When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
Spike Lee's 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke is no small commitment—though clocking in at four hours, its length isn't what devastates. The film passes shockingly quickly, translating a vague sense of unease in the viewer into heavy understanding. Lee has accomplished a brilliant and agonizing oral history of a great betrayal of human rights, democracy and good governance.
A requiem is meant to ease the spirits of the dead. If film can speak for human pain, When the Levees Broke sings and screams and sobs. The setup of each domino is carefully described. As they topple we watch their force bottleneck into the same spot. All of a sudden what was reported "unavoidable," "overlooked" and "accidental" seems obvious and premeditated. Lee lifts a veil of illusion from the twin juggernauts of racist, indifferent governance and institutional violence. Viewers become witnesses.
We witness survivors prevail to a bridge out of the city. We watch footage of them meeting with police who threaten to shoot anyone who crosses, echoing similar events on other Southern bridges. To those ignorant of race dynamics in the United States, the suspicion of many Ninth Ward residents that the levees were intentionally blown may sound conspiracy theory-esque until viewers learn that twice before, exactly that has happened. When Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco says, "They have M16s and are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill, and I expect they will," she is talking about a military force sent to protect the private property of businesses from people struggling to live.
When the Levees Broke is beautifully composed and bare of rhetoric. There is no voice-over narration. The story interweaves images and sounds from the disaster with the testimonies and art of survivors. We hear wind pound on the roof of the Superdome. We watch refugees fight despair with song on the third day of oppressive heat, death and filth without aid. And while the movie is profoundly intimate, it is not voyeuristic, paternalistic or exploitative. Its entire body resounds with integrity.
Contextually implicit in Lee's requiem is an imperative to action. He draws out running themes, reveals why the city's agony was both inevitable and entirely preventable, brings criminality to light and spotlights the perpetrators. United States viewers remain governed by those who allowed the atrocities to occur. Under democracy, this spells change or complicity.