When the Levees Broke

When the Levees Broke

A Requiem in Four Acts, Spike Lee, US, 240 mins

When The Levees Broke is a gripping Spike Lee film included in The Human Rights Watch film festival. Spike directs a searing indictment on the US authorities and agencies, like FEMA, who should've provided speedy, adequate and dignified assistance to the New Orleans victims of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Using the New Orleans jazz of local musicians, Terence Blanchard and Branford Marsalis , Spike goes beyond the CNN headlines of the major catastrophe facing New Orleans residents on August 29, 2005 as Hurricane Katrina hit.

The film shows that despite early weather warnings, city and state officials were wholly unprepared when the levees broke, and that the levees were known to be inadequately designed for a force 5 hurricane like Katrina. There were reports that the levees were bombed back in 1927, when this was done to protect the properties of rich, mostly white, residents. Then, many poor black residents lost their properties.

The superbly executed documentary shows a few residents reporting that they heard an explosion, including an elderly black lady. However, what is importantly uncovered is that it took President Bush four days before declaring a state of emergency. Hence the slow, inept and inadequate help provided for the despairing victims. Nothing could be done before this declaration had been made. Meanwhile residents suffered with nowhere to hide, sleep, live. Many did not survive and then, their corpses were shown floating and decaying in the already filthywater for days. Through the bitter testimonies of the surviving residents, Spike poses the rhetorical question, why did these American citizens have to wait so long for help during a major disaster in a rich, democratic First World nation? Some residents said that they'd have gotten help better and quicker if they'd been attacked by terrorists!


From the moment the levees designed to protect low-lying areas of the city from flooding were breached, the 9th Ward district, as predicted, was under water quickly and over one thousand people died unnecessarily. Havoc prevailed in New Orleans , as an estimated 1.5 million residents were made homeless and helpless. Survivors spoke of feelings of displacement, comparing how the indiscriminate separation of families was similar to during slavery. They spoke of the physical duress experienced in the Superdome, where thousands of families were packed in like sardines without adequate sanitation, fresh air and any sense of human dignity. Survivors spoke of the turmoil, weariness, depression, stress, and physical discomfort endured even during the late and slow rescue operations.

Interviewees included Governor Kathleen Blanco, and Mayor Ray Nagin. Resident poet, Phyllis Montana LeBlanc spoke of what also broke when the levees broke, including the human spirit, hope, trust and optimism. Kimberly Polk, a mother who lost her daughter during the raging hurricane spoke of her overwhelming grief. In response to the four day delay and inadequate assistance provided to the poor, mostly black victims of Hurricane Katrina, radical rapper, Kanye West said, “President Bush doesn't care about black people.” Spike shows President Bush continuing his holiday, whilst residents battled for their lives. Condolezza Rice is simultaneously seen shopping for designer shoes. Spike juxtaposes the filth, despair and hopelessness of the Big Easy residents and the affluence and unconcern of the top US government officials during this turbulent period. Spike's long-time collaborator, Terence Blanchard cried bitterly when he recalled the horrific experience, but as resident and poet, Phyllis said, New Orleans is slowly but surely healing from when the Levees Broke.


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