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Review: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)

Directed by: Spike Lee

Premise: A documentary film on the flooding of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005. The film interviews historians, activists, political commentators, public figures, and residents of New Orleans to catalogue the causes of the disaster, the drama of the flooding, and the after effects on New Orleans, Louisiana, and American culture.

What Works: Spike Lee has created an amazing historical document that gives a complete account of the event, placing it in a historical context for New Orleans and the United States. The film interviews a wide variety of voices and is able to give a wide spectrum of opinions on the events and the meanings of those events. As a result, the film sometimes has contradictory accounts and assessments, but this makes it more powerful because the substance of the film is more real. The documentary has been styled with the culture of New Orleans in mind in its music and in its look. The film has an interesting relationship to the citizens of New Orleans; although it portrays them as victims of circumstance and governmental incompetence, the film does not rob the citizens of their dignity. On the contrary, many of the subjects are able to maintain their humanity above and beyond many of the other interviewees in the film. When the Levees Broke accomplishes what the best documentaries seek to do: take real life and make it dramatically and intellectually engaging.

What Doesn’t: This documentary has a political point of view and it shows no quarter in its criticisms of individuals who contributed to the disaster through inaction. While this is not a fault of the picture, some of these elements may not age as well as the years go by.

DVD extras: Commentary track, epilogue, photo gallery.

Bottom Line: When the Levees Broke is an amazing documentary film. Spike Lee has created what may be the definitive account of the Katrina disaster in New Orleans and done it in a way that is artistic and humane.

Episode: #124 (December 31, 2006)