It is really something to say that Spike Lee’s documentary of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is quite possibly his best work. With all due respect to Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Inside Man, and the rest of Lee’s estimable filmography, When the Levees Broke may be the most evocative, deftly told, and important four hours to his credit.
Lee set up his camera — first in New York to track survivors, then in New Orleans — about a month after the Aug. 29, 2005, levee breach; the finished film debuted on HBO less than a year later. That’s a rush job in other hands, but in Lee’s, what we feel is immediacy, impact, and a sense of what he calls ”the character of the city” — without turning interview subjects themselves into characters. Still, if there is a star in Levees — and even he, in his commentary, admits there is one — it’s Phyllis Montana LeBlanc. The New Orleanian is a natural storyteller who does verbal calisthenics with four-letter words to tell her story of survival and rage at the government for leaving its citizens feeling abandoned on the Gulf Coast.
But the selling point of Levees is Lee himself. This is no dispassionate documentarian carefully sitting on fences; the director takes full advantage of his stunning commentary track to indict the Bush administration. Dick Cheney, Michael Chertoff, and Condoleezza Rice are deemed ”gangsters.” Just about everything he says of President Bush is unprintable in a family magazine. Even local officials get slapped: ”[Louisiana governor Kathleen] Blanco and [New Orleans mayor Ray] Nagin do not get along at all,” he dishes. ”People died because of that.” But as with Levees, there’s humor in Lee’s vinegary vitriol, as he hilariously parses Nagin and Bush’s no-girls-allowed body language (which excludes Blanco), nicknames one interviewee Travis Bickle, and says of another, ”I know she went to the hairdresser right before this.”
With such color and power on the commentary track, we hardly need extras for filler — good thing, too, because there aren’t many. Besides a photomontage with music from Lee’s longtime collaborator Terence Blanchard, there are 105 minutes of additional interview footage. As emotionally exhausting as these accounts are, it’s impossible to get enough of them. We want more — more images, more stories, more Phyllis Montana LeBlancs. Maybe then we can begin to understand the tragedy, to get where Spike’s coming from. Because Lee’s film may not speak for everyone — but the voices that fill it, their pride and their pain, should certainly speak to something in all of us.