24 August 2010 | Quinoa1984
insightful, moving, shocking, and moments of poignancy and tiny bits of joy
When the Levees Broke is one of the monumental outcries of injustice and searing documents of an era and place and people in the movies. Spike Lee turned his focus in an epic way not seen since Malcom X on to the fiasco of Katrina, and it was cathartic and engaging and enraging on a level few documentaries in recent memory can be. It's then somewhat expected that his follow-up, If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise, isn't quite as great. It's certainly more reasoned and not quite as angry (though it has its moments), but if it suffers it's from some reliance on deja-vu, cut-backs to clips from the previous documentary, and a couple of scenes that could have been shuffled around to better emotional effect. It also just *ends* a little abruptly, though its ending may need a re-watch to get a better grasp on the tragic issue at hand.... that is, for the first half of the documentary
What's been going on since 2005, or 2006? Turns out, some things, not all savory. One of the things to keep in mind is Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine, which posited how when a disaster strikes (i.e. Katrina) those in power will scramble to make sure that those at the bottom, who are in effect *shocked* will be those that will be screwed over. So, in other words, you get a situation like the lower 9th ward housing projects- many of which were sound structures, if not in the best condition to start with- that were torn down to make room for new buildings at much higher costs. This was further represented in the documentary by the Charity Hospital saga, one of the cities most prominent and loved hospitals for the public, which was in short that because the basement was flooded the state closed the hospital for years and planned to tear down the hospital, and tear down many nearby houses and businesses to make room for a much larger *private* hospital. More money for insurance companies.
The ultimate thesis, if there is one to be defined, in Lee's film is that little by little there is some progress (for example, Brad Pitt's housing contributions), but there's still much, much wrong down there, and by the second half of the film, which itself seems to be its own documentary, the BP oil spill has made things cataclysmic. Of course by this point Lee's work has taken on a near apocalyptic feeling to it, accentuated by a montage of the dead strewn throughout the landscape of New Orleans put to genuinely mournful music. If you watched it out of context you'd think someone was putting together footage for Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It is, or was, all real.
There's still little care taken to victims of stress and mental illnesses. The trailers via FEMA have things like a formaldehyde problem. Many residents had to leave the city and still have not returned (though they want to since it was their home) because of a lack of affordable housing or services for their disabled children. And those that were in charge, supposedly, at the time, come clean, like Michael Brown (his interview almost makes the film a total must-see). There's a little good and still a whole lot that can be improved, and a lot may never be due to a not-so-veiled look at race, and how screwed up the US Corps were with the Levees to start with. We see them now rebuilding in the doc, but how safe can it really be? Adding to this the mixed results of Charter schools, the rampant police brutality that makes L.A. look safe by comparison, and of course the oil spill – the dramatic highlight of the second half that gives even those of us given the news every day by the media a fresh and horrifying perspective – and you get a city that keeps keeping on, but as one interviewer says, the people are like "bollweevils" that can topple over.
Again, some focus is lost by Lee from time to time, such as a sidebar comparison with Haiti's earthquake devastation (albeit some interesting interview with Sean Penn does a long way to make the comparison valid), and for some reason some of the pacing felt a little 'off', like some of the segments could have been shuffled around. But these are minor criticisms in what is overall a very strong work in the first half of the film. It's almost as if, unlike 'Levees' which felt like a complete epic work, that each of the two-hour segments that aired on HBO were separate documentaries. They're still linked in theme and style and the subject matter, but something about Lee's approach gains more focus and momentum in the second half, when the charter schools, police and BP are the subjects. There is also less reliance on clips from the previous film, less of the 'where's this person now', save for a moving scene with a band leader in high school who was needlessly murdered by a 15 year old.
Lee has compassion and understanding for the people, some of whom are only marginally better off than when he first interviewed them. It's these personal interviews, and the insight that Lee carefully gets out of professionals in medical and other capacities like politicians, not to mention his talent at compositions of images (i.e. the absent houses with just steps montage put to mournful jazz music) and those heartbreaking montages, that makes his film worthwhile. 9.5/10