washingtonpost.com
Breach of Faith
Spike Lee Channels a Storm Surge Of Anger in 'When the Levees Broke'

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.

The documentary deploys that familiarity, along with the interviews, as relentlessly as a prosecutor in a court of law. Lee is clearly out to make an overwhelming case about government ineptitude, carelessness and racism, but the film is polemical in essence without being heavy-handed.

The usual suspects are allowed to simply hang themselves. And so we hear from President Bush, Michael "You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie!" Brown, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Col. Lewis Setliff of the Army Corps of Engineers. And talking heads have their say, ranging from historian Douglas Brinkley to activist Al Sharpton and a few journalists.

But ordinary people carry the narrative as Lee re-creates the earliest moments of the crisis. It is chilling to hear one of the survivors describe the arrival of the water on the New Orleans streets:

"I walked over to the sewer drain, storm drains, on the side of the street and I could hear this low rumbling gurgle coming at me. It sounded like just bubbling boil and it just spit out all over, spit out all over my shoes. Then I started hearing clang, clang, clang down the street, and it was the manhole covers popping off and the water was just blowing out the manhole covers and it was coming out of the storm drains and it was filling up. You could see it coming down the streets."

And so it was that hundreds of thousands of folks were left wading through filthy, chest-high water, left to fend for themselves and left, ultimately, destitute during months that have yet to end.

Katrina: The word conjures horrors. It conjures a collective psychic wound for many Americans, especially black Americans and, of course, most especially for the victims.

You think you know how deep it hurt, and then Gina Montanna takes it to another level, all the way down to that place in the soul where cultural memories are stored.

She's talking about the Katrina diaspora, with relatives separated, cast from city to city, state to state, from Utah to Florida. She's talking about 2005. But she's also talking about the distant past, about the ancestors, the slaves.

"With the evacuation scattering my family all over the United States," Montanna says quietly, "I felt like it was an ancient memory, as if we had been up on the auction block."

Families torn apart, still torn by pain.

Even the brief interlude in which victims tell of the sound of explosions they heard during the flooding, which gave rise to speculation that the levees were actually blown up -- even that moment is a measure of how deep the hurt runs, informed as it is by history. After all, back in the flood of 1927, levees were exploded to divert water from the city.

The list of indignities is long. The levees were poorly constructed. When they broke, there was no rescue, not even air drops of food and water as in the Asian tsunami, when foreigners got help from the United States within a day. Evacuees were dumped in new cities with few resources and no clear path of return to their homes. Returnees sometimes stumbled upon the remains of dead relatives inside homes that had allegedly already been searched. The trailers people were promised materialized ever so slowly. And hurricane season 2006 arrived with the levees still not sufficient to protect New Orleans.

But who pays the price? Cheryl Livaudais has something to say on that.

"They cost the people -- not just New Orleans and the Ninth Ward -- but the whole freakin' Southeast Louisiana. It cost the people their homes and their lives. I hope the politicians, or whoever did this, the Corps of Engineers, whoever -- I hope that they can sleep at night knowing they're the ones responsible."

She holds up her bottle of beer, saying, "And that's not this talking, that's the freakin' truth."

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (four hours): Acts I and II debut tonight at 9; Acts III and IV debut tomorrow night at 9 on HBO.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company