TV Previews

Breach of Faith

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 21, 2006

It is the anger that cuts deepest -- a righteous, laser-focused anger born of betrayal, laced with sadness, a rumbling anger that pumps like blood through the veins of Spike Lee's masterly Katrina documentary, "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts."

Many Hurricane Katrina survivors are angry people, as well they should be, like Cheryl Livaudais, one of the many voices that narrate Lee's epic film, which airs in two parts tonight and tomorrow on HBO.

Beer in hand, Livaudais stands next to her tent on the concrete slab of what used to be her home in St. Bernard Parish and sarcastically muses that she might have to perform a sex act to finally get the FEMA trailer she's been awaiting so long.

And there's Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, a displaced New Orleanian filled with outrage at Barbara Bush's comment during the Katrina evacuations that "so many of the people in the arenas were underprivileged anyway, this is working very well for them." Montana stares straight into Lee's camera and bitterly challenges the former first lady:

"My phone number is 504-919-8699. Tell her to call me and say that [expletive]. Who's better off? Why? How?"

Even when Lee's subjects are calm and composed, their words cut to the bone. It hurts to listen when Herbert Freeman Jr. describes leaving his dead mother behind at the Convention Center. And most of us know her, or at least know of her, for hers was the body in the wheelchair, covered with the blanket her son had laid over her, along with the note he wrote with her name, his name and his cellphone number.

Four days after her death, the evacuation began. The National Guard prodded the evacuees aboard buses, even a man whose mother was lying dead a short distance away.

"I wanted to go and be with her," says Freeman, his voice a monotone. "The National Guard told me I had to get on the bus. And they all had AK-47s. He told me he was doing his job. I said, 'Let me just go back there just to see her before I leave.' He said, 'No, you're not going to do anything. You're just going to get on this bus.' So I had to make a decision. . . . So I prayed to myself and the voice within me told me just to get on the bus, don't do anything, just stand still and watch my salvation." His mother was left behind.

Along with visuals that capture all aspects of the disaster, these bitter, wounded, poignant, thoughtful, expert and often foul-mouthed voices are knitted together in a tightly edited film that manages to sustain four hours without a central narrator.

Yes, it is long. Lee has a penchant for overlong films, and small cuts in his "Requiem" would not have been a bad thing. There are too many lingering shots of decomposed bodies. He is also a filmmaker that many love to hate or debate, a filmmaker with the kind of audacity, idiosyncrasy and racial sensibility that some find overwrought.

And yet those qualities make Lee that rare director who could absorb the Katrina disaster in all its human, racial and political dimensions and make it his solemn mission to create the authoritative historical documentary. It is a lament for the dead. It is a salve for the wounded of body and soul. It is scored sparely at times, with violins just shy of the maudlin. At other times, we feel that melancholic tug, as when Louis Armstrong sings, "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?"

Lee's "Requiem" shows much of what many viewers will already be familiar with from the TV news coverage as the crisis unfolded.

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