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katrina aftermath | media criticism

when it comes to katrina, spike ain't cicero

what happens when artists reach at history
(Oak Bluffs, MA) The isle of Martha's Vineyard provides intriguing theater in mid and late august, particularly for black folk of means. There's a "history", and culture and cash often collide. This year cinema entered the equation on the evening of August 23rd when filmmaker Spike Lee, a summer resident of the island, rolled on and rolled out, his version of the events around August 29, 2005 when a hurricane named Katrina slammed into the gulf regions of Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. On August 30th, the levees designed to protect "n'Orleans" broke, sending torrents of water and death into the city's primarily Black and poor 9th Ward. "On the Vineyard... high cotton", Mr. Lee said. "Lobster and stuff... Chardonnay. Think about 'em over in the muck of New Orleans."

Act III of Mr. Lee's "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts", currently airing on HBO, was at the center of a forum hosted by Harvard's DuBois and Charles Hamilton Houston Institutes along with HBO at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. More than 200 crammed into the hot still air of the historic structure to nestle with Harvard's literati and glitterati, Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Charles Ogletree, Lani Guinier, and HBO's Richard Plepler, and yes, Spike, Spike, Spike among others.

The documentary captured, as best as such things can, the angst, pain and stench of the tragedy, from the storm itself to life in the squalid conditions of the aftermath and shelter inside of the Superdome. There was graphic color footage of residents carrying all of the belongings they could, black and white footage of old New Orleans, and rotting corpses of humans and their dead pets adrift in the muddy watery streets. And there were bits of humor, as when displaced residents shouted "fuck you" to Vice President Cheney as he toured parts of the ravaged city, and a woman standing in front of what had been her home waving a bottle of what appeared to be Champaign calling on the federal, state, and local governments to kiss her ass. "My ass ain't big enough for all of 'em to kiss", she said.

Race hangs heavy in the film, as well it does in American life. It's a fact with which I, as an African-American, am acquainted, and one which more than one of the scholars flocking to the Vineyard, targeted as a wake-up call or reminder to those across the republic who'd forgotten it. Yet the catastrophic season of Katrina was about far more than race. It's aftermath was about nature and poverty. Racism? Yep, But it was also politics and lousy governance which furthered the suffering. Capturing it all was a broad reach, even for award winning Spike Lee, and layering these issues he was able to secure only one or two in crisp fashion.

"It's the best work Spike has done since 'Do the Right Thing'", said Professor Gates, W.E.B. DuBois Professor of the Humanities and Director of the DuBois Institute of African and African American History at Harvard. Yet "Do the Right Thing" was of a different species, exploring the New York race riots. New Orleans has had Black mayors and political leadership for the past 20years at least. Nonetheless, Mr. Lee has filled this work with "we been done wrong" quotes by Harry Belafonte, Al Sharpton, Kanye West, and an erudite, ebonics aficionado academic from the University of Pennsylvania named Michael Eric Dyson. Prof. Dyson who made his presence known at the Old Whaling Church, has been swimming up river as a public intellectual wanna-be for some time now, never meeting a microphone or available ear he didn't like. He has championed such scholarly pursuits such as the importance of rap, and has authored such scholarly works as, "Searching for Tupac Shakur", and "Between God and Gangsta Rap". Recently he kicked the shit out of Bill Cosby for not offering up flowers and bunnies to street thugs. In the good Doctor's performance on film, as well as in the hall, he tied a nice ribbon around a bouquet of blame and tossed it toward the doorstep of George W. Bush. "It took a hurricane to reveal the tip of a vicious iceberg", he said. "Charity cannot solve what is a structural American problem. Most of us just don't like poor people."

At times the screening and following panel resembled a Pentecostal revival... stirred-up and hissing when "W" appeared in the film riding atop a military vehicle through the ravaged streets of New Orleans... laughing aloud at the profanity of the city's residents when interviewed and at film's repetitive shot of Kanye West saying, "George Bush doesn't like Black people"... booing at footage of Barbara Bush, former first lady and mother of the current President, when, while visiting a shelter commenting that many of the "refugees" were living better in Texas, Utah and other relocation sites than they'd lived before.

Mr. Lee's documentary included footage of Bush '43 standing before an electric illumination which was simply a temporary backdrop for a national address, while the remainder of the city was without power. And the graphic footage of carnage, helicopter rescues, funerals and tears left the largely affluent and accomplished with property and hook-ups on the Vineyard in silence and shaken. Yet to aim and beam a flawed message is, in some ways, timid. Although Mr. Lee's documentary highlighted the effect of Katrina and it's aftermath, in New Orleans, "Stuff broke down long before the levees broke", one of the attendees commented.

$12,000 was raised for Katrina rebuilding efforts by the event. Professor Gates took it upon himself to thank Mr. Lee, "On behalf of the American people", for this effort, and a classy Charles Ogletree, Jr., Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law, also thanked the filmmaker while finessing HBO's Richard Plepler to tag the end of each episode with an address as to where contributions can be sent. "Tree", as he is called by some of his colleagues and friends, took time to remind those gathered that aid to Katrina victims, some of whom have been relocated as far away from their homes as Massachusetts, ends in this Commonwealth come September.

Spike Lee, I assume, returns to the movies. He's explored the jazz genre before, pan-Africanisim in Malcolm X, and interracial-sex in Jungle Fever. But there were more than a few false choices in "When the Levees Broke", the least not being Condi shopping for shoes when the storm hit, and Rev. Sharpton aside Sheila Jackson Lee, late of the U. S. Congress, talking past truths, toward absolutes like militia leaders. Spike has done far 'mo better blues.

You don't write, you don't call, no nothin at all. (Excuse the inside Joke) 28.Aug.2006 17:33

Lloyd Hart dadapop@dadapop.com

Yes I agree with Jeff that "When the Levees broke" was not Spike's best work and that the over all message of the film was fractured. But New Orleans, Katrina, race, poverty and global warming are huge issues to grapple with and America is still not done transcending what actually happened and is still happenning. It is my honest opinion that Spike rushed this project out the door for the anniversary of the tragic event when the story of what happenned in NOLA is still happenning there and accross the country and is far from over.

I love Spike's work, my wife loves Spike's work, my kids loves Spike's work, and I am still glad he made "When the Levees broke". But I believe he was overwhelmed by the subject matters complexity which was worsened by the anniversary broadcast timeline. Maybe he should have waited a year.

One thing that I am very moved about that Spike did, was to include the images of the many dead bodies of people that succumbed to the flooding so that we would see the real death toll as apposed to one or two images nationally broadcast as the disaster unfolded along with a statistical number of how many people died. Humanizing "Eddy" the body that was probably most seen on national television face down in the flood waters gave me a chance too truly mourn that man's death and become more vigilant against what was a deliberately manufactured slow federal response. Also we found out who the woman was who was covered by a blanket in a wheel chair at the convention center that was broadcast intensely.

Gates is correct that Spike has done a great thing but I would suggest to Spike that he revisit the subject matter again and again every year.

The Great Lie Meets Katrina Revised.

The Right Of Return To and the Right To Remain In New Orleans.

Dude, My Economy is Destroying My Economy!

Open letter to the Peace Movement From Lloyd Hart.