In the Air
Thousands of New Orleanians will see the premiere of Spike Lee's Hurricane Katrina documentary tonight. T-P television critic Dave Walker got a sneak preview, and here's what he thinks.
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
The word other critics likely will use most to describe Spike Lee's Hurricane Katrina documentary for HBO is "wrenching."
My word is "unfinished," even at four hours.
"When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" locks in on the black Katrina experience, which should not come as a surprise to anybody who knows Lee's filmmaking career.
As such, "Levees" tells only half the story. Or, rather, 67.3 percent of it.
Frequently brilliantly, but still.
The tragic story of black New Orleans trapped in Katrina's path has found a supreme chronicler, but the flooded-out residents of Lakeview or Old Metairie who attend tonight's sold-out premiere at New Orleans Arena will spend all night sitting on a hard plastic chair and then wonder: Where am I in this?
Perhaps they'll be coming attractions. Lee has said he'd like to make "Levees" the first installment of a series of films about the ongoing battle to save New Orleans.
"Depending how this ends up, I would like to go back (and see) how the city ends up and not let this be the final statement on the Crescent City," Lee told TV critics last month in Los Angeles.
Those who were here know that, in virtually every way, Katrina was an indiscriminate storm that killed and destroyed without regard to ethnicity or economic condition. That is not the impression that the nation received watching coverage of the immediate aftermath of the storm, nor the one viewers will take away from Lee's documentary.
In one of his future installments, perhaps, will be the stories of Lakeview families whose losses were every bit as tragic as the stories told so movingly in this film.
Or the similar stories of the Asian families in eastern New Orleans, the Central American workers literally putting roofs over our heads again, the doctors and nurses who risked their lives to stay with patients in drowned hospitals, the tourists who suffered alongside locals in the Superdome and Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
Four hours seems like a down payment.
As it is, Lee's epic-length film has a few significant flaws but packs an overall impact that will move anyone who invests the time to see it through.
It's not an easy task. Sadness and anger are the film's relentless themes, a sign of the project's emotional veracity.
For the next few weeks, we're counting on TV retrospectives just like this to tell and retell our story to the world.
On that count, Lee picks his villains well. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are, in order, the bad guys in this catastrophe. To a lesser extent, the local, regional and national politicians who made this mess and then failed to save their fellow Americans from it also take ire.
I'll let others parse the political impact of "When the Levees Broke," but not without sharing this nugget from one habitually quotable politician: New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin good-naturedly describes Air Force One as a "pimpmobile."
For those who can't make tonight's screening, HBO will premiere the film in two parts Monday and Tuesday at 8 p.m. All four hours will air in sequence on Aug. 29 at 7 p.m.
Act One watches the storm's approach and landfall, then the levee failures. Act Two is immediate aftermath. Act Three begins with the rescue diaspora, then circles back to catch up on some of the cultural history that makes the dispersal such an ongoing tragedy. Act Four examines recovery problems (FEMA, insurance companies) and solutions (wetlands restoration, improved levee protection).
The film is framed by Louis Armstrong's "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?" at the beginning and a concluding second-line rendition of "I'll Fly Away."
The overall structure is chronological, but Lee takes jogs in time to make editorial points.
The filmmaker is occasionally heard asking off-camera questions, but there is no narrator, just the voices of various witnesses both well-known and not.
Of them, standouts include Herbert Freeman Jr., whose mother died in a wheelchair outside the convention center; author Michael Eric Dyson, who is ruthless in recounting Condoleezza Rice's New York City shoe-shopping-and-evening-at-the-theater getaway while Ethel Freeman sat dying in the heat; and WWL talk radio host Garland Robinette, whose emotions still roil a full year after he narrated Katrina's deadly fly-by live on the air.
Adding a light touch
Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, once of eastern New Orleans and now a FEMA trailer resident, is the personification of her city's eternal secret weapon in the face of despair: humor.
Recounting her survival year, she's profane and prosecutorial, as much of a thread throughout the movie as Terence Blanchard's deep-blue score.
A New Orleans native and frequent Lee collaborator, Blanchard himself takes an on-camera role in the third act, acting as his mother's guide on her first trip back to her ruined Gentilly home.
A similar sequence in the last act shows actor Wendell Pierce, star of HBO's "The Wire" and another favorite son succeeding so triumphantly in the wider world of the arts, retelling the devastation to his father's Pontchartrain Park home, but also the subsequent and related damage done to his father's soul by a heartless insurance company.
The heart of Act One is a sequence in which schoolboy Glenn Hall III plays "St. James Infirmary" on his horn to accompany footage of people wading out of their neighborhoods, then Wynton Marsalis sings it.
Act Two ends with a haunting montage of floating bodies, which you hope could be the film's lowest mood trough.
Then comes the drowned child's funeral that concludes Act Three.
"Wrenching" is right, in other words.
Letting rumors fly
But the film's most troubling passage has been anticipated since HBO announced that Lee would make it.
Early in the opening act, several witnesses swear they heard explosions before the Florida Avenue breach.
Refutations are made in follow-up sound bites, but the overall takeaway is that intentional levee destruction might've, could've, probably happened.
For both Katrina and Betsy.
There is value in exploring how such impressions are made and last, but absent any real evidence beyond inexpert testimony -- and there is no evidence introduced in the film -- such notions must be presented as folklore and nothing more.
Here, they're presented as likely fact, in a confusing sequence of quotes and clips that mix references to Katrina and Betsy with the one time there actually was an intentional levee destruction, during the Mississippi River flood of 1927. That breach inundated St. Bernard Parish.
"During Hurricane Betsy, there were rumors, and it became almost an article of faith with people in the community that the 9th Ward flooded because there was an intentional breach of the levees," former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial says to Lee's camera. "It was never investigated. It was neither proven nor disproven. In this case, for the government and others to sort of dismiss it without looking into all of it is not doing the people or the public a service."
In this context, the same could be said for statements just like that.
Morial is a frequently recurring character in early parts of this film, and his righteous indignation at how seared he was by watching his fellow New Orleanians suffer in the toxic water is leavened by the fact that he had eight years to plan and practice an evacuation that might've better served his city.
Later, a pastor from New York states as fact that "a master plan" has been put in place by "Trump land-grabbers" to "bulldoze down the 9th Ward."
A quote from Nagin denying that possibility comes just a few seconds after, but again, someone is allowed to make an explosive charge for which no evidence is evident.
In a flash-forward at the very opening of the story, while Katrina still spins in the Gulf, Lee jumps to a December congressional hearing at which Nagin says, "We come to you with facts."
It's intended as a setup device for the four hours to come, and it's largely backed up thereafter.
But the allies of New Orleans' enemies will obsess over the few sequences that forgo known facts, allowing them to too easily overlook the sweetness and sadness in Wendell Pierce's eyes when he talks about how his father paid insurance on that little house for 50 years and got nothing.
Among just a few other lapses, the levee section of "Levees" diminishes what could've been a profoundly compelling history of the most scarring unnatural disaster in recent American history.
Still, millions will watch and be hurt and angered, again, by what happened here and at points elsewhere on Katrina's track.
And that's a good thing, because here at K+1, New Orleans needs all of the sympathetic and accurately informed allies it can get.
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TV columnist Dave Walker can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3429.