People Get Ready

[ make levees, not war ]

Anyone have anything to say about Spike Lee’s Katrina movie?

Posted by schroeder915 on August 17, 2006

Is anyone going to say something about Spike Lee’s movie, “When the Levees Broke”?

I know a few local bloggers opted out of the Arena premiere, having other obligations to tend to. Same here — so I’m reluctant to comment.

Because I’m extremely curious, I looked for what I could find in The Times-Picayune today and NOLA.com.

With the caveat that I haven’t seen the movie, from what I can gather, in short, it appears that the movie title should have been, “When the Levees Broke in the Lower Ninth Ward.”

Both Dave Walker and Stephanie Grace are a little too diplomatic for my tastes, but then I wonder what I would say if I could say it to Spike Lee in person (I’d like to have the opportunity).

Stephanie Grace summed up Lee’s failing very obliquely:

Lee treats local public officials like he treats everyone else. He lets them speak at length and with heart-on-the-sleeve passion, and he doesn’t question them — even when he should.

I don’t want to go down this road, but I have to — we all have to if we’re truly going to address what happened during Hurricane Katrina, what continues to happen, and in fact, what happened before Hurricane Katrina.

Racism? Sure, I’ll more than allow that the experience of black New Orleanians during Hurricane Katrina has to be viewed within a broader context of the disenfranchisement of poor blacks from the prosperity of the greater society. But was racism the cause for the criminal negligence Americans watched unfold in that horrifying week after Hurricane Katrina, as though they were witnessing something that only happens in the poorest countries? We ought to be able to have a civil discussion about it.

I don’t think so — I don’t think what happened in that first week was racism. It was, plain and simple, criminal negligence. You see, the real story to be told, which Spike Lee is missing, is how — not just how the white upper class exploits poor blacks — but how the black upper class exploits poor blacks too. What we’ve seen in the planning process — or the lack of a planning process — since Hurricane Katrina might be called racism, but even there, I’ll argue against it.

Why? Because, presumably, the mayor is in charge. He’s the highest political leader in the city, and he’s black. The black community is also well-represented on the City Council. Why would they want to deny the black community a humane evacuation strategy and a smooth recovery?

The answer, I believe, is political opportunism — playing the racial card for facile access to, and maintenance of, political power for personal fortune.

I felt like I ought to use the adjective “poor” before every reference to neglected blacks described in this post. Why? Because that really is the key. There is nothing, for example, by way of comparison, that Spike Lee has been disenfranchised from having or accomplishing in his successful career. Oh sure, he’ll probably tell you that his barriers to entry into film-making were higher than for whites, but what can’t he have now that all but a tiny sliver of people at the top can enjoy — wealth, access to power, a prominent voice in society?

Can Spike Lee be faulted, then, for his narrow perspective on Hurricane Katrina?

Were I able to talk to him about it, I’d say yes. He chose to only present the experience of a few thousand black residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, when flooding impacted hundreds of thousands of blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians in every area of the city. Their stories are no less tragic. Lee also skimmed the surface for the easy examples of black heroism, and white racism, or neglect of blacks. Nagin is the hero, a title earned on a single night on the airwaves hollering at officials in Washington to get off their asses. But what of Nagin’s incompetence and neglect in the months before Hurricane Katrina, when he could have instituted an evacuation plan, and in the months following, when he could have demonstrated his support for poor black New Orleanians by actively engaging them in a planning process to rebuild their neighborhoods instead of leaving them to the vagaries of market forces.

Were the levees blown? Lee doesn’t offer strong evidence that they weren’t, leaving open the allegation that they were. This is possibly the wildest of legends that needs to be hit hard and buried for good. It’s easy to find detractors if one looks for them. For example, I talked to an engineer on site in the Lower Ninth Ward who’s a Marine demolitions expert. He said that the force of water breaching the sheetpiling would have made a horrific sound — like an explosion — but that if the levee wall were dynamited, there would have been millions of pieces of sheetpile shards scattered around the area. Are there? Well, of course there aren’t, because the levees weren’t blown.

The real story is actually far more insidious.

I was talking to the_velvet_rut about this months ago. In a way, she suggested that it might be fair to suggest that the levees were blown — not instantaneously in one event, but rather, in a long, slow process of neglect and incompetence. But that neglect hurt whites just as much as it did blacks and everyone else in between. It’s a story about what happened when the Reagan administration called government “the problem,” and thus began a twenty-year dismantlement of vital programs — like Corps of Engineers levee projects. It’s a story about institutional failure within the Corps of Engineers. It’s a story about administrators cutting corners to keep projects within budget rather than listening to the scientists who know better. It’s an ongoing story about a president who would rather see New Orleans die than commit now to a bold project to protect the city from ever flooding again with Category 5 storm protection and wetlands renewal to be the envy of the world.

If anything, the mainstream media overemphasized the experience of people in the Lower Ninth Ward to the exclusion of everyone, and everywhere else. Is that racism? Well, in a way, it is — it’s probably racism expressed as pity.

Were I to do an objective documentary about Hurricane Katrina, I would be grossly misrepresenting an understanding of the event by focusing on only one race — or one geographic area. A vast territory, 80 percent of New Orleans, and over 300,000 people were impacted by flooding directly when the levees failed.

No, I’m not sure I want to see Spike Lee’s documentary anymore. I think I’ve already seen it, and those of us who are intimately living with, and dealing with, the real-life results of the levees breaking, are seeking true answers to why it happened, and how to prevent it in the future.

From what people whose opinions I respect say they’ve seen in the first two hours of Spike Lee’s film, he isn’t helping, he’s hurting that process.

8/18/06 update:

Read the comments for an ongoing discussion. As difficult as it may be for me to do, by my own admission, and after an effective persuasive argument by “anonymous,” I can’t honestly carry this conversation forward any further without seeing the movie myself.

Related:


Blogging New Orleans — Why I won’t see Spike’s movie, but you should

Maitri’s VatulBlog — Avoidance of Requiem Rodeo

SpasticRobot — When the Levees Broke

Newsweek — Spike’s Katrina

Tags: | | | | |  | Bush is a moron | Impeach Bush | George W Bush | Bush | Worst President Ever | Spike Lee | When the Levees Broke | Katrina Dissidents | Failure Is Not An Option

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