Spike Lee's Katrina documentary, When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, premiered on HBO last night. I can't imagine that the second half airing tonight will close the story on a promising note, given the relentless images of devastation and outrage in the first two acts.
When The Levees Broke is not exactly chock full of new information, but it does serve as a necessary reminder of the shameful mucking about of our administration while people's homes and lives were being uprooted. Some of the diverse group of New Orleanians recall their stories in a formal setting, while others scream in front of their ruined houses about the incompetence and disrespect of their representatives. There is also plenty of footage that will be familiar to anyone who was glued to CNN in late August last year. A few of the Katrina survivors return to the infamous sites where they were herded like cattle and denied food, water, and medical treatment: the Superdome, convention center, and airport. Though it appears now that these places were never home to disaster, the interviewees' anger has hardly faded.
The politicians get a chance to speak for themselves, but even then they can't keep from looking foolish. Mayor Ray Nagin speaks in slang that seems carefully manufactured to portray him as "down" with his constituents, and it comes off about as genuine as President Bush's familiar "aw, shucks" routine. Governer Kathleen Blanco pays a lot of lip service to her desperation and pleas for help at the time, but political analysts seem to think she was more concerned with her long-held grudge against Nagin. Most infuriatingly, Bush's smirking, simpering face is intercut with images of corpses floating in stagnant water and recollections of elderly people being left for dead outside the convention center. We are reminded that the president took his sweet time getting to New Orleans, and that his underlings (Cheney, Rove, Rice) were more concerned with business meetings and shopping for Ferragamo than averting a crisis. At this point, if you don't want to reach through the TV and slap them like you're a Jerry Springer guest, you're a better person than me.
There are a few missteps in this otherwise wrenching film; for instance, Nagin at one point implies that Katrina was a worse disaster than 9/11. Playing the "Who had it worse?" game isn't productive. But as a most nagging reminder, Levees reveals the continuing struggles and injustices with which Katrina victims must contend, and perhaps tonight's segment will offer some suggestions on where to go from here.