Spike Lee stared at another dead body. Cue music. It went on like that through most of a recent Saturday afternoon. Outside, at the corner of Terpsichore and Annunciation streets in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans, little suggested Hurricane Katrina's devastation. But inside the Music Shed, the modest recording studio where Lee was holed up for the weekend, a large-screen TV freeze-framed the image of another victim floating face down, then one more bombed-out street. If it was a relentless reminder of Katrina's wrath, Lee wanted it that way.
"I wanted to make a film—not just to document what happened, but as a platform for the voices of the people I'd seen on TV."
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Lee's four-hour HBO documentary, was in its final production stages. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who grew up in the city's Ninth Ward and now lives in the Garden District, and who has composed the scores for Lee's films since 1990's Mo' Better Blues, did another take of a melancholic theme. On-screen, the visual shifted to a talking head, one of dozens who carry the story forward.
Lee was at the Venice Film Festival when the hurricane hit last August. He spent days in his hotel room, transfixed by CNN and BBC images of drowned bodies and people waving in desperation from rooftops. "I realized right away that this was an important moment in American history," he said during a break in production, leaning on one of the African drums used for the opening sequence. "I wanted to make a film—not just to document what happened, but as a platform for the voices of the people I'd seen on TV."
"I'm telling you, it's taken all my energy not to become a bitter person making this documentary," Blanchard said. "I've been looking at all of these people pleading for help, looking at it every day. And at the same time that I'm doing this I'm seeing no public outcry and no president or other official stepping up with real action."
Having drawn on the experiences of some 100 New Orleans residents in making his film, Lee was now offering the city a sneak preview. Some 15,000 free tickets were snapped up in less than 48 hours for an August 16 public screening of the first half of Levees at the New Orleans Arena. HBO will air the first two hours of Levees on August 21, and the last two on August 22. The film will be shown in its entirety on August 29, the anniversary of the hurricane.
The film opens with a lengthy montage—set to Louis Armstrong's "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?"—of warmhearted Mardi Gras and second-line-parade footage interlaced with stark shots of children airlifted from flooded streets, cars crushed by displaced houses, bodies adrift. We see the continuity of New Orleans culture and the discontinuity of Katrina's wake.
Cut to New Orleans mayor C. Ray Nagin at a December congressional hearing. "We come to you with facts," says Nagin.
"We come to you with eyewitness accounts."
That's precisely what Lee's film does. Never camera-shy, Lee nonetheless steered clear of Michael Moore's filmmaking approach: In fact, Lee is absent on-screen. There is no voiceover narration. Instead, he constructs the story through witnesses and other commentators, with images drawn from major media coverage, amateur videos, and footage from the nine trips he and his crew made to New Orleans.
One potentially controversial element of the story—persistent suspicion that levees were intentionally exploded in some sections to flood the poorer black sections of New Orleans—is considered without sensationalism.
Lee raised this possibility during an October appearance on HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher, mentioning 1965's Hurricane Betsy, when similar rumors surfaced, and the 1927 floods, when some levees were, in fact, intentionally blown. "I don't put anything past the American government when it comes to people of color in this country," Lee told Maher. Tucker Carlson shot back that Lee was a "reckless conspiracy theorist" and that he was "feeding paranoia." Yet David Remnick raised these same points in much the same manner in a New Yorker piece earlier that month. In the film, such suspicion is considered by residents who "heard a boom" as well as by John M.Barry, author of Rising Tide, who finds "too many similarities between 1927 and Katrina," especially similar failures of the levee policy.
"Maybe they did, maybe they didn't," Lee says. "We'll never know because it won't be investigated. But the flood should not have happened anyway. The Army Corps of Engineers has said it was their fault. Somebody should go to jail."
Stories of personal suffering and loss dominate Lee's film. Phyllis Montana- LeBlanc recalls being told, in the midst of the flooding, that 911 was not taking any calls. ("What do you mean?" she shouted. "I'm fucking dying!") She describes the slow unraveling of her life as her family was evacuated and split up in different cities.
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who lends both music and commentary to the film, had told me months ago that "the black faces on CNN looking for lost mothers and fathers call up a historical memory of Southern slave families torn apart." As Blanchard put it, "It wasn't so much the feeling that the country was saying, 'We don't want you back.' It was them saying, 'We don't want you, period.' "
Blanchard has long been the musical voice of Lee's stories. His was the trumpet behind Denzel Washington's character in Mo' Better Blues; he even had a cameo in Lee's Malcolm X. Now, the story being told is, in part, his. At one point, Blanchard walks through a devastated Ninth Ward, playing the hymn "Just a Closer Walk With Thee." At another, he escorts his mother back to her home, where he was born and raised. She breaks down crying in the doorway when she realizes everything inside has been destroyed, right down to the family photos.
"It's weird to have a very personal moment like that videotaped," Blanchard says. "I had mixed emotions about Spike using it because it was my mom. I'd never seen her like that. But I thought people need to see what we're going through, not just to hear about it secondhand or get a politician's reaction to it."
Levees makes devastating use of memorable public moments: President Bush's comment "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job"; Mayor Nagin, during a call to Garland Robinette's radio show, imploring the federal government to "get off your asses and do something"; CNN's Soledad O'Brien confronting FEMA's Michael Brown about the thousands stranded in the Convention Center ("Why are you discovering this now? It's been five days"). Here, linked, they form a detailed indictment.
"Our government has done a lot of things in a sneaky way," says Lee. "But all this was blatant, no camouflage: 'We don't care.' "
Lee's film deftly tells a story on a personal level: We grasp the human cost of this crisis in ways simply not conveyed through headlines and soundbites. And beyond analysis of government inaction and faulty levee policy, Lee forcefully reminds us that the culture of New Orleans—the music and food, patois and attitude we celebrate as our nation's soul—is imperiled.
Initially, HBO and Lee had planned Levees as a two-hour, $1 million project. "But as I got into it," Lee says, "I realized that the scope of this story demanded more." HBO doubled the budget and airtime. "And even that's not enough," Lee says. "The movie doesn't end with a 'to be continued,' but the story goes on."
Many critics wondered aloud whether or not Oliver Stone's World Trade Center arrived too soon. Timed to mark the anniversary of the hurricane, Lee's Levees is just in time—not so much a commemoration as a wake-up call.
"There's a thing called Katrina fatigue," Lee says. "It's going to be a year now, and people need to move on; we've got wars and whatever else to think about. But the people in New Orleans and the Gulf region can't afford to be forgotten."
I caught trombonist Glen David Andrews, who appears in Levee's final scene, leading the Treme Brass Band on a Sunday night at Vaughn's, one of the city's best-loved holes-in-the-wall. In between sets, he looked me in the eye and spoke with pride about the many musicians in his family. But his gaze and his voice lowered recalling two days in the Superdome following the storm, and six months "in exile," in Houston. He's back in New Orleans now, living in a FEMA trailer.
The day before, Andrews was at the Music Shed to work on the film's ending. It's a mock New Orleans jazz funeral, a traditional way to mark the passage from one realm to another in anticipation of rebirth. The Hot 8 Brass Band led an empty casket on wheels marked "Katrina." Andrews held his horn at his side and sang a familiar hymn: "When I die . . . hallelujah, by and by, I'll fly away." But on the final verse, he altered the lyric: "New Orleans will never go away."
Lee was concerned that the last line was buried. He sent Andrews back in for a voiceover.
"I want everyone to hear that," he said.
"Like a declaration?" asked Andrews.
"Yeah," Lee snapped back. "A declaration."
Originally published on August 15, 2006, in The Village Voice. Copyright © 2006 by Larry Blumenfeld. Reprinted with permission.