When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts is a massive achievement, especially considering it was released within a year of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. It’s also a surprisingly sober account of that natural (actually, man-made) disaster, given that the documentary is directed by Spike Lee. Rather than take a histrionic approach, Lee trusts his four-hour running time, allowing the evidence of governmental indifference and incompetence to quietly pile up until it becomes cumulatively enraging.
This is primarily a work of journalism, then, even if a good number of editorial and artistic touches can be found. George W. Bush’s infamous approval of Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown—“You’re doing a great job, Brownie”—gets repeated a few times in a row like a damning record scratch. On occasion, as yet another embattled citizen recounts the ways the government has failed them, Lee’s camera looks up at the subject from a low angle, giving their words prophetic power. And then there is the music, composed by Terence Blanchard. Mournful, lingering, and almost omnipresent, the score is a nod to the documentary’s subtitle and perhaps its connective tissue. Blanchard, a New Orleans resident, is also interviewed, and at one point performs a plaintive trumpet solo while walking down a devastated street.
Given all the material they had to work with—and the time frame they were working within—editors Sam Pollard, Geeta Gandbhir, and Nancy Novack impressively move us deftly through the tragedy—at first chronologically, then from one theme (or culprit) to the next. Whenever things start to feel too wonkish, we return to interview footage with one of the citizen eyewitnesses, reminding us of the individual lives that are at stake. (For a riveting Katrina doc that puts such first-hand experience at the forefront, check out the Trouble the Water.)
Much of what Lee and his editors compiled comes from news footage. About midway through When the Levees Broke, there is an awful, shocking montage of corpses. The one I won’t be able to forget is the slumped, hastily covered body of Ethel Freeman, a 91-year-old woman who died in a wheelchair while awaiting evacuation from New Orleans’ convention center. Her corpse sat there for four days until buses arrived and her son was told he’d have to leave her behind. At four hours, When the Levees Broke makes an exhaustive case that America failed its citizens miserably. But that image of Ethel Freeman is really all the documentary needed.