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Dam shame

Spike Lee won’t let New Orleans go away
By PETER KEOUGH  |  August 22, 2006
3.5 3.5 Stars

SPIKE’S BEST FILM YET?: Requiem reverberates with the power of truth.
In a few weeks, the country will remember one of the greatest disasters in its history. No doubt the Bush administration and Republicans looking to get elected in November will try to exploit the fifth anniversary of 9/11 for partisan gain. But the anniversary of another disaster precedes that occasion. On August 29, a year will have passed since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Republicans won’t be so eager to remind us of that.

Spike Lee won’t let us forget. Stunned by media coverage of the ongoing catastrophe while attending the Venice Film Festival, he decided to take a film crew to the scene and record what was happening. Would the resulting four-hour documentary bog down in self-righteousness and pontification, tendencies that have diminished his work in the past? Lee making a film about Katrina must have seemed to some as loaded a combination as Oliver Stone covering 9/11 was imagined to be.

Lee, however, neither overstates his point of view nor disingenuously claims neutrality, as does Stone in World Trade Center. Some might accuse him of finger pointing or playing the blame game, as accountability is labeled these days. But that kind of analysis is almost frustratingly restrained. When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts remains true to its name in maintaining a muted tone of dignity, tragedy and respect.

Divided into four “acts,” each devoted to a particular aspect of the disaster, it unfolds with understated eloquence an oral history of the event, a Spike Lee version of talking heads that he first utilized — for comic effect — 20 years ago in She’s Gotta Have It. The speakers range from Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin to disenfranchised but unbowed residents of the flooded Ninth Ward, who tell their stories posed in the midst the of ruins of their homes and neighborhoods. More eloquent than the words are the harrowing, heartbreaking images, some familiar from news broadcasts, many previously unseen and some almost unwatchable.

Lee himself is unseen and rarely heard — he’s off screen, asking the occasional question. No doubt his point of view dictated the choice and assemblage of this testimony — as is the case with all documentaries. The lack of any rebuttal from some of those criticized also troubles — were members of the administration and FEMA unavailable for comment? And the reliance on personal testimony and the somewhat disorganized use of hard evidence and statistics tends to make his case anecdotal. Nonetheless, Requiem overwhelms with its outrage, its sadness, its humanity. Its emotions are uncontrived and unmanipulated. Reverberating with the power of truth, it might be Lee’s best film yet.

Act one outlines the genesis and the fury of the storm, with residents and officials finally realizing, with varying degrees of non-comprehension, the magnitude of what they were in for. Survivors recollect how they did not comply with the mayor’s mandatory evacuation order because they thought they could ride out the storm or had no means of leaving. (More than 125,000 New Orleans residents had no access to vehicles.) Talking to the media, Michael Brown insists that FEMA is ready, and when it becomes horribly clear that it is not, Lee inserts the president’s infamous “you’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie” remark.

Later, as the scope of the destruction and the negligence grows clear, Bush claims that “no one anticipated the breach of the levees.” That statement is refuted by video of a briefing held before the storm struck in which he is informed of that very likelihood. Meanwhile, a cold hint of conspiracy slips in: residents claim to have heard explosions just prior to the levees’ breaking, and historians recall how similar suspicions rose after Hurricane Betsy laid waste to the city in 1965, and before that in 1927. Was there sabotage? A plot to protect the property of the rich? Or steal the property of the poor?

Lee cuts off this JFK-like line of inquiry before it gets too far. (He returns to it in a much more convincing context in act four.) What impresses more in this section are the images of chaos and irony and tragedy: a sign for “Humanity St.” nearly submerged in the flood waters; a man describing how his wheelchair-bound mother died while waiting for the buses to come to rescue the thousands stranded without water or food at the Convention Center, and a shot of the dead woman covered with a poncho, a note with her son’s address in her hand.

The finger pointing doesn’t really start till act two. Confronted with the arrogant incompetence and indifference of the federal response, people start to lose their cool. On a radio talk show, Mayor Nagin says he’s “pissed.” CNN’s Soledad O’Brien corners Michael Brown with questions about why 50,000 people were left stranded at the Convention Center for a week, and when he evades the question, she won’t let him squirm away.

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  Topics: Television , Science and Technology, George W. Bush, Oliver Stone,  More more >
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