Director: Spike Lee
Cinematographer: Cliff Charles
Producer: Spike Lee
by Jon Cvack
I had watched Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke (2006) back when it first came out just a year after Hurricane Katrina. I regard it as one of the top ten documentaries ever made. As Anderson Cooper Wendell Pierce, and others mentioned in this film, the coverage of Katrina faded far faster than it should have; as after the water began to recede, tens of thousands were left without shelter, medical, food, or water. Some were separated from their families and shipped out with no idea where they were going, and others were packed into the New Orlean Saints Superdome. A few resorted to doing whatever it took to survive, whether for noble or dishonorable purposes while facing an overactive and racist police department. In the end nearly 1,833 Americans died. The destruction, disruption, and violence most of these - dominantly black - individuals was staggering to the mind. Not being into politics at the time, it was one of the most impactful films I’d seen.
It’s by sheer chance that this was the next film I watched from Spike Lee, after I began watching David Simon’s Treme just a few months prior. In the series, taking place a few years after Katrina, the town struggles to rebuild, Phyllis Montana LeBlanc plays the wife Desiree of a borderline deadbeat struggling trombonist Wendell Pierce. The two share a child which is essentially Desiree’s entire responsibility. There was something about LeBanc that stood out; the way Harvey Keitel or Harry Dean Stanton seem completely independent of the Hollywood machine; the type of actor that makes you realize how polished performers actually are. It was a performer who felt completely authentic to the area.
Sure enough, Phyllis opens up If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise with one of Spike Lee’s signature styles in having her recite the lyrics to what inspired the title. Expecting to find a song, the closest I can come to is Johnny Cash’s version “If the Good Lord’s Willing”, originally written by Johnny Reed with Lee changing Zeppelin’s When the Levees Break to When the Levees Broke, it seems Cash’s track has some influence.
From there, we get what I think is my favorite signature music collaboration between a director and composer, utilizing one of Terence Blanchard and his haunting and brooding jazz score. I don’t enjoy putting music into the words and yet as harrowing as Blanchard’s music is, there’s a type of perseverance existing between the notes.
The film then opens the day of the 2010 NFL Superbowl, where the New Orleans Saints played the Indianapolis Colts. With Katrina residents still recovering, the game is more than just a game. It’s something that gives people hope and unites the city. The Saints go on to win, but rather than going on to riot and burn cars like other teams, they simply get wasted, dress up, and dance in the streets. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, this game means completely nothing beyond a symbolic gesture.
The film then cuts into the many issues the resident’s still face, from severe PTSD, to revamping their public school system, to rebuilding their homes and businesses, and we see that for a story that might have been covered for about a month (according to Anderson Cooper), has actually gone on for five years and will likely continue for years to come. I was left wondering and thankful that such an event didn’t happen while Trump was in office and how much worse things might have been (then again, nearly 3,000 died in Puerto Rico for similar reasons; providing comparable racist coverage; that is, far too little).
Although each topic could warrant an in depth discussion there were some that were simply shocking to watch. One involved something I had first seen in Treme, where Clarke Peters played Albert "Big Chief" Lambreaux, who’s bar had been destroyed by the flood, and who returns back to his apartment in the projects; squatting in his home and refusing to come out against police orders. This was a contentious issue in New Orlean local politics as thousands of residents returned to find the projects still standing. The city refused to let them in, believing that the cost of repairing the plumbing and wiring wasn’t worth it; opting instead to tear them down and replace them with mixed income housing. As with other areas, the city appeared motivated to get rid of its poorest neighborhoods in order to attract wealthier families and investors.
Many of the residents at the time talked of culture, and the need to preserve it. Put differently, they didn’t want to be gentrified like all the neighborhoods in Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle. I was on the fence about this one, as while I’m sure they could have borne the cost of renovation, the projects were simply ugly buildings that were over seventy years old; built during Roosevelt’s New Deal. The mixed income housing that went up was far more pleasing to the eye and attractive. Then again, if this meant that most of these people who suffered in the storm were simply forced out of the area with no opportunity to return, then their grievance trumps any progression. The poor should never lose their home in order to accommodate wealthy developers.
Another story we often forget is the Deep Water Horizon accident occur, and how the same year the Saints won the super bowl, just eight months later the BP oil rig would pump nearly five million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, killing countless amounts of wildlife, crippling the fishing and tourist industries, and permanently damaging the bayou and its complex ecosystem. We hear the incredulity and disbelief from throughout the community; as though they’re living on cursed land, especially when Obama fails to call out BP beyond anything other than a slap on the wrist. If they couldn’t trust the first black president to help, who could they trust? It’s this dejection and subsequent persistence that Terence Blanchard’s score best captures.
While writing this, Ta-Haisi Coates and Danny Glover testified before congress over the issue of slavery reparations. For those in doubt of reparations, whether conservatives who beg the entire question, or liberals who wonder where to position them alongside other big government programs, I urge you to check out Trevor Noah’s perfect response during an audience Q&A. It’s when you grasp the multi-generational injustices that long occurred after slavery, and how many racial injustices still exist because of it, that the abject failure of Hurrican Katrina is yet another symptom of slavery’s legacy. No matter how you want to reason out how or why it happened, the government completely failed its black citizens and contributes yet another reason in favor of the policy.
There were other stories and images that burn into your mind - of dead bodies rotting in the flooded city streets and the Danziger Bridge Shooting where two people were killed and four wounded by police, including a mentally handicapped man. With no justification for violence, two officers ended up going to jail for murder; the type of event I wonder how I never heard about. What Spike Lee best accomplishes is showing us the seemingly endless list of injustices, where even if you disagree with one, you’d struggle to ignore the majority. Alongside When the Levees Broke, it’s the type of documentary that could forever change your mind; the type of experience that rips the blinders from your eyes and shows you a moment in history you’d never think possible. Like Lee’s other greatest work, it's a film that makes you feel both guilty and appreciative to now know the truth. And again, with the help of Terence Blanchard’s score, it gives you a bit of hope that such knowledge will help make things better.
BELOW: A talk with Spike Lee
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