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When the Levees Broke

A movie directed by Spike Lee

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When the Levees Broke - 2006

  • Aug 17, 2011
Pros: an intensely provocative work

Cons: none for me

The Bottom Line:
"Grant them eternal rest, O Lord,
and may perpetual light shine on them"

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Actswas directed by Spike Lee and could be said to be his best work to date.   It has no MPAA rating and was nominated for 15 awards, winning seven.   It is a hefty piece of work, lasting around 4-1/2 hours.   

The film:
August 29, 2005 ... nothing further needs to be said.

This was a gripping documentary offered by Spike Lee and filmed in 2006.   Oddly enough, I think he could probably revisit the area and come up with basically the same results.   Utter devastation and despair.

Several of the people interviewed compared the tragedy to 9/11, saying the entire city of New Orleans was ground zero.   There were also a good deal of the interviewees that had harsh words regarding the government and its lack of commitment to the survivors of Katrina.   One thing struck them prominently and that was the word used to describe them - "refugees".    They empathically declared they were citizens of the US, homeowners and tax payers for the most part, not refugees from another country.

Of major importance was the length of time they waited until relief, from governmental sources, came their way.   There was plenty of local relief - individuals took their own lives in their hands to seek out and rescue fellow inhabitants of the city.   Of particular note, actor Sean Penn arrived and used his influence to commander a boat and traveled the waterways, which used to be streets, looking for survivors.   Several times he plunged into the murky, infested, waters to pull someone to safety.

Interviewees also discussed the displacement of their families and sometimes it was months before they found out if someone was alive or dead.   Children were separated from parents and shipped out, living conditions provided were dismal at best, and some people are still waiting, 6 years later, for one of those promised FEMA trailers.    

The film is divided into four sections:  Act I discusses the coming storm and the effect it could have on New Orleans.   Act II tells of the delay by the government in rescuing survivors.   Act III goes into the devastating aftermath of the storm and the survivors.    Act IV tells of the levee project, mismanagement by Army Corp of Engineers, failure of payout by insurance companies, and the failure of support by FEMA.  Although it is advertised as a requiem in four acts there are actually six to the series.   Act V, titled Next Movement, is a two-hour supplement with extended footage and interviews cut from the original piece.  Act VI, titled Water is Rising, is a montage of photographs set to some great jazz. 

Lee didn't focus in on any one group of residents, he interviewed poor, rich, black, white, politicians, news anchors, police, publice figures, and radio personalities.    Great attention was placed on thanking the Coast Guard for their immediate and effective response and the heroism of just regular folks that stayed behind to rescue elderly and infirm.   

Lee, as is his nature, does wander into the conspiracy theory for a while.   This isn't surprising nor does it distract from the power of the complete work.   Overall it might be his best work.

Not all of the documentary focused on destruction and pathos, a good deal of time was spent investigating the roots of New Orleans, especially the musical aspect.   there was some great footage of marching players, and, of course, the Mardi Gras.   There was also the funeral dirge when the "buried" Katrina and vowed to rebuild the city.

Unfortunately many haven't return to the land they loved so much.   Many can't afford to return, some just have no desire.   Katrina might have broke her back but she never broke the spirit of New Orleans and I pray that someday they are able to rebuild and repopulate her streets again.

Overall impression:
The documentary was filmed with great clarity and sound.    Sometimes you didn't want the visions or hear the plaintiff cries.   It is an extremely powerful piece that overloads your senses and makes you question, just like the residents did.   It is available with commentary by Spike Lee throughout the documentary but I felt it was distracting from the stories being told.  It is definitely a must see property.



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September 22, 2011
I heard about this, but for some reason it dropped from my radar. Spike Lee can make an awesome movie once he puts his mind to it...
September 23, 2011
as with most his work, this was quite powerful, thanks and try to catch it
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Susi Dawson ()
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About this movie


With a runtime of over four hours, this HBO-produced Spike Lee documentary is the definitive word on Hurricane Katrina. Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, causing the levees that had previously kept the city from flooding to burst, which led to death, destruction, and homelessness on an alarming scale. Lee carefully plots the buildup to the hurricane, using many of the key figures in the city--such as mayor Ray Nagin and local radio show hosts--to outline the warnings given to residents. The film then covers the hurricane itself, showing gut-wrenching pictures of dead bodies and people pleading to be saved, before it settles into a lengthy discourse on the government response to the tragedy. Celebrities such as CNN's Soledad O'Brien, Sean Penn, and Harry Belafonte all appear, but Lee mainly focuses on the words of those who somehow made it through Katrina and lived to tell the tale. The majority of those people are highly critical of the Bush administration for its poor response, attributing this to...
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Director: Spike Lee
Release Date: 2006
MPAA Rating: Unrated
DVD Release Date: Warner Home Video (December 19, 2006)
Runtime: 4hr 16min
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