Monday, August 21, 2006

Spike Lee Films the New Orleans Disaster His Way

There are two Spike Lees. One is an artist capable of directing exceptional films, the other a public personality who suffers from flare-ups of foot-in-mouth disease and a fondness for conspiracy theories. Both sides of Mr. Lee’s personality express themselves in his new HBO documentary about Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of New Orleans, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.” As a result it is by turns powerful and frustrating.

There are moments of such sheer emotional force in Mr. Lee’s film that words cannot adequately describe them.

A drowned 5-year-old girl named Sarena Polk is laid to rest in a little pink casket. Her mother, Kimberly, walks away from the funeral sobbing. Her cries describe the gulf between despair and sadness. What would probably seem crass and exploitative on the television news feels intimate in this film.

Mr. Lee also sets the record straight on the false reports that spun out of the chaos, stories about men raping babies and shooting at helicopters, which portrayed the victims as savages. Those stories, magnified or invented whole cloth, drowned out the risks and sacrifices of Louisianans, which far outweighed the instances of criminality and opportunism. And those reports helped harden the views of many against rebuilding the city.

There are several reasons to make a documentary like “When the Levees Broke.” One is to create a historical record. A more important goal is to draw attention to the continued misery of the victims and, one would hope, encourage a new rush of aid and assistance for those struggling to rebuild. But Mr. Lee undermines the latter goal whenever his film reduces Katrina to a black problem.

Without quite endorsing them, Mr. Lee presents the utterly unfounded charges that the failed levees were blown up to flood poor black neighborhoods.

The resulting deluge destroyed the homes of black and white residents of New Orleans, including those in better-off neighborhoods like Lakeview. There are enough hard facts and plenty of injustice to go around in the story of the dangerous and woefully insufficient levees and the dismally bungled federal response to the disaster. Mr. Lee does not need to dwell on the most divisive rumors.

“When the Levees Broke” soars when it emphasizes what a terrible human tragedy Katrina was. In one instance, Mr. Lee presents a stark montage of bloated corpses. But he refuses to reduce these people to no more than symbols. A friend of one of the dead men, whose image is by now familiar because it has been used over and over by media outlets, says sadly yet defiantly, “The guy’s name was Eddie.” Suddenly, simply, the viewer cannot look at the storm’s dead the same way again. (read entire article)


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