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Spike Lee – Knows What It Means to Miss New Orleans

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

Spike Lee

Spike Lee

Knows What It Means to Miss New Orleans

by Jay S. Jacobs

Spike Lee has experienced many things in the twenty years since he exploded out of NYU with She’s Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing. His films have looked unflinchingly at some of the most polarizing subjects of modern life; race relations, drug abuse, inner city violence, religion, war profiteering, politics, prison, the sex trade, organized crime – the list goes on and on.

However, nothing could prepare Lee for the real-life devastation which would blow into the Gulf Coast in late August of 2005. Hurricane Katrina – as well as political incompetence and poor planning – was essentially responsible for wiping New Orleans, Louisiana, one of the most vital cultural areas in the world, off of the map. Almost 2,000 people were killed. Untold billions of dollars of property damage was rained down on the mostly impoverished people of the area.

Lee had a love for New Orleans and watched horrified by the news emanating from the area. He had many friends from the district – including his long-time musical collaborator Terence Blanchard. He saw vital stories that were not getting told as lifelong residents had their whole lives destroyed. Families were separated. People were herded into the Superdome and forced to live without electricity, food or plumbing like animals. Bodies are still being found a year later and entire neighborhoods are in rubble.

Therefore, Lee approached HBO about making a documentary on the Katrina Disaster, which focused not just on the storm and the destruction, but the people who survived it – and those who didn’t. The film which resulted was When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, which examined the devastation and the courage of the people of New Orleans for over four hoursNow that it is being released on DVD, Lee has added an additional two hours of footage to make the story even closer to complete.

“The one thing that was surprising me going in,” Lee says, “[is] I didn’t think there would be as much humor as there ended up being. But we just successfully captured the spirit of people. It was one of those things that I have to laugh to keep from crying. Some said they were still crying despite the laughing.”

It would be nice and easy to blame the destruction of Katrina on Mother Nature run amuck, but sadly that would be way too simple.

Spike Lee

“This whole thing about if a category five hit New Orleans,” Lee says. “There have been many studies, as you saw in the film, of what would happen – not that many people paid heed to it. In reality, Katrina missed New Orleans. It was only a category three. So, it was the breach of the levees that brought about the destruction. Anybody who had been Mayor should have really been working on the levee system. Because people knew throughout that it was faulty. Even today it’s still faulty. Thank God hurricane season is about to end in a couple of weeks, because they got through. But they might not, you know. It’s like rolling dice. They keep thinking they are going to dodge a bullet.”

When the Levees Broke is highly critical of the Government response to Katrina – George W. Bush’s stated belief that “Brownie’s doing a great job,” Condoleezza Rice’s buying expensive shoes and going to plays in New York while the levees poured water into the Ninth Ward, First mother Barbara Bush looking around at refugees huddled in a Texas stadium and stating that because they were poor anyway, they may be making out well by being relocated.

In fact, despite the fact that most political pundits suggested that the recent Democratic party sweep of the House of Representatives and the Senate was mostly due to a public outcry about Iraq and the Mark Foley page scandal, Lee feels that the storms also played a huge part in shaping public opinion.

“I think [Katrina] played a very big part of it,” Lee says. “I made that same observation that people are coming out with these statements. They totally left Katrina out of it. But I think it was the double whammy. Really, I think more than Mark Foley, [it was] Katrina and Iraq. That’s what turned the tide.”

When the Levees Broke received some criticism in conservative circles for a section in which several of the New Orleans residents suggest that the levees were blown up purposely. They suggested that the explosion assured that the poor neighborhoods be damaged and not the rich developments further down. However, Lee took no side on the issue. The film also showed people who were quite sure that this was just a conspiracy theory.

Many people assailed Lee personally for taking on such a controversial topic – a topic which the government would find embarrassing. However, Lee was not worried about criticism or backlash.

Spike Lee filming “When the Levees Broke.”

“I don’t think it was a big risk doing a film like this,” Lee says. “What’s the risk? People can have their opinion, but I didn’t see any risk involved. Never thought about it.

“I don’t really worry about that stuff. If I worried about that stuff, then we wouldn’t have been able to build up the body of work that we’ve done. We’ve done twenty films in twenty years, so I’ve been too busy to worry about that stuff.”

It is not at all a partisan issue, though. Lee received the full cooperation of New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Katherine Blanco (both of whom are Democrats) in the filming. However, he will not give them a pass for the destruction and the continued lack of progress, either.

“Whatever [Nagin is doing], it’s not working,” Lee states. “Whatever Blanco’s doing, it’s not working. Whatever Bush and the federal administration are doing is not working. All this money that’s been promised has not reached into the people’s hands. So, we’re stuck somewhere.”

Lee is trying to help in any way that he can to get money to the real victims. They will get a percentage of the proceeds from the DVD. “That’s something that HBO is going to do for the people who appeared in the film,” Lee says. He has also donated his own money, though he is not sure exactly how much. “I’ll have to check my tax records for that.”

Perhaps most importantly, he was able to put human faces on the devastation. When the Levees Broke speaks with dozens of people whose lives were altered by events and aftermath of the storm. Some of the people spoken to were directly involved in the management of the crisis. More were just the normal people who were swept up in abnormal events. Lee and his crew wanted to capture as many typical New Orleans residents as they could.

“The majority were found by Judy Aley, who was a researcher. She went down before me and just walked around and walked up to people and asked them their story.”

Through this, Lee found that he had tapped into a rich tapestry of life during and after Katrina.

“We didn’t have a script, so we had to find the structure. I had a great editor – supervising editor and co-producer Sam Pollard. He went through hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage. Not only of interviews [that] I conducted, but the archival footage, the newsreel footage. Footage we got from citizens of New Orleans who shot stuff on their own cameras.

When the Levees Broke

“We wanted to take the best material,” Lee continues. “Shape it. Give it a narrative. Tell a story. So, the release of the DVD is a three-disk and the extras… one of the extra things is act five, which is an additional hour and 45 minutes of footage that was not in the original four hours… This is six hours. With the addition of act five it’s now six hours and still incomplete.

“The film is incomplete because what’s happened down there is incomplete. So, I would like to stay with this – maybe come back in another year or so – and try to do another look at it. Two, three years looking back. And how much has changed. Or has not changed. It will be interesting to see where people are in two or three years. Whatever happened to Phyllis Montana LeBlanc? She’s in a FEMA trailer. Will she be in a FEMA trailer two or three years from now? [Other people are] in Texas. How many people are going to move back from the 46 other states? And what are they moving back to?”

Lee has stayed in contact with many of the subjects of When the Levee Broke. “I’m in touch with a lot of people. They’re still struggling. It’s still a daily struggle just to get by.”

Of course, it would be impossible to look at Katrina and its aftermath without looking at the crime as well, the looting and the continuing violence in the city. Also, there is a lack of justice, because the judiciary system has become cracked.

“There were many people who were arrested or in jail prior to the breech of levees,” Lee muses. “Some are still in jail now because records got lost and the whole judicial system is messed up. Records are lost. People don’t know who’s in for what. It’s chaos. A lot of lawyers and DAs and stuff like that left. The whole infrastructure of the city is gone.”

However, there was joy within the sorrow as well. Lee and his crew went back down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and filmed the city trying to reclaim its spirit and vibrancy after a crushing blow. It would seem bittersweet, but for a short time people were able to forget.

“It wasn’t bittersweet at all,” Lee says enthusiastically. “It was fun. Everybody was having fun. People understood that the world was going to change the next day when they woke up, but for the moment people were having fun. A lot of people who were evacuated had come back for homecomings. So, people would see a lot of friends and family who are living elsewhere.”

When the Levees Broke

New Orleans is taking baby steps in getting back to its feet. Recently, a major film was shot there – but Lee recognizes while that may help the local economy it does not filter down to the average people.

“That’s not going to get to the regular folks,” Lee says. “The fact that Déjà Vu was shot in New Orleans did not impact the pocketbook of Phyllis or Kim Polk.”

In fact, Lee is a little disappointed in the artistic community in general and the hip hop community more specifically; that such a vibrant artistic city could be devastated and not many people tried to help. After Kanye West’s famous live television statement that Bush did not care about black people, not enough people were willing to demand to be heard.

“There were several benefit concerts,” Lee says. “Stuff like that. I know Jay-Z has a song on his new, upcoming album that’s about how the United States deserted the citizens of the Gulf region. But very, very few people stood up. It was disappointing more people didn’t stand up.”

However, it is also important to keep getting the word out. Lee is making a new TV series on the subject for NBC – a fictional look at the survivors of the storm.

“We are in development,” Lee says. “It’s called Nola, and it takes place in post-Katrina, post-levee-breached New Orleans. Like today, people just trying to put their lives back together.”

Perhaps the most important thing that Lee can do is remind the people what happened. Keep the horror fresh in everybody’s minds so that a disaster like Katrina could never happen again. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It’s an uphill battle, Lee knows, in the attention-span-challenged modern world.

“Definitely people have forgotten what happened in New Orleans,” Lee says. “The other group thinks that much progress has been done because they bought into the photo-ops of Bush when he went down there for the anniversary. The reopening of the Superdome and the Saints [are] winning. They see a bunch of people in the French Quarter [and] think everything is back to business. That’s not the case.”

Copyright ©2006 All rights reserved. Posted: December 18, 2006.

Photo Credits:#1 © 2006. Courtesy of Home Box Office. All rights reserved.#2 © 2006. Courtesy of Home Box Office. All rights reserved.#3 © 2006. Courtesy of Home Box Office. All rights reserved.#4 © 2006. Courtesy of Home Box Office. All rights reserved.#5 © 2006. Courtesy of Home Box Office. All rights reserved.

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