Spike Lee Crafts Beautiful Disaster with Levees

By Tammy Johnson Aug 30, 2006

Allow me first to give a big disclaimer here: I’m not a Spike Lee fan. Yes, he’s a talented filmmaker, but at times the brother can be a bit off kilter. The portrayal of women in his films leaves a lot to be desired. The political fights he picks can be a bit loopy (remember his beef with Woopie Goldberg and her blue contacts?) And I almost slipped into a state of numbness while trying to follow a meandering speech he gave at a university a few years back. But Lee’s latest work, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts is more than deserving of the accolades that it’s collecting from cultural commentators and activists. My emotions shifted from disgust, sadness, outrage and laughter while viewing the four-hour HBO documentary last night. There were three themes that stood out for me while viewing Requiem: the story behind the story, the truth of structural racism, and the epic human tragedy that continues today. The story behind the story We’ve all seen the tragic pictures of people lined up on bridges, stranded on roofs and huddled in the stadium in New Orleans. But what is often lost in the media blitz created to generate a Pulitzer prize for some journalist, is the broader context of what proceeded those conditions and the little telling nuggets of information that drive home a point. For instance, it was very telling when it was revealed that Mayor Nagin first consulted with the business community about disaster preparedness issues, prior to Katrina’s arrival. Structural racism on display Lee does a great job of interweaving the influence of historical racial (and class) barriers, of media stereotypes and racist cultural norms, with modern-day governmental neglect and political pandering. He skillfully connects the dots among housing and development issues, a dysfunctional public education system, a historically corrupt police department and money-grabbing public/private partnerships. It adds up to a painfully clear picture of racism run amuck. The human story What is most compelling are the faces and voices of the residence of the Gulf Coast. My face burned with anger when Phyllis described how indifferent airport security personnel treated stranded families as they board planes taking them to unknown destinations. It’s true, that there were some stories left out of the mix. We didn’t hear how corporate and government agents are conspiring to take Native American lands, or how Vietnamese communities were total left out of the rescue equation. Lee’s race lens is clearly limited to the traditional black/white spectrum, a major shortcoming for sure. But nonetheless, the stories there on the screen are enough to make you wonder, what else have you’ve not been told? So while I may not be rushing out to check out Lee’s next fictitious tale about black folk and our issues, I will give strong thumbs up for When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Good job Spike.