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A flood of emotions

Director Spike Lee looks back on the physical and emotional devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and the government's response to the people of New Orleans, in an HBO documentary.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published August 20, 2006


[AP photo]
Movie director Spike Lee revisits the shattered Lower 9th ward prior to the release of his HBO movie 'What the Levees Broke."

Spike Lee has a dream. It involves President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff and a copy of Lee's HBO documentary about Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.

"Remember in that movie, A Clockwork Orange, where they had the chairs set up so you can't close your eyelids?" says a laid-back Lee, calling from Los Angeles. He imagines a screening room and his film projected on a wall. "Bush. Cheney. Chertoff. Condoleezza Rice - all of them would be handcuffed in chairs and forced to watch it. That would be a hell of a screening."

Indeed, there is much in Lee's four-hour epic that Bush and his subordinates would hate to see. A rush of talking heads from Sean Penn to Wynton Marsalis blame government institutions for Katrina's horrific aftermath. And Lee finished the film just in time to join the rush of coverage commemorating the storm's first anniversary, Aug. 29.

There's an interview with the guy who threw the f-word at Cheney as he toured the devastation; the infamous clip of First Mother Barbara Bush explaining how some Katrina refugees in Houston actually might have improved their lot in the disaster; a segment on Rice's shopping tour and visit to the Spamalot musical in New York during the immediate aftermath (one of Lee's few regrets is failing to find the woman who reportedly chided Rice for buying expensive shoes while black people were dying in New Orleans).

Two moments are so powerful that Lee plays them three times: Bush's unthinking "Brownie you're doing a heck of a job" compliment to FEMA director Michael Brown, and Kanye West's unscripted remark during a telethon, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

"I read what they wanted me to read (before the telethon) and it wasn't heartfelt," West tells Lee's cameras for the documentary. The interview is one of the few times the rap star has spoken publicly about his statement, which crystallized black Americans' frustration over the slow federal response to Katrina.

"After I said it, everyone in the room was polarized," he says. "I wasn't concerned about record sales or losing any sponsorships - which we did - but I was more concerned about, '(What if) I was in those people's shoes?' "

It's no surprise that the director of such in-your-face films as Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X blames the debacle on the Republican-led political establishment.

But those familiar with Lee's penchant for bending characters to serve his own ideological interests may find When the Levees Broke more even-handed than they would expect.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, former police Chief Eddie Compass and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers all take a few hits here.

Suggest that he might be getting more subtle in his old age, and Lee chuckles like he has heard a good joke.

"I'll take that as a backhanded compliment, but I don't necessarily agree with it," says Lee, who has had his most mainstream year yet, with the Denzel Washington film Inside Man, which grossed $88-million, and work directing the pilot of James Woods' new CBS drama Shark. "Sometimes, in this work, you do need a baseball bat - and I'm not afraid to take it out of the rack if I need to."

Lee hit on the idea for the film while watching storm coverage from a hotel room in Italy at the Venice Film Festival. Within days, he was on the phone to longtime editor Sam Pollard and then HBO, looking to tell the story of Katrina in long form. By September's end, he was filming in the city.

There are touches of the director's familiar style in Levees, including a mournful score from Terence Blanchard and evocative images from New Orleans past and present. Calls to old friends such as West, CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien and New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis sprinkle stardust among the tough personal stories of people who lost homes, loved ones and more.

Among the most poignant moments: Lee's cameras follow New Orleans native Blanchard as he takes his mother Wilhelmina to the home he grew up in, now destroyed by flood waters, filming as she crumples under the grief.

Throughout Lee's interviews, two constants emerge: a smoldering anger among New Orleans residents and a sense that the most important thing they can do now is make sure the world understands exactly what they've gone through.

"People think we got hit by a hurricane - we got missed by a hurricane," says radio personality Garland Robinette, who later breaks down in tears before Lee's cameras. "When the water backed up . . . my understanding is, the water backed up like a Category 1 into our levees - and they failed."

But haven't we seen all this before? Didn't CNN's O'Brien, Fox News' Shepard Smith and NBC's Brian Williams spend long days and weeks in New Orleans documenting these stories live? Wasn't it their chilling footage of residents stranded on rooftops and suffering outside the Convention Center that finally forced an effective federal response and cost "Brownie" his job?

"The story has been told with 30-second sound bites and two-minute news segments," says Lee. "There was all this talk about covering poverty and race after Katrina, but two weeks later, they're on to something else. The story has not been told in the way that we did it."

Lee's convictions notwithstanding, many media outlets have done extensive reporting on these issues, and viewers who have followed that work may find Lee's work drags in parts - especially in describing incidents that are well known.

Katrina's anniversary will bring more coverage, including five days of reports on the Weather Channel and an evening of specials on the Discovery Channel.

But Lee isn't impressed by the flood of hurricane retrospectives.

"I just hope (Katrina's anniversary) is not one of these things where we're talking about it for two days and then we move on again," says Lee, who hopes to return every few years to capture the ongoing stories. "People are dead because of shoddy work on the levees and an inadequate response. Somebody should be going to prison."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media.

PREVIEW

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts airs on HBO, with Acts I and II scheduled Monday and Acts III and IV broadcast Tuesday, beginning at 9 each night. HBO will present all four acts at 8 p.m. on Aug. 29, the first anniversary of Katrina's arrival. Grade: A-. Rating: TV-MA Mature Audiences

[Last modified August 19, 2006, 10:28:49]


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