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Spike Lee’s When The Levees Broke – the lost voices of New Orleans

Jonathan Neale reviews Spike Lee’s epic documentary, due to be aired on BBC4 next week

Issue No. 2031

Film director Spike Lee in the ruins of New Orleans

Film director Spike Lee in the ruins of New Orleans

All respect to Spike Lee. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, he felt he had a political duty to make a documentary about it, to make it long – and to make it for television so as many people as possible saw it.

What he may not have expected is how the coincidence of that passion with his craft and talent means this is the best film he has ever made.

It’s moving for a lot of reasons. Working class southern Americans, white and black, are allowed to talk straight to camera, with the kind of brains and feel for language those people have.

They’re given time – the film lasts for over four hours. And they’re allowed to tell the truth as they see it.

Grief is not soundbited. It takes its time to get under your skin.

Lee certainly chooses what goes into the film. The cutting and composition are wonderful. But there’s no voiceover, no bullying narrator framing it all for you. There are experts – writers, hurricane professors, politicians, engineers – but their voices have the same weight as those of ordinary people.

And it’s beautiful, particularly in the first half. That’s partly because Lee knows what he’s doing. But it’s also because storms, water and floods all have their own strange beauty.

There’s a lot about racism, how real and strong and hurtful that was during and after the hurricane.

But Lee also tells you, again and again, that class matters even more. He doesn’t tell you this straight. Lee does something much stronger – he lets black and white working people talk.

Government failure

There is something missing though. Lee lets you know one half the story – the catastrophic failure of the US government. They knew the storm was coming. They told the mayor to evacuate everyone. He didn’t.

No one sent him the buses and trucks to do it. Once the floods hit, the government did nothing. It sent no trucks, buses, soldiers, planes, food or water.

No one says it direct in this film, but that’s because successive US presidents have torn up the idea that the government intervenes for anything. Public services are a bad thing.

I remember when the US invaded Iraq, many people said it was so that US corporations could make money rebuilding the country.

I said no, they never rebuild. Unfortunately, I was right. They have not rebuilt Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Somalia, Haiti or Lebanon.

They don’t rebuild. That would give credit to the idea that governments are there to meet the needs of humans.

So they aren’t rebuilding New Orleans either. Lee shows people’s sorrow and bewilderment that their families have been scattered to the 49 states, with no return tickets. There are almost no trailers for people to live in. Streets have not been cleared.

The government is not rebuilding the levees – the dykes that keep back the water.

They are promising to. But they’re not doing it. And it isn’t only because the government doesn’t rebuild. It’s also because they know climate change caused the disaster, and they know it will be back. Bush and company say they don’t know. But they do.

This is the gaping hole in Lee’s film. He namechecks climate change briefly, in terms of sea level rise. But that’s not the point. Climate change means stronger hurricanes, because hot seas are what make hurricanes.

Because of that, and because the waters are rising, the US government knows it can’t simply rebuild the levees as before. Those didn’t hold. The hurricanes that are coming will blow stronger and start higher.

New Orleans is the lowest lying city in America. The higher parts, the richer parts, will remain. But the low lying land has been lost. And with it, all that history, all that music and memory, love and family.

Rising waves

Like most climate activists, I had always thought Tuvalu or some other Pacific atoll would be the first place permanently lost to the rising waves. I was wrong. It’s New Orleans.

But the tragedy there is not different from what the loss of rains is doing to Darfur, or what the floods do to Bangladesh. The rich corporations of the world are cooking the planet. And as the waters rise, they take to the high ground – leaving the rest of us at the bottom of the hill.

The people in Lee’s film know what has been done to them, and who has done it. But they don’t really understand that they are among millions of climate change victims around the world.

The Bangladeshis and Sudanese haven’t got the full measure of it yet either. We have some campaigning and explaining to do, right round the world.

Still, it’s a good film. Turn it on. Have friends round to watch it, make a little political meeting of it. After all, Lee made this film because he wanted to cry out and change things. That’s why it works.

When you watch it, remember two things. The US is the richest country in the world. And you are seeing what a future of climate change holds for the rest of us.

Spike Lee’s When The Levees Broke will be shown in two parts on BBC4 at 9pm on Monday 18 December and Tuesday 19 December. For more on the links between climate change, hurricanes, Darfur and Bangladesh, read The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery. It is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, phone 020 7637 1848.

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Sat 16 Dec 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2031
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