Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke is a television milestone that ranks with Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest of Shame as an unflinching document of a national disgrace. Over the course of four hour-long acts (plus, for this DVD, a newly filmed fifth act), Lee chronicles the devastation wrought not just by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina but also by ill-prepared, inefficient, and seemingly indifferent federal, state, and local officials, who fiddled while New Orleans drowned.
As Lee rightly surmised, when trying to wrap one’s mind around the enormity of the Katrina disaster and its aftermath, sound bites on the evening news and partisan sniping on talk shows just wouldn’t hold water. He meticulously compiled news footage and conducted interviews with residents, politicians, and volunteers; the raw footage of citizens railing at the heavens for someone, anyone, to hear them and help them is especially affecting.
There is plenty of blame to go around, according to Lee: There’s FEMA director Michael Brown on CNN, professing ignorance that thousands were living like refugees inside the Superdome. There’s Condoleezza Rice shoe-shopping and taking in Spam-a-Lot on Broadway while 80 percent of New Orleans was under water.
And there’s President Bush praising Brown with You’re doing a heck of a job, an infamous quote Lee can’t resist playing back three times for its outrage value. Lee’s voice can be heard off camera during interviews, but he does not inject himself into the proceedings.