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When the Levees Broke

September 12, 2010

When the Levees Broke (2006)
Director: Spike Lee

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Synopsis: A documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Review: One of the great achievements of Spike Lee’s monumental record on Hurricane Katrina and its effect on the inhabitants of New Orleans, is that he managed to get such clarity and perspective on the subject so soon after it had occurred (literally within a matter of months). The first element Lee got spot-on was the decision to make this a document for the people – hence the decision to go for simple ‘talking heads’ footage from all the relevant parties, and to eschew the temptations of an authorial voiceover. Lee’s method effectively communicates that Katrina was not simply a catastrophic natural disaster, but very much an American social tragedy. Prioritising the testimonies of the community emphasises just how staggering it was that Katrina exposed a whole underbelly of poor and neglected urban citizens (primarily blacks) who simply could not react to the circumstances, and did not have the requisite infrastructure and social accessibility that should have afforded them the ability to avoid the hurricane. To name all the other scandalous offshoots of the hurricane would be too numerous – but some ‘lowlights’ include the appallingly late invocation of necessary federal resources, the farcical history of New Orleans’ pathetic levee system, and the disgraceful reaction to the events by the insurance companies. Lee though, is able to relocate from all this carnage, the triumph of the human spirit in desperately trying times, and some of the most moving episodes are not the deceptively voyeuristic tearful monologues, but when resolutely working-class members of the community exhibit commendable grace and eloquence in the spectre of despondency, death and destruction. (December 2008)

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