Five years ago this week, Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Despite the fact that the worst of the storm was east of New Orleans (by about 100 miles), the largest city in the region received the worst damage when the inadequate levee walls were undermined by the storm surge the day after the eye passed the coastline.
Spike Lee’s documentary, which first aired on HBO on the one-year anniversary of Katrina, looks at the city from its (inadequate) preparations for the storm through the exodus of hundreds of thousands of people from the city over the next six months. The series is long available on DVD and streaming via online services. We would join the chorus of reviewers in encouraging you to watch it (again).
The 4-part/4-hour long documentary won numerous awards and has been hailed by most reviewers for Lee’s aesthetic sensibilities in portraying so many voices and perspectives – what Troy Patterson at Slate.com called “filmic jazz” in his review 4 years ago. Perhaps the one thing we would add to the plethora of reviews is that the breadth of music (and a lack of it) matches the praises given to the visuals – and many of those visuals are not pleasant. Lee does not shy away from blackened and bloated bodies caught up in the flotsam of New Orleans. The music certainly pays homage to the jazz that can not be disassociated from the region, but Lee begins each of the four episodes with a haunting, slightly discordant, modern piece of orchestral music reminiscent of a science-fiction movie like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” By so doing, he hints to the reader that what we are about to see seems other-worldly or dystopian.
Indeed, perhaps the deepest-running political/economic/racial current in the documentary is how other-worldly the destruction of an American city is. Many of those interviewed betray a confused shock over how they and their city were treated in the aftermath (the first series includes interviews up to six months after the levees broke).
The series is so long and rich that it would be foolhardy to pick a couple of ‘key moments,’ but in reviewing the film for this week’s blogs, I was especially moved by the anger and bewilderment so many of the interviewees felt by being called “refugees” by the media once they were finally moved out of the city (over a week after the scope of the disaster was known by all). That they were being spoken of as if they were no longer citizens of the US, not people displaced by a failure of engineering and government assistance.Another striking quality of the series – and a testament to Lee’s willingness to stay out of the way of the stories of the peoples of the region – is the presentation of so many political and economic points of view.
Not surprisingly, no one has a good word to say about the Bush Administration or FEMA. But the wealthy (black, white, Creole) and the poor (black, white, Creole), the educated (black, white, Creole) and the unconnected (black, white, Creole) all get a say. Theories that the levees were intentionally bombed to drive poor blacks out of the city were calmly challenged through interviews of the many whites who lost everything as well.
A final point we would like to raise is that the destruction of the region is so stunning when shot by Lee, yet so many of the interviewees talk about how what they saw on TV in the weeks after the flood (from their relocation points in Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas, and as far away as Utah and New York) did not prepare them for the scope and utter misery of what they found when they returned. The damage to housing is so complete that in many scenes it might not be clear why a paved road would be in the midst of a junk yard or how it could be that a returning resident literally can not find the wreckage of his or her house until it is discovered a few blocks away.
Unlike Manhattan’s ‘Ground Zero,’ the destruction of most of a large city has faded from many Americans’ minds. Numerous interviewees comment on the comparison, blaming some combination of racial, economic, or political bias on the part of the federal government (Notably, no one is shown either blaming New Yorkers or local politicians for taking attention away from their plight). The film ends with a series of self-critiques from peoples of the area who saw the pretense of insurance, FEMA assistance, federal intervention… ripped away by the storm and the broken levees. These people lost a sense of what many admit was an insular naiveté in New Orleans culture and politics. They are caught needing help from the very institutions that failed them in the first place, and the lack of trust is palpable in every scene.
Tomorrow we shall look at what has been done, and not done, in the intervening years, and how the nascent recovery of the region has been covered by the media. We also hope you’ll join us when we discuss Spike Lee’s follow-up to his award winning documentary: “If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise.”