menu. But Lee’s movie was notable for how measured its judgments were, and even ventured some politically incorrect views about the city itself.
Spike Lee has some introductory archive footage and photos of New Orleans, but mainly his film juxtaposes heartrending shots of the wreckage with interviews, talking to politicians and New Orleans residents, most of them even more angry about the debacle, one year on, than they were at the time.
The furthest up the political food-chain Lee gets is talking to the city’s embattled mayor, the defensive Louisiana state governor, and the now contrite police chief who went on TV and whipped up a storm by exaggerating the looting problem his men faced. The awful truth, as so many testified, was that Katrina was an act of man, not God: New Orleans was only hit by wind and tempest for a relatively short time.
But later the inadequately maintained levees, or flood walls, broke and a city below sea level was catastrophically submerged. A president anxiously focused on the “war on terror” was all too slow to respond, apparently unable to decide if conspicuous federal intervention would make him look strong or weak. Days passed, and TV pictures of starving, dying Americans made the US look like a third world country - or perhaps, arguably, disclosed the third world country that America secretly keeps in its closet.
Media sophisticates commenting on Katrina at the time were squeamish about citing the race factor, but one person noted the elephant in the flooded living room. Lee shows the classic clip of pop star Kanye West going on TV, apparently for an innocuous charity broadcast and breaking with the script to say: “The president doesn’t care about black people.” Next to him, comedy star Mike Myers flinches and half-turns to him, for a fraction of a second appearing mutely to implore West to qualify the statement in some way, clearly panicking at being associated with these views. An unmissable moment of celeb-career anxiety.
Lee also revives the wince-making memory of Barbara Bush, former First Lady and current First Mom, who gave a notorious interview, superciliously claiming that evacuees moved out to prosperous Texas - many parted from their families - were actually getting a nice break.
Mrs Bush disgraced herself, yet Lee boldly declares that plenty of evacuees in Texas and Utah found that there was more for them there in terms of education and jobs than in New Orleans - and maybe they were being loyal to a place that was holding them back.
It is a movie which, for non-US audiences, is a little reticent in explaining what a levee is, how it is built, how it gets damaged.
And I could have done with more of a strategic overview of when and how floodwaters entered the city. But this is a heartfelt movie, a documentary unafraid to spread itself across its vast subject matter, and a fierce denunciation of the arrogant political classes, still in denial about one of the biggest tragedies in American history.
· Peter Bradshaw is the Guardian’s film critic
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