Copyrighted material


by Randy Fertel

on 1 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

(PNS) NEW ORLEANS -- No one in New Orleans is ever surprized by inefficiency, less so post-Katrina. So it was little surprise that the lines were long and the going slow at the New Orleans Arena for the premiere of Spike Lee's "When the Levees Broke." Still, waiting to get some bottled water at the concession stand began to raise my hackles and then my anxiety. As line slowly neared the counter, I could see that the glass-fronted refrigerator was nearing empty. Just as it came my turn the last two bottles of Kentwood were swept away. I had a moment of panic: Four hours without water? How will I make it?

It was about then that I remembered that across Girod Street at the Superdome and 12 blocks away at the Convention Center, tens of thousands of my fellow New Orleanians waited four days for water. At that moment I got a little glimpse of how hard it is to grasp what the people of this city went through in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. Then, with a bottle of water retrieved from somewhere now in hand, I went in to see Spike Lee's film and let him tell the rest of the story.

Tell it he does. Mesmerizingly, enthrallingly, spellbindingly, graphically, richly. Much of the story is there. In my line of vision, about half way back in the orchestra, with perhaps 2,000 of the 7,000 in attendance in my direct line of vision, I did not see one person budge. For 4.5 hours.

Much of the story is there, but of course not all. There is no question that Spike Lee slights by comparison the tragedy of white Lakeview and Lakeshore and Old Metairie and Uptown and Mid-City in favor of the more infamous horrors of the Lower Nine. There is no doubt that his sympathy for the suffering of blacks edges out his sympathy for whites. But, despite all expectation, this is not a race film, let alone a racist film. Spike Lee has risen to the occasion, and the occasion is the loss of the nation's most interesting city. Many of his talking heads are white, and their tales are respected just as completely.

Biggest surprise of all: Spike Lee tells the Katrina story fairly.

Here's an extreme example of Spike Lee's evenhandedness. One of his talking heads is "Junior" Rodriguez, a colorful but influential councilman in St. Bernard Parish. "Colorful" here is in part code for "racist," and the Times Picayune is often full of Rodriguez's latest peccadilloes -- for example, his use of the N-word, twice, during a parish meeting in 1997. "That's just the way I talk," he explained to the paper, "I didn't mean anything by it." "Junior" is a Jabba the Hut hulk of a man, red-faced with cascading chins. Surely there are few easier or more likely to have received rough handling in Lee's editing room. Not so. Junior is as likeable as those of his neighbors Lee chose to represent the Lower 9.

Balance seems to have been his byword in making this film. Rumors about the blowing up of the levee by whites to get rid of blacks get an airing but, for the most part, the rebuttal of those rumors is complete by the end of the film. Criticism of Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco are aired, but we are reminded before it is done that few in history have ever been tested so completely.

The key exception to this balanced treatment is Lee's treatment of the federal government, its agents and its leaders. FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, Bush, Brownie, Chernoff, Cheney, Rice -- all are made to run the gauntlet; few exit unscathed. From the very vocal hum of approval in this enrapt audience, even fewer New Orleanians would wish it any other way.

And yet it is also true that there is little subtlety in Lee's ultimate message: regime change and revolution. What comes through in the course of the film is that given the criminal bungling and fecklessness at the federal level, the bums should go. Even more visionary, for Lee, Katrina and its aftermath are a window into the worst nightmares of the American Dream. Something's gotta change. Seeing this film, who will gainsay him?

But to his credit, Lee doesn't just exploit the city and its people to send a telegram with his political message. The ultimate proof that Lee gets it and gets us, is his loving portrait of the city and its people. The stories Lee puts before us -- often told in long generous takes -- are as beautiful as they are devastating.

As one would expect from Spike Lee, the filmmaking is exceptional, the storytelling creative and effective. Special note should be taken of the score by Terence Blanchard, an old hand at scoring big films, but here also one of the talking heads and a player in the action. We are invited to accompany him when he brings his mother to the family home in New Orleans East to see the devastation for the first time.

Bring your handkerchief.

Randy Fertel, a native New Orleanian, teaches the Literature of War and of Exile at the New School for Social Research. He directs the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation, which is devoted to education in Louisiana. He serves as executive producer on the forthcoming documentary "Tootie's Last Suit," about the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians

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Albion Monitor   August 24, 2006   (

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