[URBANTH-L] Film Review: The City that Care Forgot: Spike Lee and the 'New' New Orleans Blues

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Tue Aug 22 19:12:12 EDT 2006

The City That Care Forgot: Spike Lee and the 'New' New Orleans Blues


Posted on Truthdig, Aug 19, 2006
By Sheerly Avni

President Bush can kiss my ass The government can kiss
my ass St. Bernard Parish can kiss my ass There's not
much ass left, but still enough to kiss.
-- Cheryl Livaudais Resident, St. Bernard Parish

In one of several remarkable scenes from Spike Lee's
new four-hour documentary, "When the Levees Broke: A
Requiem for New Orleans in Four Acts," a young man who
sat out the flood in the hot and stenching Superdome
surprises us with a recollection of grace. During a
particularly desperate moment in the sewer--no water, no
food, no help in sight--someone took charge. "There was
this brother named Radio," he tells us, "...and he
started clapping it up, like in a basketball game.... It
was a big, big spirit; people just started singing

Our storyteller continues in voiceover as the camera
cuts to archived footage from the Superdome--a line of
men and women dancing and singing, sweat visible
through dirty T-shirts. "It was a proud moment for us.
We marched around the 'dome, and that time I felt back
to the Movement, the civil rights movement, when it was
real powerful."

This appeal to "the Movement" is fitting. The poorest
people in one of the poorest major cities in the United
States are now even poorer than they were before, and
the fact that most of them are black is no coincidence.
Lee's team devotes a great deal of time and craft to
the argument that the devastation resulted from an
event in political history--not an event in weather. The
film, which was shown for an emotional audience in New
Orleans on Wednesday night and will air in two parts on
HBO next week, is at once a heartbroken hymn to a
ravaged city, a comprehensive chronicle of the
financial and geographical impact of the hurricane
itself, and--most important--an essential new chapter in
the unfinished story of the struggle for civil rights
in America.

To write that chapter, Lee asked for and was granted
four hours of airtime--twice the amount HBO had
originally allotted for the documentary. Lee and a
small crew visited New Orleans nine times and
interviewed more than 80 people, including
climatologists, politicians, engineers and on-site
journalists, all of whom provide informative, though
sometimes conflicting, accounts of many different
facets of the hurricane. The story that emerges is one
of colossal and criminal government failure on local,
state and federal levels. Its many narrators cast an
equally scornful eye on President Bush, FEMA, the
insurance companies, Gov. Kathleen Blanco and the oil

The documentary's many narrators cast an equally
scornful eye on President Bush, FEMA, the insurance
companies, Gov. Kathleen Blanco and the oil business.

One might expect that all this anger would amount to a
tiresome polemic, especially at such a long running
time, and moreover because Lee himself has never been
known as a subtle filmmaker. At his best, however, he
is a gifted one, with an exceptional sense of craft. 
Even his worst films have always showcased his
inventive and remarkable ear for the profane poetry of
American speech. Here Lee wisely turns that ear to the
voices of the ravaged city as they spin colorful and
dramatic accounts of their experiences before, during
and after the storm: the salty and delightful Phyllis
Montana LeBlanc, a wife and mother who compares the
storm to the 50-foot woman of B-movies ripping the skin
off her home, and then delights us with an account of
her near throw-down with a cold U.S. servicewoman; Gina
Montana, who describes the agony of seeing people
"treated like cattle," and reminds us that before it
was called The Big Easy, New Orleans was known as The
Town That Care Forgot; and finally, Fred Johnson,
obscene and on-point, with a snorted dismissal of
George Bush and his advisers: "These fools, they don't
even know four dogs got four assholes!"

The interviews with the displaced victims of the storm,
both black and white, are the most gripping, but Lee
also provides political and historical context.  He
devotes a good deal of space to the testimony of local
leaders, including Mayor Ray Nagin and then-Police
Chief Eddie Compass--also giving airtime to those who
would criticize their actions: Compass for spreading
hysteria with his unsubstantiated claims of rapes and
murder in the Superdome and subsequent star turn on the
talk-show circuit; and Nagin for consulting with the
business community about a mandatory evacuation of the

Lee does not neglect the landmark moments in Katrina's
media coverage, from Soledad O'Brien's surreal
interrogation with an apparently brain-dead Mike Brown,
to the tape of Bush being warned about the possibility
of levees breaking, to Barbara Bush's infamous
assurance in Houston that since many of the victims
were "underprivileged anyway," displacement was
"working out well for them" (to which the indomitable
Montana LeBlanc responds by offering Mrs. Bush her
cellphone number and saying, "You tell her to call me
and say that shit.") Nor does he neglect Kanye West's
impromptu televised announcement that "George Bush
doesn't care about black people," along with caustic
reminders that Bush was not the only object of scorn:
Michael Eric Dyson, professor and author of "Come Hell
or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of
Disaster," reminds us that Condoleezza Rice's
preoccupations during the period of peak suffering
included shoe-shopping, theater and a game of tennis
with Monica Seles--"Blahniks, Broadway and balls are
more important than black people who look like her--for
this woman from Birmingham?"

America has not known New Orleans well enough. If we
did, we'd have done more to save and protect her.

But the real question is, what's next? In Act IV, an
Army engineer promises to bring the levees back to
pre-Katrina security levels before the next hurricane
season. The promise, made several months ago, has not
been kept--and even if it had been, it would be
completely nonsensical to restore security levels that
have proved so fatally deficient. The wetlands, in the
words of one expert, are strangled "like a hand cut off
by a rubber band," and have been eroded to the point of
similar impotence. New Orleans itself was already one
of the most dangerous cities in the nation in terms of
crime, and it's seen a spike in violent crime in recent
months. Worse still, more than 200,000 of its residents
are still scattered across 46 states. Their bitter
longing for home is understandable and legitimate, but
the recent and documented worldwide rise in hurricane
severity makes it highly unlikely that bringing people
home would be doing them a service.  Indeed, Mike
Tidwell, author of the recently published "The Ravaging
Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming
Death of America's Coastal Cities," calls Bush's
exhortations to return to New Orleans an "act of mass

The victims want to rebuild, and it is easy to see why.
Much of the film's third act is devoted to the city's
musical history. Some of the same people we've already
watched curse and weep through stories of loss now
become cheerful, as they speak of their hometown's
heritage. We learn that it was a place where slaves
where permitted to play music on Sundays, where,
because of a peculiarly French relationship to human
bondage, "you could buy black people, but marry  'em
too," and where one could be a slave and still go to
the opera.  One wishes that this portion of the
documentary would go on forever, as Lee samples
liberally from decades of music and street scenes:
Mardi Gras, Indian dances, drum circles and, of course,
funeral marches. The jazz funeral is a particular child
of this city; it begins with sorrowful hymns, a "giving
way to grief," but traditionally ends on a note of
celebration.  "The idea," we are told, "is that 'Yeah,
I'm sad you're gone, but it was sure was nice to know

America has not known New Orleans well enough. If we
did, we'd have done more to save and protect her. "When
the Levees Broke" is a jazz funeral, a chorus of
voices, some angry, some informed, some specialized,
all trying to make sense of a death, not just of one of
our loveliest cities but of an illusion: the illusion
that our government cares about its citizens. 

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