If you can count on Spike Lee for anything, you can count on him to have a point-of-view. I remember sitting down last August, preparing myself for four hours of what promised to be difficult TV. I wondered whose stories he would tell. I held my breath, sad for those who would be excluded. I feared the pain and backlash possible when one sort of victim is exalted above others.
In the end, "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" may be more accurately called a requiem for black New Orleans, with some whites thrown in for spice. Given the history of, well, history, I'm sure many found this to be delicious.
My filmmaking friend Larry, who grew up in Lakeview, swears that if he could force a confession, Lee would admit to soft-pedaling the story of Lakeview, and its predominately white middle & upper-middle class victims. Residents of other affected areas (Metairie, Plaquemines Parish (with its fishing towns washed away), Slidell, and most of coastal Mississippi) could claim they were ignored as well.
I know a storyteller must make choices. I don't quibble with his decisions of focus. In the end, I thought he included a diverse selection of voices.
I grew angry, however, with the fact that Mr. Lee chose not to do any fact-finding. He aired bitter accusations without going the extra step of trying to find out if said accusations were true. Interviewees claimed that houses went unchecked for dead bodies. Interviewees claimed that the levees were blown. Lee did not show us on-camera responses by anyone who had responsibility for or direct knowledge of those actions. Maybe they refused to talk. But if you leave the accusations unanswered, are you more interested in inflaming passions than you are in telling the truth?
To Lee's credit, he included the suggestion that the "explosions" interviewees heard were probably the sounds of the barge crashing through the levee. I use the word "suggestion" because nothing is proven here. Just different people asserting what they think is true.
I finished Requiem thinking well, Lee made himself a political document, one that tells harrowing and heart-wrenching stories, one that illuminates certain truths (put pictures of New Orleans and Dutch levees side by side and you've got your thousand words) and one that argues for certain outcomes ("right of return"), but one that doesn't get to the bottom of its most inflammatory claims.
He had every right to do it this way. Spike Lee is a storyteller, not a fact-finding commission.
The Peculiar Question of the Blown Levees
Doing my Katrina oral histories, I discovered there is no question more preposterous to any native white New Orleanian than whether or not the levees were blown. This question is simply the line in the sand. Anything else in the world is possible--graft, violence, incompetence--but this proactive, premeditated act of mass destruction? No. Impossible. "Times have changed," said one friend, trying to disabuse me of this topic. "How could Nagin allow for it? Those were his people," said one interviewee. "There's only one explosives company that could handle the job," said another. "And they're in New Jersey."
I can follow their reasoning. But in the end, that is all it is: reasoning. Not facts. Just because you think something is impossible doesn't mean it didn't happen.
As an outsider looking in, I found myself, more than once, gently suggesting to interviewees that given what's been witnessed, and given the history of the region, it's not a huge mental leap to accept that sabotage could be a possibility. With a certainty I've rarely witnessed thoughtful, open-minded people display on topics of which they have no personal expertise, I was told again and again that this was impossible. Leave people to die? Sure. But blow the levees? No way.
New Orleans has a problem: what do you do when a significant portion of your population thinks something happened, and the rest thinks that this "something" is so beyond the pale, that it is beyond discussion?
Now, think about what else is at stake here.
How will people ever work together, how will a city rebuild into something stronger, how will crime ever reduce, in an environment that stinks from sheer amounts of anger and distrust?
I realize that not everyone values understanding and reconciliation. For some in New Orleans, the only communicating they'll ever need to do they can do with the barrel of a gun.
But I believe in fighting the war on sublimation. We must uncover and acknowledge what really happened when people were victimized. We must refuse to bury trauma underground like so much benzene in unlined pits. To do so is healing to not just individuals, but to the body politic.
I don't suggest, however, that the government should be in the business of disproving every urban legend that slanders its name. But it should be in the business of getting to the bottom of catastrophes of national import, of providing people with a full, evidenced narrative of exactly what went wrong when the mantle cracked open and hell reigned on earth.
There's a reason why the words "truth" and "reconciliation" go together.
Want Truth? Support the 8-29 Commission
There is growing support for an 8-29 Commission, modeled on the 9-11 Commission. Those who publicly support the 8-29 Commission don't talk about "blown" levees. They are demanding truth about a separate, but related set of crimes, those of negligence committed by the Army Corps of Engineers.
I'm sure there are some readers who may think I'm conflating unrelated charges by discussing "blown" levees in the same piece as "failed" ones. I don't agree. The point is getting to the truth of what really happened to the levees. An evidenced explanation of levee failure should be able to prove to those who have not fully succumbed to the allures of conspiracy theory that much of the disaster was man-made, but not in the way that they think.
And one hopes that investigators would be open to the possibility of sabotage, of the fact that humans acting maliciously is always within the realm of possibility. (And perhaps could quickly show us that this wasn't Louisiana 1927 all over again and that we shouldn't let this imagined crime divert us from real ones.)
One hopes that the conditions that allowed for such an idea to take root in so many minds would also be acknowledged and addressed publicly.
One hopes that we get to the bottom of such events as the Gretna Bridge stand-off, but that arguments from all sides are heard, including a full discussion of the conditions in Orleans Parish (especially reports of snipers shooting at rescue workers) that could have affected police decision-making.
One hopes that if the work of the Army Corps of Engineers is proven to be criminally negligent, they are held accountable. That correct monies are allotted for corrective measures. That restitution is offered to those who deserve it. This is not just a New Orleans problem. This is a problem anywhere the Corps has a project, especially in California, a state with levee problems all her own (are you listening Sacramento?).
Please tell your lawmakers that you support the formation of the 8-29 Commission. Even if Corps projects aren't in your district, let them know that you don't have to be spitting-distance from a levee to care about truth and justice.
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To learn more about the issues, and to support fellow citizen activists, please visit www.levees.org.
To read Katrina oral histories, please www.thekatrinaexperience.net