Next Monday and Tuesday HBO airs Spike Lee’s four-hour documentary on Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, and it’s an exhaustive, ruminative, angry and even occasionally gallows-humorous account of the strange domino effect of tragedy compounding incompetence compounding tragedy that dealt a critical blow to one of America’s great cities. Lee’s complex bona fides as a provocateur filmmaker on the frontlines of black America’s concerns gave him unique access to residents with very particular tales of horror and outrage, and despite the flare-ups of city pride from natives who try to send a message of you-can’t-kill-us rejuvenation, the overall effect of the film is a case study in how dispassionate leaders sow mistrust in their most needy citizens. (Big surprise: They don’t do anything.) The film also does a significant job of shaking awake the fortunate among us — those of us who only read news reports, witnessed slide shows of devastation on TV and made our own well-meaning “heckuva job” jokes with friends — into realizing the grievous magnitude of what transpired there. In other words, if you think the first two hours — the hurricane, the floods, the convention center, the absent FEMA — is the disturbing part, brace yourself for the stories in the last two hours: dispersed families, stagnant rebuilding efforts, people finding the dead bodies of their loved ones in houses that were carelessly marked by search teams as having no corpses, the special hell of dealing with insurance companies, etc. Lee has hinted in the press that he’d like to follow up in future years with those he met to check on their progress, à la Michael Apted’s legendary “Seven Up!” films. It’s a thrilling prospect: Let’s hope future installments don’t require a reprise of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” and maybe instead merit a rousing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
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