When the Levees Broke (2006)
Academy Award-nominated director Spike Lee (the guiding force behind the critically acclaimed documentary 4 Little Girls) turns to nonfiction filmmaking once again with the heart-wrenching marathon work When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, produced by Lee's Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks and originally screened on HBO. In four "acts" of approximately one hour each, Lee examines the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in the late summer of 2005 and the incorrigible response to the catastrophe from U.S. government agencies. The filmmaker then evaluates the overwhelming measures that must be taken for the area to rebound and recover fully, demonstrating time and again that this seems an unlikely prospect in the immediate future. Act One covers the events that immediately preceded Katrina's onslaught of horror, with an in-depth exploration of the Bush administration and FEMA's joint failures to understand the potential calamity at hand. Lee picks up this subtopic again and makes it the central focus of Act Two, which expands into a dissection of the government agencies' failure to respond to the crisis with adequate measures; time and again, the director fills his frame, in this segment, with images and indications of naked human indifference. Act Three plunges headfirst into the toll taken by the hurricane on the lives of Louisiana residents, with protracted glimpses of the destruction wrought. And finally, the film wraps with Act Four, where Lee conducts more recent interviews with experts who question the soundness of the New Orleans levee system in the face of future catastrophes. A number of celebrities and public figures also appear on camera to provide commentary throughout the work, including New Orleans mayor Roy Nagin, actor, singer and social activist Harry Belafonte, and actor Sean Penn. … More
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Critic Reviews for When the Levees Broke
The same didactic instincts that sometimes mar Lee's fictional filmmaking serve him well as a documentarian and eulogist.
Surely the most magnificent and large-souled record of a great American tragedy ever put on film.
What breaks your heart is the film's accumulated firsthand stories of New Orleans residents who lost everything in the flood after Hurricane Katrina, and the dismaying conclusion that a year after the disaster, the broken city has been largely abandoned.
When the Levees Broke is like the New Orleans jazz funeral -- a dirge on the way to the cemetery, an up-tempo parade in the deceased's honor on the bittersweet walk back home.
An exhaustive, ruminative, angry and even occasionally gallows-humorous account of the strange domino effect of tragedy compounding incompetence compounding tragedy that dealt a critical blow to one of America's great cities.
Do the flaws diminish Levees? To a degree. But the story Lee tells is so powerful, so important, that the lapses aren't a reason not to pay heed to what this passionate film has to say.
There's no way to truly distill this triumph into a handful of words. The ghosts of so many color the corners of a mournful poem and a powerful prayer that's pissed off, hopeful, practical, empathetic and one of the most important documentaries ever made.
...provides an extraordinarily detailed look at this event, and its worth is sure to be felt increasingly as the memories fade and the anger softens with time and distance.
Despite capturing many heartbreaking aspects of the disaster, this is essentially an overambitious mess which ultimately fails to convey effectively the scale or scope of the ongoing tragedy.
It's the depth and weight of Freeman Jr's or Michael Wright's or Phyllis Leblanc's words, the anger and sadness behind them, that surge forth here, sinking the political elite's murderously empty promises.
In this golden era of documentary filmmaking, When the Levess Broke is among the very best films of the past year, fiction and non-fiction alike.
...what should have been a searing, powerful documentary generally comes off as a rough cut that's desperately in need of some judicious editing.
It's an honest, fair and unflinching look at one of the greatest, and saddest, natural disasters to hit our shores.
Audience Reviews for When the Levees Broke
Spike Lee's touching documentary on Hurricane Katrina is horrific and beautiful. A film that all americans should see.More
Aside from 'Crooklyn' I can't say that I'm a big Spike Lee fan.
But this documentary is so INCREDIBLY well done that I can forgive him some of the mediocre/crappy films he has made prior to this.
Spike brings a face (several actually) and a heart (albeit broken) to the tragic events following hurricane Katrina.
An event that is a true disgrace to our country and the good people of the gulf coast. And will forever be a scar on the face of our history as Americans.
If this film doesn't bring tears to your eyes, an ache to your heart and a ball of anger to your stomach...then you are either heartless or a Republican (possibly both?).
[font=Century Gothic]Spike Lee's epic documentary, "When the Levees Broke" is an oral history of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans told from the vantage point of survivors, local celebrities, experts, Governor Kathleen Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin. Blanco and Nagin received mixed grades while with the exception of the Coast Guard, the federal government is attacked for its painfully slow response. Their testimony helps put the unforgettable images into perspective.[/font]
[font=Century Gothic]The one thing missing from this documentary which I was fully expecting was anger and outrage which only come in very short bursts, usually directed rightfully at the Bush Administration.(Indirectly, New Orleans became another casualty of the Iraq debacle.) Maybe Spike Lee is maturing as a filmmaker and the sensationalism is kept at a minimum(even the theory that the levees were dynamited sounds rational once it is placed in historical context), but there is a time and a place for rage and this is certainly the place.[/font]
[font=Century Gothic]Spike Lee uses the metaphor of a jazz funeral for the city - mournful music followed by an upbeat tempo. So, maybe there is hope for New Orleans to return to its former glory, but not as an amusement park, industrial park or gentrified white suburb.[/font]
Spike Lee insisted that we watch all 4 hours, 15 minutes without a break at the Film Festival. We obliged even though it was eventually broken up over 5 nights on PBS. I derived nothing from the "uncut" version but such an epic still deserves praise in telling the tale of those who's lives were changed due to government neglect.More
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