August 22, 2006

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Parts

I just got done watching Spike Lee's new HBO documentary, "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts." My wife, who was born and raised in Slidell, just across the lake from New Orleans, a community equally hard hit by Katrina, had to get up and leave the room because she thought she might have a panic attack. That's how striking this documentary is. And I'm pleased to report that Lee achieves this without taking any of Michael Moore's effective yet impudent (adj 1: marked by casual disrespect; "a flip answer to serious question") tone. Moore's brand of mock naivete and sass isn't appropriate here. And why not? I kept wondering as I watched. Why isn't Spike narrating over top of these images? I kept waiting for his now iconic voice--that kid-trying-to-be-cool voice that I first heard in Air Jordan commercials back in the late 80s--to come in with that hip-hop politico swagger, but he restrained himself. And what a difference it makes.

Although there are some moments where the nice is twisted, particularly at the beginning when Louis Armstrong sings "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?" over top of stock news footage of the inundated city. For me, this is the big question that the documentary is asking me to grapple with. The photos and news footage gathered from CNN and other networks ask us to review the evidence and ask: Can you fathom this? How could this happen? Human beings left for four or five days without food or water at the New Orleans Convention Center and on interstate overpasses. Armed mobs blocking the Crescent City bridge so that inner-city New Orleanians cannot seek shelter in their white enclave.

What results truly is a requiem, a solemn service to the dead. In short, Lee has done this right. He has jazz musician and composer Terrance Blanchard as a talking head and a contributor of original music for the soundtrack--one that doesn't just--again, like Moore--ironize, but that rounds off the sharpness, the sting of the photos in such a way that doesn't feel sentimental, very much anti-CNN. After all, sentimentality, according to Flannery O'Connor is "an early arrival at a mock state of innocence," a condition that leads to obscenity rather than actual grief.

It is grief that a requiem, in its very structure and solemn pageantry, is meant to provide a proper outlet. It is is meant to affirm the gift of life even amidst doubt and darkness. Without having seen the second part, which airs tonight on HBO, it's too soon to say where Lee will leave us off, but I suspect we won't be let off easy.

Lee's documentary reminds me of a classic of the genre, Harlan County, USA, in which poor white coal miners and their families eek out an existence in a place that looks like a Sebastio Salgado photograph. Similarly, "When the Levees Broke" shows America to be not so different than your typical despot-ruled third world country: concerned primarily with wealth and war.

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