When The Levees Broke

Spike Lee's documentary When The Levees Broke runs four hours, but Lee arguably says what he needs to say in the brilliant opening montage, which cuts together footage of New Orleans in the 20th century, including Mardi Gras parades, segregation marches, and flood after flood. The message? No one should say there was no warning of what could happen to New Orleans, or that it didn't happen for any nefarious reasons, or that nothing significant has been lost.

But while Lee understands how to frame this story, he can't tell it alone. When The Levees Broke lines up what must be a hundred interview subjects to talk about the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, the flood that ensued, and—the most underreported part of this whole tragedy—the nightmare of trying to rebuild the city. The flood footage is as startling as ever, right down to the bloated bodies floating in submerged streets. Even more disturbing is the exhausted unanimity of the people Lee talks with. Whether they're black or white, rich or poor, they're all victims of a presumption that became more widely vocalized in the months after Katrina: that they were somehow asking for it.

Lee indulges some possibly unnecessary side trips into the history of jazz, and into speculation that the levees were intentionally breeched. But he also shows the most famous confrontations and sound bites of the Katrina coverage—Anderson Cooper's outrage excepted—and finds some of the people involved in those moments, to let them explain further. (That kind of curiosity is what makes Lee The Filmmaker so much more valuable than Lee The Cranky Interview Subject.)

Mainly, When The Levees Broke focuses on the frustrations of people who were stranded in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, facing gun-toting government agents telling them where they could and couldn't go. Just for recording their descriptions of being herded into pens and scattered across the country, When The Levees Broke is as significant a piece of documentary reporting as The Sorrow And The Pity. There are so many voices to hear from, and for once, none are ignored.

Key features: Bonus interviews arranged into a lengthy "fifth act," and a marathon, engrossing commentary track by Lee, who gives some behind-the-scenes insights on the making of the movie, and offers a lot of his own opinions.

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