At various points in my life, I have willfully exposed myself to a variety of Spike Lee “joints,” usually on the recommendation of strangers. Some “joints” turned out to be worthy, if flawed, efforts; see e.g. Inside Man, Do the Right Thing. Some “joints” were largely unsuccessful works, with flashes of something worthwhile glimmering in the background; see e.g. Malcolm X, Summer of Sam. And some “joints” were unmitigated disasters; see e.g. Crooklyn, Bamboozled. “When the Levees Broke” falls into the middle category.
At four hours, “Levees” feels overlong. Given the complexity of the Katrina story, this surprised me. But Lee apparently failed to do the legwork required to make as comprehensive a documentary as the situation warranted. He took what was powerful imagery at the start and repeated it until it was no longer shocking or meaningful. He undermined the effectiveness of the interviews with the relevant talking heads (e.g. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco) with interviews with irrelevants (e.g. Rev. Al Sharpton, actor Harry Belafonte). He spent too little time on locations other than New Orleans (e.g. Houston, New York, small town Alabama) to add much to the story, but too much to avoid distraction. On some level, there were too many players, so that few interviewees stood out as people; on another level, the perspectives seemed too narrow because certain interviewees were featured too frequently.
There were scenes that I liked a lot. I thought the he-said-she-said contrast of Nagin and Blanco discussing their meeting with President Bush was effective. I thought the guy who went back to his mother’s house months after the story, and found her body inside, and after the house was labeled as searched and clear, was moving. I dug the story of the police officer who spread rumors of child rape.
But much of the time, Lee ends up either repeating things everyone already knows or interviewing idiots about things they don’t understand. Perhaps for posterity, it is important to rehash a lot of the news footage; but I found myself bored with the pacing and overuse of CNN, especially only a year or so out. And when he talks to non-New Orleans natives about race and the ineptitude of government, the discussion came off as uninformed and childish. A clean presentation of what went wrong and why would have been nice; instead, we were treated to muddled conspiracy theories and appalling sentiments of entitlement.
Still waiting for Spike Lee to wow me, and still waiting for a good Katrina doc.