New Orleans is a “chocolate city,” as Mayor Ray Nagin famously put it—built on the shoulders of and driven by black people. From being the “Paris of the South” to becoming one of America’s forgotten corners, its history has been inextricably bound to race, class and the economy of the day. But throughout its existence, the city has thrived on a spirit of vitality and laidback comforts, reflected in its fiery foods, hopeful jazz and colorful Mardi Gras parade. Spike Lee understands this culture, which makes his document of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy the most endearing yet.
It was insensitive if not downright preposterous when Lee, on Real Time With Bill Maher, compared the government’s response to the disaster to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, not just because it ignored the way in which Katrina crossed color lines but because the political agenda behind the comment was so shrill and egocentric, an unfortunate hallmark of Lee’s recent work. (These days, his mythical Brooklyn has become little more than an infuriating, arrogant representation of his personal racial and sexual frustrations.) It comes as a relief, then, that When the Levees Broke is completely exorcised of his most recent cinematic sensibilities. Lee foregoes useless speechifying, opting instead to create an epic document of New Orleans’s struggle, death, abandonment and subsequent reconstruction (a requiem in four acts) that should prove instructive for years to come, if not in facts than for its emotional scope: an up-close, deeply empathetic and soulful journey through the stories that make up this catastrophe.
The film works because Lee turns away from himself, and taps into the unvarnished pain of Gulf Coast residents, who understandably channel their frustrations toward a government that neglected them and whose aid continues to fumble. Sometimes it’s less about what President Bush or FEMA could’ve done (answer: a lot more) than the sentiment they send to the citizens they represent; Bush enjoys vacation and Condoleezza Rice shops for shoes while thousands drown in their homes. This attention to politicians’ behavior can get hackneyed—“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” is repeated three times, when it’s already been overdone—but the documentary always remains focused on the people affected by officials’ thoughtlessness.
Blacks suffer a unique nightmare because their struggle has heartbreaking historical precedent. But above all else, it’s about the people of New Orleans, to whom this work is dedicated, and who fight through their anger together. Lee stages a funeral procession in Katrina’s honor, with a brass band walking through ravaged neighborhoods. Limbs both black and white flail in the air as the horns point toward the heavens, a statement of solidarity that rises above partisan politics of the week. Lee’s political statement is one of humanism, and the result is his most potent work in years.