Film Reviews: Category 5 Cinema


| January / February 2007


When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

(HBO Video; on DVD)

Spike Lee knows what it means to miss New Orleans. As the director of this epic documentary about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, Lee understands that the best way to capture the loss afflicting the storm-struck region is via the weary faces and shaken voices of its residents, including musicians and politicians. A monumental and moving opus, the four-hour work chronicles everything from the hurricane's impact to the levees' bursting to the harrowing accounts of survivors left waiting for rescue on empty lots where their homes once stood.

Combining emotional interviews with stunning photography, When the Levees Broke finds a people betrayed, broken, frustrated, and forgotten. Again and again, Lee shows images of citizens stranded on rooftops, desperately holding signs that cry "help." Mothers lose their daughters; sons lose their mothers; and chilling images of floating corpses, one after another, increasingly condemn those in charge.

Lee looks for those who were responsible for the botched response, laying blame higher up the chain of command. While Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco emerge largely unscathed and Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown appears inept, the film reserves its real fury for the Army Corps of Engineers, Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff, and President Bush.

Layered with the mournful jazz compositions of New Orleans native Terence Blanchard, the film, true to its title, is a powerful requiem-not only for Katrina's victims and the city of New Orleans, but also for any rose-colored views we may have about racism and poverty in these United States.

-Anthony Kaufman