Spike Lee’s powerful 'When the Levees Broke'

By Larry Hales

Spike Lee has made three important documentaries. Each one has been

released by HBO. The first one, “4 Little Girls,” was nominated for an Academy Award. The movie is about four young African American girls murdered in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, when racist klansmen bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church.

The second documentary, “Jim Brown: All-American,” is about the great Cleveland Browns running back and political activist. When the third documentary,

“When the Levees Broke,” was shown on Aug. 21 and 22 in two-hour segments each day, it had been nearly one year since Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast. The storm exposed for all the world to see—in case there had been any doubt—the great chasm caused by racism in capitalist society—especially in the U.S.

Spike Lee said, “This film will showcase the struggle for New Orleans by focusing

on the profound loss, as well as the indomitable spirit, of New Orleaneans.” His film

is indeed part requiem, but more. The sorrowful music that plays throughout the film invokes the spirit of those enslaved by nationality and class. The music is part of the rich culture of New Orleans which is very significant to Black people. Lee takes great care in highlighting this reality throughout the four-hour


The musical score is beautifully and compassionately composed by Terence Blanchard, himself a native of New Orleans. The score includes sorrow songs and the Blues tradition that is rooted in Black people surviving slavery. This is fitting, since the breaking up of evacuees’ families when they were forcibly dispersed all over the country is tragically reminiscent of the disintegration of Black families on the auction block through slavery.

Broken levees drowned New Orleans

The film reveals a fact not commonly known, that the hurricane breaking through the levees was the equivalent of a category 1 storm. This is pertinent because part of the criminal neglect that exposed so many poor, mostly people of color, to flooding, especially in the Ninth Ward, was the shoddy work done on the levees by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The levees, if built properly, were supposed to have withstood up to category 3 hurricanes. According to Dr. Mark Powell of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Research Division, Katrina was a category 3 when it first hit landfall with 115 mph winds but was downgraded to category 1 when it veered east of New Orleans. The buoys on Lake Pontchartrain measured from 90 mph to 114 mph. The full story on this was covered in the Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Powerful images, some of which have not seen before, were shown throughout the documentary. If taken out of context, it would be difficult for many people to associate these images with the richest and most technologically advanced country in the world.

Lee had access to many families who recounted the days before and after the hurricane struck. What is revealed would be understandably crushing if it weren’t for the inspiring spirit of the people interviewed. Many are defiant and want to return home, but have been cast over 49 states with little-to-no means to get back home.

Spike Lee, very wryly, shows the callous disregard for the survivors displayed by federal officials from Condoleezza Rice to George W. Bush. It sends shivers down the spine when Bush utters, “New Orleans will rise again,” for it is not the fighting spirit of the real people of New Orleans that he utters it for, but for the rich whites and big business drooling at the possibility to recreate New Orleans as a playground for the rich.

The film covers the armed white racists in Gretna, who forcibly turned back Black people on a bridge trying to flee a flooded New Orleans with no food or water. Lee also includes reports of white men with guns riding around New Orleans in pickup trucks shooting at Black people.

While the film doesn’t mention the 1,500 doctors that Cuba offered to send to the Gulf Coast, Harry Belafonte does praise Venezuela, under the leadership of President Hugo Chávez, for attempting to send concrete aid to the people of the Gulf Coast. The Bush administration turned down the assistance of both countries. As the Fats Domino song, “Walkin’ to New Orleans,” which is played at the end of both two hour portions of the film, proclaims:

“I’ve got no time for talkin’/I’ve got to keep on walkin’/New Orleans is my home/That’s the reason why I’m goin’/ Yes, I’m walkin’ to New Orleans.”

Just as the movie will forever document a burgeoning struggle, the song, written about a failed relationship, attests to the desire of the people of New Orleans to endure. The city was forged through the Black struggle against slavery, from which most of its culture sprung, and the people there will have the last say, even if they have to walk back there to do so.

Spike Lee’s documentary is a monumental work that doesn’t define itself as the end or the final word on this catastrophe.

It is still a movement in progress.


Post a Comment

<< Home