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A Review of Spike Lee's documentary

"When the Levees Broke:
A Requiem in Four Acts" 

NAJEÉ E. MUHAMMAD, EdD / Black Commentator i.199, 28sep2006


On Monday and Tuesday 21-22 August HBO aired Spike Lee's awaited documentary: “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” about the devastation dropped on New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Acts 1-2 aired on Monday night for two hours and fifteen minutes and acts 3-4 aired on Tuesday night for two hours and fifteen minutes-a total of four and a half hours. Longer than his epic film Malcolm X of 1992, Spike is to be applauded for his effort to show the world (certainly for those of us in the States) what a category 5 hurricane can do to a city and what a government can do to a people and what it will not do for a people. Clearly, “When the Levees” exposed a modern day subjugation of a people, a view, perhaps, of what the African slave trade must have been like. Consider, the Superdome surrounded by water with people inside chained by a disaster, “sardined” with no electricity, no running water, no plumbing, no drinking water and available food, sleeping in, or amid, feces, urine, menstrual flow and death. Death in the surrounding water, death on the bridges, death lying not found (still not found) in homes. Indeed every breath, in some instances, was a death breath.

Suddenly, we see a modern day slave ship fulfilling its qualifications and requirements of an African enslavement trade. What we see is a government slow to respond to its “home-land” tragedy and quick to respond to a people in another place—citizens of another place at the expense of its' own citizens—-its' second-class citizens. Five days later when the government did respond it scattered and sprinkled families like salt and pepper to places that they (in many instances) knew nothing about and knew no one; separating families—taking children from mothers, brothers from sisters, husbands and wives—expanding and extending the Diaspora. Indeed, parents let their children go so the rising waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico wouldn’t ravage their children. Through interviews of the survivors—everyday folk, actors, politicians, doctors, engineers—the piece exhibits and exposes the lack of care for us as people of African descent—Black people—and poor people, especially in the St. Bernard Parish, by a government “for the people and by the people.”

As I watched this four and a half hour piece I was drawn to thinking of the almost three and half hour piece that Spike did on Malcolm X in 1992 and I began to think of Malcolm's four significant speeches and one in particular: The Ballot or the Bullet Speech, especially the one delivered in Detroit on 12 April 1964 (Malcolm delivered two speeches by the same name in two different places— the other one was delivered in Cleveland 3 April 1964). I began to relate some of what he said then to what we continue to see today, especially in the wake of Katrina and what people were saying in the “When the Levees. . .” Malcolm X’s commentary then provided a critical historical view of the now: the pastness in the present and the pastness of the present. Not only did it speak to the disaster of response to Katrina but the disaster of the current politics of that time and, this time. Here are some excerpts of what he had to say:

So the travesty of Katrina is the travesty of our existence in the United States since the critical masses of us were brought now into the 21st century. In a time when we think that we’ve arrived, there is Katrina; when we think that we’re in control, there is Katrina; at a time when we seemingly have more—more money, better jobs, bigger homes, there is Katrina; at a time when we’re more “educated,” there’s Katrina; when we think that we’re free and living in a democracy, there is the hypocrisy of Katrina. James Baldwin once said, “History is a nightmare. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” Someone said, (I think it was Derrick Bell) “Black people [seemingly] have learned little to nothing from their history.” It seems that we continue to be “trapped, trapped, double-trapped, triple-trapped.” “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” is not easy viewing but necessary viewing and hopefully it will wake us up, and clean us up, so that we can stand up.

Najee E. Muhammad, EdD is an Associate Professor, Cultural Studies in Education at Ohio University, Athens, OH . .email comments to najee_muhammad@hotmail.com.

source: http://www.blackcommentator.com/199/199_review_when_the_levees_broke_muhammad_guest.html 28sep2006

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