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:
- “The time when white people can come in our community and get us to vote
for them so that they can be our political leaders and tell us what to do
and what not to do is long gone. By the same token, the time when that same
white man, knowing that your eyes are too far open, can send another negro
into the community and get you and me to support him so he can use him to
lead us astray — those days are long gone too.”
- “So we’re trapped, trapped, double-trapped, triple-trapped. Anywhere
we go we find that we’re trapped. And every kind of solution that someone
comes up with is just another trap.”
- “So as you can see brothers and sisters, today — this afternoon, it's
not our intention to discuss religion. We’re going to forget religion. If
we bring up religion, we’ll be in an argument, and the best way to keep
away from arguments and differences, as I said earlier, put your religion at
home — in the closet. Keep it between you and your God.”
- “Whether you are a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Nationalist, we all have
the same problem. They don’t hang you because you’re a Baptist; they
hang you 'cause you’re black. They attack all of us for the same reason .
. . . We’re all in the same bag, in the same boat. We suffer political
oppression, economic exploitation, and social degradation — all of them
from the same enemy.”
- “The government has failed us; you can’t deny that . . .. This
government has failed us; the government itself has failed us, and the white
liberals who have been posing as our friends have failed us.”
- “You and I have never seen democracy; all we’ve seen is hypocrisy. When we open our eyes today and look around America, we see America not through the eyes of someone who has enjoyed the fruits of Americanism, we see America through the eyes of someone who has been the victim of Americanism. We don’t see any American dream; we’ve experienced only the American nightmare. We haven’t benefited from America’s democracy; we’ve only suffered from America’s hypocrisy.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
source: http://www.blackcommentator.com/199/199_review_when_the_levees_broke_muhammad_guest.html 28sep2006