DATE August 21, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
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Review: TV critic David Bianculli on Spike Lee's "When the
Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" to air on HBO
TERRY GROSS, host:
Over the next two nights, HBO is presenting a four-hour documentary by
director Spike Lee about Hurricane Katrina. It's called "When the Levees
Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts." Two acts will be shown each night. All four
acts will be shown August 29th on the anniversary of the day Katrina hit New
Orleans. TV critic David Bianculli has a review.
Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI: When I heard Spike Lee was directing a documentary for
HBO about Katrina and how people died and were mistreated and ignored in the
aftermath of that 2005 hurricane, my first reaction was to imagine it as a
Michael Moore type of film. I saw it as a very personal, angry account with
Spike's voice all over the soundtrack and his face all over the screen. My
imagination, it turns out, was all wrong. Spike Lee isn't seen at all. He
isn't heard either, except for those few times when he asks a follow-up
question of an interview subject while his camera is rolling.
"When the Levees Broke" is an impressively well-structured, well-researched,
and fairly presented account of what led to and came after Katrina. It's a
wonderful documentary, full of heart and commitment, and intelligence and
perspective, and it counts as one of Lee's finest career achievements. For
one thing, Lee doesn't have to voice his own outrage because there are plenty
of others willing to do so. He and his crew made eight trips to New Orleans
and, in total, clocked almost a hundred interviews. Some were conducted in
the comfort of a studio; others were done in the field, as in the case of this
woman who stands in front of the remains of her destroyed home and keeps
pointing to it for emphasis as she talks about the frustrations of claiming
insurance for it.
(Soundbite of "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts")
Unidentified Woman: And now still here it is, six months after the storm and
there's still no help. Now I've lost all my--every bit of information that
could have proved that I owned this home, that I've ever lived here. I had
to--I had to put--I had to get duplicate copies of utility bills stating that
I had utilities here, that I lived here. I had to go to the clerk of courts
office and get whatever information they had to say that I owned this. Then I
had to go to an attorney who actually did the sale and he had to swear--I had
to swear an affidavit that I owned this. Who the hell goes through that? Who
goes through that crap? I mean, my God, this is--would I come here and say I
owned this if I didn't?
(End of soundbite)
Mr. BIANCULLI: Insurance companies don't come off too well in "When the
Levees Broke." Neither does FEMA and neither does the Army Corps of Engineers.
But Lee doesn't deny them, or the elected officials, an opportunity to give
their side. It's just that, in the wake of all the other evidence in the
documentary, their explanations and excuses just don't float.
Some of the stuff shown by Lee is straight from TV newscasts, from CNN, NBC,
even the BBC. A lot of the rest, though, is handheld video shot by Gulf Coast
residents as the storm hit, and afterward. This footage can be electrifying,
and despite so many other documentaries on Katrina, a lot of it seems new. On
the afternoon of August 29th, 2005, the day Katrina hit, a man with his
videocamera was filming his flooded, abandoned street when another man walked
into frame and towards the camera. Lee added some music underneath but the
sound of the wind, like the bad news the man is delivering, is real and
(Soundbite of "When the Levees Broke")
Unidentified Man #1: Stop.
Unidentified Man #2: How you doing, man?
Man #1: I had to leave out of my house, man. I don't know whether that
water's coming over that levee or what.
Man #2: The storm missed us.
Man #1: I can't hear you.
Man #2: The storm went east.
Man #1: So you haven't heard about that water coming over that levee from the
Man #2: No. I'll check it out.
Man #1: Because the water started rising so high in my two-story apartment, I
had to get out, man.
Man #2: Where's that at?
Man #1: Right over--right across the North Robinson overpass...
Man #2: OK.
Man #1: ...around...(unintelligible)...Street.
(End of soundbite)
Mr. BIANCULLI: That Katrina victim may have beaten reporters to the horrible
news that New Orleans, though avoiding a direct hit by Katrina, was going to
be flooded anyway because of the failure of the levees.
The four hours of the documentary are divided into themes. Part 1 chronicles
the arrival of the storm, but also puts this disaster into context against
Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and the intentional flooding of poor white communities
to reshape Louisiana in 1927. When some Katrina victims accused the
government of blowing up the levees, a charge Lee includes but does not
endorse, the program provides a context full enough to explain why they might
Part 2 of the documentary is a about the emergency response or lack of it.
That's where the heartbreaks stack up as quickly as the dead bodies. The
bodies are shown here, too, but Lee isn't being gratuitous. What's more of a
shame? To show these US residents dead and floating in their own homes and
streets, or that they were allowed to die there in the first place? CNN
anchor Soledad O'Brien tells Lee about coming on a dead body while doing a
standup report outside the convention center, then returning to the same spot
two days later, finding the same body still there. There are lots of stories
like hers and Lee captures them.
The last two hours of "When the Levees Broke" looks at the loss and recovery,
and the emotional spectrum is as wide as you'd expect. A woman who lost her
five-year-old daughter in the flood holds a picture of her by the river and
cries. A young doctor from Gulf Port, Mississippi, traveling home after the
hurricane but denied access because Dick Cheney was there on a photo op, gets
close enough to the vice president to heckle him, giving him the same rude
advice Cheney famously once gave to a colleague on the Senate floor. The
doctor's friend captured it on videotape and it's here too.
Spike Lee the filmmaker is most evident throughout "When the Levees Broke"
because of his trust in music, in images, and most of all in the power of
stories told honestly and emotionally by everyday people. It's the best TV
documentary of the year, so far. And no matter how much you think you know or
what you feel about Katrina, you'll find something new here.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News. I'm Terry
(Soundbite of music)
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