Review of When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)

Moving picture, 4.2 hours

Seen in 2017.

Hurricane Katrina. Most of the film, except for an extended montage opening onto the third act, is talking heads, clips of news and amateur footage, and interviews in the ruins.

I saw it on the occasion of 2017 hurricane Harvey hitting Louisiana, and primarily Texas. The title reminded me of Donald Worster’s beautiful “Paths Across the Levee” in The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination (1994). Alas, there is no overlap beyond casual mention of damaged wetlands. Spike Lee took his title from the song “When the Levee Breaks” and explores different ideas. As the lyrics go, “Lord, mean old levee taught me to weep and moan”.

The documentary does a fine job illustrating the deep shock and pain of the disaster and its aftermath. I was particularly touched by local radio host Garland Robinette being unable to articulate how his country is unable to deal with the problem, prefiguring the still-more profound tribal dysfunction that was to come before Harvey. Lee astutely points to the disaster capitalists trying to take advantage of the situation. 2006 interviewee James Pullings even calls it “Trump land-grabbery”.

After faintly suggesting the levees may have been dynamited—a grand conspiracy theory—Lee tries his best to bring the disaster into a more accurate perspective. One of his interviewees compares 16 square acres of Manhattan in 2001 to 90,000 square miles under Katrina. Lee’s likewise not afraid to mention climate change, but only in the context of inadequate engineering. The usual comparison is made to the Netherlands and a lack of political will in the United States. Al Sharpton praises Kanye West’s explanation of this lack of will—that “George Bush does not care about black people”—as “constructive”.

Another dimension of the problem of political will is implicit. Motormouths Cheryl Livaudais and Phyllis Leblanc rail against the government with little sign on screen that they themselves are lifting a finger. Livaudais fantasizes about a politician who cares about people, sounding like a future Trump supporter. There is a measure of magical thinking on display, especially in the repeated talk about Yahweh, the Christian god whose potential guilt is not investigated. The disaster doesn’t seem to have produced a single atheist.

In a film so long, and otherwise so willing to apply a critical gaze beyond the mainstream, it is curious that the impulse to return home is sacred. Musician Wynton Marsalis explains how the local black population who, when released by French slavers because they didn’t have any food, “went out and stayed with the native Americans for a while, but they came back”. This recurring return to and rebuilding of the city is painted as a triumph and compared to the joyful second half of a traditional local funeral. Quite ironic in a larger context.

Celebrating the old New Orleans is fine. Rebuilding it, as the interviewees seek to do, is irrational at best. After the Great Flood of 1993, a US army report titled “Sharing the Challenge” (1994) concluded that prior policies allowed and encouraged people to build in places with increasing risks of flooding. Insufficient flood-control projects were giving residents a false sense of security, still true in New Orleans 12 years later. Subsidizing redevelopment after disasters was seen as another policy error that had compounded the 1993 disaster. Lee doesn’t seem to know or care. Nobody in this film suggests that the government should be funding relocation to a place well above sea level, where the massive engineering projects would be unnecessary, by buying out flood-prone properties as it did in Missouri after 1993.

Nothing is heard from the apparently incompetent teams who were supposed to search houses for dead bodies, leaving their failure a mystery. For some reason, Lee feels obligated to discuss local criminality instead, but blames even that on outsiders: Mayor Ray Nagin specifically pins crime on poor education, connected to a lack of tax revenue from offshore drilling which—though he doesn’t say so—is making a big contribution to climate change and thence future hurricanes. I would forgive a right-winger for reading such attitudes as evidence of a sense of entitlement. It is as if, instead of mitigating risk while it is still affordable to do so, profit-seeking insurers and all levels of government should just be waiting to rescue those born poor below sea level, not once but forever.

What Robinette fails to articulate I assume is some version of the failure of the American dream in political corruption and urban decay. Though Katrina does illustrate the concept, it was evident 30 years earlier. Its shock value to the people of New Orleans is a sign of hypernormalisation. In this light, Worster’s theme of finding new perspectives and discovering what has been lost is sorely missed. The American dream, here, is the defiance of nature. A dream of self-harm.

moving picture non-fiction series