Sunday, August 27, 2006

Film Review #53: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Parts
Director: Spike Lee

Lee’s Katrina Doc on HBO Is Majestic, Moving

Spike Lee is a patient man. Four Little Girls, his documentary about the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, opened during the same week that the US Justice Dept. announced the case re-opened, leading to the arrest of three long-identified suspects – in 1997. Today, Four Little Girls usefully corrects the mistaken notion that there were no terrorist attacks on US soil in those years between Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Yet Spike Lee waited over a decade for the Birmingham families’ permission to make Four Little Girls.

In the run-up publicity for his new documentary about Hurricane Katrina, Lee said he’d like some people to go to jail for their actions before and after the storm. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts aired earlier this week on HBO in two parts. HBO runs the entire doc – almost four and a half hours with its lengthy end credits sequence – next Tuesday, August 29th, the anniversary of Katrina’s landfall in Louisiana. The first half was screened in New Orleans Arena last week for over 10,000 people, who snapped up the free tickets in 48 hours.

Despite hustling to get this movie done in time for next Tuesday’s anniversary of Katrina’s landfall in Louisiana, Lee has remained a patiently angry filmmaker. Completely without voice-over narrative, this film lets its subjects – over 100 interviewed – tell their own stories. That pays off handsomely. It also allows Lee to present material about their experience that could otherwise be brushed off as inflammatory, such as the rumor that some levees were blown up on purpose to flood the poor, largely Black Ninth Ward and divert waters from other sectors. In the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, that had happened in New Orleans.

Lee has brought with him many of the same crew from Four Little Girls. HBO’s Sheila Nevins green-lighted the project, getting Lee on location by Thanksgiving for the first of nine trips. Noting that HBO never before doubled both the size and budget of a documentary, Nevins correctly calls this “the film of record for Katrina.” Sam Pollard produced and supervised editing of some 30 versions. Trumpeter and Ninth Ward native Terrence Blanchard, who’s scored Lee’s films since 1990’s Mo’ Better Blues, also performs, talks and in Act III escorts his mother back to her ruined home.

Acts I and II recap and reframe material that most of us with a pulse have already seen about the storm’s approach, those who fled and those who couldn’t, and what passed for rescue. Set to African drums and then Louis Armstrong singing “Do You Know What It Mans to Miss New Orleans?”, the opening montage intersperses historical footage of New Orleans revelry with Katrina devastation, setting up anew the contradiction and irrationality of what occurred. People recall over and over that tsunami relief reached around the globe in half the time it took FEMA to reach New Orleans. There are desperate moments of fear, anger, grief and rescue. One bizarre moment has red-coated Canadian Mounties arriving to help the relief effort. Closing the first half with a long montage of abandoned bodies is a risky move, if you think about it, because many viewers might easily not come back.

But Act III is worth the wait. Here, focusing on displacement of what WWWL radio host Garland Robinette says has been almost a million people, Levees really is majestic and moving. And here, Lee’s art as a feature filmmaker immeasurably deepens and supports the documentary. Here is where Terence Blanchard takes his frail but regal mother home, and where First Mother Barbara Bush visits the Houston Astrodome “refugees,” shrugging that “some of these people were underprivileged anyway.” In one sense, the whole film comes down to those two white-haired old ladies.

Act III is full of such masterful Lee moments of simply placing what’s worlds apart side by side. Terrence Blanchard walks through the Ninth Ward playing the hymn “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” on his trumpet, the music framing cuts between his walk and other faces and voices. Wynton Marsalis explains how the African drumming patterns from New Orleans’ old Congo Square, blended with French opera – “Where else in America? Not Boston!” – show up in today’s jazz. And Miss Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc, one of the memorable recurring personalities Lee brings on repeatedly for her blazing, shot-in-the-heart one-liners. Certain key still photos reappear throughout too, imposing an emotional order of the chaos by their accumulating familiarity. If you notice how such things work in movies, repetition and variation of people, images and musical themes is first-rate, a fitting achievement for Lee’s twenty year career.

By Act IV, I was tired, not in the mood for engineering data, insurance scams, and off-shore oil leases whose royalties are mostly siphoned away from Louisiana where they might pay for wetland restoration and community relief. But then, once again re-paying the wait, Levees winds up with a jazz funeral for Katrina – there’s one resilient elderly dancer in a fedora and sash emblazoned with “Jolly Bunch” who leads it – telling us a secret, I think, about what we lost and what endures. Spike Lee is a patient man, after all, as in “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes.”

This review appeared in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on 8/24/2006.