Agony of New Orleans, Through Spike Lee’s Eyes

This is a good article from the New York Times on the upcoming documentary that Spike Lee has filmed for HBO on Hurricane Katrina. I definitely want to check this one out.

August 3, 2006
Agony of New Orleans, Through Spike Lee’s Eyes

NEW ORLEANS — From the beginning Spike Lee knew that Hurricane Katrina was a story he had to tell. Watching the first television images of floating bodies and of desperate people, mostly black, stranded on rooftops, he quickly realized he was witnessing a major historical moment. As those moments kept coming, he spent almost a year capturing the hurricane’s sorrowful consequences for a four-hour documentary, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” to be shown on HBO this month.

The film, which Mr. Lee directed and produced, comes 20 years after the August 1986 debut of his first hit, “She’s Gotta Have It,” about Nola Darling, a Brooklyn graphic artist, and her three lovers. The provocative films that followed (“Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever,” “Malcolm X,” among others), with their searing cultural critiques, cemented Mr. Lee’s reputation as his generation’s pioneering black filmmaker. This year he had a commercial and critical success with “Inside Man,” about a bank heist.

Like him or not, Mr. Lee, 49, is an artist many people feel they know. People, black and white, approached him and the “Levees” crew here, he said, imploring: “Tell the story. Tell the story.” “It becomes like an obligation we have,” he said.

Mr. Lee’s reputation helped get his camera crew into the city’s water-soaked homes, he said. It allowed him to stretch out a complex story, with themes of race, class and politics that, he said, have too often been sensationalized or rendered in sound bites. He received permission, for example, from Kimberly Polk to film the funeral of her 5-year-old daughter, Sarena Polk, swept away when the waters ravaged the Lower Ninth Ward. “She came to me in a dream,” Ms. Polk says in the film. “She said, ‘Mama, I’m falling.’ ”

“Levees” opens with the Louis Armstrong song “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” and offers black-and-white images of the city’s Southern-with-a-twist past — Mardi Gras, Confederate flags — interspersed with scenes of children airlifted from demolished houses, a door marked “dead body inside.”

This gumbo of a film lingers on the politics of disaster response, the science of levees and storms, the city’s Creolized culture, the stories of loss. Many faces are familiar: politicians like C. Ray Nagin, the city’s mayor, and Kathleen Blanco, the governor of Louisiana; celebrities like Harry Belafonte, Kanye West, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Sean Penn; and the native son and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who talks about New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz. “It’s like somebody violating your mama,” Mr. Marsalis says of the flooding.

Mr. Lee said he intended most of the “Levee” stories to come from the ordinary people who endured the Superdome’s makeshift shelter or long searches for loved ones. So “Levees” includes many people like Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, depressed and outraged after her family was evacuated to different places around the country and she waited four months for a government trailer. “Not just the levees broke,” she says in the film. “The spirit broke.”

And there’s Paris Ervin, a University of New Orleans student, who fled Hurricane Katrina but left behind his mother, Mary Johnell Morant. Months later, after their home was officially searched and marked empty, the police found Ms. Morant’s remains in the kitchen, under a refrigerator. It took two more months for the coroner’s office to identify her officially and release the body.

As a kind of thank-you to the many residents like Mr. Ervin, the first half of “Levees” will be first shown free on Aug. 16 to 10,000 people at the New Orleans Arena. HBO is to show the first two hours of “Levees” on Aug. 21 at 9 p.m., the last two on Aug. 22 at 9 p.m. It will be shown in its entirety at 8 p.m. on Aug. 29, the anniversary of the hurricane, one of the country’s worst natural disasters.

The critics and audience will have the final say on whether “Levees” is the thorough examination that Mr. Lee intends. His views are clear. “What happened in New Orleans was a criminal act,” he said, a tragic backhanded slap to poor, black or politically insignificant people. “The levees were a Band-Aid here and a Band-Aid there. In the famous statement of Malcolm X, the chickens came home to roost. Somebody needs to go to jail.”

Douglas Brinkley, the author of “The Great Deluge,” a book about Hurricane Katrina said: “When I heard Spike Lee was coming down, I felt grateful. I thought the media perspective — while good — still showed that a lot wasn’t being asked.” Mr. Lee is “grappling with the larger question of why so many African-Americans distrust government,” said Mr. Brinkley, a professor of history at Tulane University, who appears in the film.

Just as Michael Apted’s “7 Up,” documentary series followed a group of people, filmed first as children, Mr. Lee said he hopes to return to the people profiled in “Levees.”

One 90-degree Saturday, some of those interviewed gathered in a big meeting room at the Courtyard Marriott Hotel, not far from the Convention Center. Each person was photographed within a frame, intended to convey the idea that each interview is a portrait.

“It’s really just a mood,” Cliff Charles, the cinematographer on “Levees,” said of what he was trying to capture in the various portraits.

“Levees” has no voice-over narration and is stitched together by the witnesses and commentators. Sam Pollard, the producer and supervising editor, said they had made 30 or so versions of the documentary, wading through hours of film for the moments and the elements that best tell the story.

Mr. Pollard, who like Mr. Charles is black, has worked with Mr. Lee on two other documentaries, “4 Little Girls,” about the girls killed in the bombing of a black church in Birmingham in 1963, and “Jim Brown: All American,” about the former pro football star. Mr. Pollard said Mr. Lee came up with the film’s title last year, before they started shooting.

On the set Mr. Lee asked all the questions from a typed list. (“You have to say the question in the answer,” he said to those he interviewed. “Don’t look at me, keep looking at the lenses.”)

The interview lineup on that day in May included Joseph Bruno, a lawyer, talking about the complexities of flood insurance, among other topics; the musician Terence Blanchard (who also did the score for the film); Calvin Mackie, a mechanical engineer; Brian Thevenot and Trymaine Lee (who had Mr. Lee autograph his videos), reporters from The New Orleans Times-Picayune; and Mr. Brinkley.

Mr. Lee’s direction was terse, although he is more soft-spoken than his public image suggests. He told Mr. Mackie, whose father had lung cancer and was supposed to start chemotherapy the day the hurricane hit: “Talk about your father and stepmother. Say their names too.”

Mr. Mackie, 38, a professor of engineering at Tulane, was mourning their deaths. His 43-year-old stepmother Linda Emery Mackie’s breast cancer had metastasized in the weeks after the hurricane. His 63-year-old father Willie Mackie’s cancer treatment was delayed for six weeks, his health records lost. They died days apart in March.

“I hope that the documentary opens America’s eyes to how we continue to struggle here,” Mr. Mackie, who is black, said after his on-camera interview. “No matter how you feel about Spike, and I don’t like all his movies, people know about his integrity and his unrelenting commitment to African-American people, to tell our stories. You talk about street credibility, well, he has a cultural credibility.”

“Levees” started out as a two-hour, $1 million film. HBO executives looking for a Hurricane Katrina project snapped it up. Mr. Lee and his crew were able to get into New Orleans after Thanksgiving, Mr. Lee said, and he quickly realized that he needed two more hours and $1 million more to give the story a full airing. He got it.

Sheila Nevins, the film’s executive producer and the president of the documentary and family division at HBO, said “Levees” was an easy sell, at both prices.

“I realized this would be the film of record,” she said. “When Spike interviews a forgotten American whose kid floated away in the water, he lets them raise up their poetry. They’re able to express to him what they’re not able to express to anyone else.”

With all those hours of conversations and interviews, he certainly ended up with themes that went beyond the floodwaters, Mr. Lee said.

“Politics. Ethics. Morals,” he said, when asked what Katrina and in turn “Levees” was really about. “This is about what this country is really going to be.”

2 thoughts on “Agony of New Orleans, Through Spike Lee’s Eyes”

  1. If anyone is going to tell that story, I don’t mind it being Spike Lee. I still can’t believe what happen to those southern states. How does America justify trying to save the world, when our country is so messed up?

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