Giving Voice to the Voiceless in When the Levees Broke

By Gino Grieco

Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke is, at first glance, a bleak look at one of the darkest periods of US politics and governmental ambivalence.  When asked by NPR how Katrina affected him Lee answered,

“I was touched. I was sad. I was angry. And at the time I was not in the United States of America, I was in Venice, Italy for the Venice Film Festival. And so I was just holed up in my hotel room switching back and forth between the BBC and CNN. And every day I wondered when is the federal government going to show up…

And very early on, I recognized I was watching a historic moment in American history. And I quickly came to the decision I would like to – if given the chance, I would like to document that. I would like to have a – hopefully the definitive visual document on the fiasco that happened down in New Orleans.” (NPR)

Lee took his confusion and frustration with the non-response to New Orleans’s destruction and used it to document the near complete disregard and abandonment of one of the largest and most storied cities in the US by the US Government during the worst natural disaster to ever strike the city.  The interviewees, both experts and survivors alike, vacillate between seething rage and somber despair at the plight of their city and its flagging prospects of future success.  Yet, beyond the film’s political and informative aims, the film is at its core a testament to the unique people who call New Orleans home and the amazing culture that they have nurtured and preserved in their city.  Lee’s use of uninterrupted interviews, staged scenes, and a very unique credit sequence serve to direct the collective narrative about Hurricane Katrina away from the accounts gathered by news networks and political pundits and instead provide the viewer with the many human faces who weathered the storm.

The first way that Spike Lee focuses his documentary on the survivors of Katrina is by muting his own voice and empowering that of the interviewees.  The documentary is largely composed of interviews with survivors of the hurricane set on both plain backdrops and in front of their ruined homes.  The use of the colored backdrops allows for the survivors to be the main focus of each of the interview segments without any form of visual distraction to draw the viewer’s attention.  This effect is enhanced by Lee’s choice to film many of the interviews in close-up, allowing the viewer to take in not just what these people have to say about the hurricane, but the expressions of human beings who have been suffering and who continue to be suffer.   By staging other interviews outside of the ruins left by the storm, Lee is able to provide the viewer with the visual evidence of human loss and struggle as the interviewees describe it.  It becomes impossible for the viewers to distance themselves from the realities of what the survivors have gone through when people like Judith Morgan and Tanya Harris are interviewed in front of their collapsed homes and bare foundations.  Lee also ensures that the survivors’ stories are largely unmarked by his own voice; while he and his film crew are the presumptive interviewers during the filming process the viewer rarely hears the voice of the interviewers.  This technique allows for the survivors’ stories to feel as though they are unsolicited opinions and viewpoints about their unique experiences, rather than answers to leading questions designed to further a narrative agenda on the part of the filmmakers.

Lee also makes use of staged scenes to convey the history of the citizens of New Orleans and how those histories have been affected by Katrina.  The two such scenes that stand out are Terence Blanchard’s walk through the streets of New Orleans with his trumpet and the jazz funeral of Katrina.  During the first scene Terence Blanchard, a composer and resident of the Garden District, plays a dirge on his trumpet as he walks through the ruins of the city in a suit that would befit a trumpeter. Image As Blanchard plays a mourning song for the city of New Orleans, the footage and the sound of the song become part of the background as more interviewees express their opinion on the state of the city.  One such opinion is that looking at the city is “like looking at a friend who had been like disfigured.  You know who you’re talking too; you just don’t recognize them.”  In layering the music with the interviews, Lee gives the viewers a sense of the grief that the survivors feel as well as a sense of New Orleans’ genius loci.  This city is inextricably linked to jazz and in this scene the loss of so many homes is conveyed through the music that so many took as an emblem of their home.  The music is merely a background to the devastation and the human suffering the viewer is taking in; the music allows the city’s devastation to be mourned in the language of its residents, through jazz.  Thus, this scene gives the viewer an idea of the nature of the citizens of New Orleans and why they so love their city, while simultaneously mourning its deformation.

The second scripted scene that Lee uses to convey the culture of the city is the mock jazz funeral for Katrina.  This footage is used several times throughout the film, but the version that best articulates the unique sense of loss that New Orleanians feel is the parade that concludes the film.  The central idea of a jazz funeral, as explained during the film, is that a jazz band plays traditional dirges and songs of mourning during the burial ceremony; however, immediately following the burial the family goes on parade following the band as the band plays upbeat and celebratory songs.  In the words of Gralen B. Banks the jazz funeral is meant to say: “yeah I’m sad you’re gone, but damn it sure was nice to know ya.”  Yet, the mock funeral at the end of the film is twisted in a few key ways from the New Orleans tradition.  First, the music is up-tempo the entire time as the pallbearers carry Katrina’s casket rather than slow dirges.  This change shows that for the people of New Orleans there is no joy associated with the storm and they are glad for its passing: the pallbearers even go so far as to dance over the casket.  Furthermore, the casket is not buried or done away with; instead, the casket is left in the street for all to see, which shows that the memory of the storm and its damage are not yet gone.  The mending and recovery have not progressed far enough to leave the damage in the past, which is further evidenced by the setting of the parade: the ruins of the Lower Ninth Ward.  However, while the mock funeral viscerally shows the viewer that New Orleans has not made much physical progress since the storm, it also conveys the way New Orleanians combine a mourning of what they lost with the celebration of the good times they had.  They mourn New Orleans in the way only a New Orleanian can, by throwing a jazz funeral.

The humanization of the hurricane victims is so central to the film that the final credits themselves attempt to literally frame the victims in the viewer’s mind.  Rather than simply rolling traditional credits after the final jazz funeral, Lee elects instead to have every one of his interviewees hold up a picture frame to leave a lasting picture of the people affected by this horrible tragedy.  However, these picture frames actually act to subvert their usual function; rather than framing a still image of some finite moment in the past these picture frames contain a moving, breathing person.  This allows Lee to show that these people are more than simple images in a frame or on a news feed, but instead are unique people that are deserving of the viewer’s empathy. The fact that the picture frames do not actually frame the shot also shows the viewer that there is more going on beyond the frame than what the viewer can see.  This technique calls into question the accuracy of still images and even movies to convey the whole truth of a calamity such a Katrina; there is always some other drama and loss beyond the frame whose story is left untold.  Lee further humanizes the interviewees when the speakers announce their name, profession, or residence.  In doing so each survivor further highlights his/her own unique history.  Furthermore, many of the victims proudly announce their home district in the city as their full description in place of things like profession.  The effect of this hometown pride is to show the viewer how much the citizens of New Orleans value their city and why their homes should be restored; it is because New Orleans had such a sense of place that it could inspire such profound pride in its citizens.

Though some viewers may focus on Lee’s political leanings in When the Levees Broke, especially some of his accusations of the US Government, to do so would be a disservice to the larger narrative of the film.  Lee illustrates throughout the documentary that the people of New Orleans are a unique and valuable people who deserve better.  Lee shows the viewer that the political messages in his film are only made in service of the incredible people who otherwise would not have any forum to express their ideas at all.  Thus, When the Levees Broke functions as both a celebration of the people and culture that New Orleans nurtured as well as a scathing criticism of the people who let it drown, but in the end the viewer is left with images of the survivors attempting to move on, not the politicians falling.  So when one thinks of New Orleans and Katrina, think not of Bush and FEMA, but rather think of Robert Rocque, Michael Knight, and Audrey Mason.


1. Lee, Spike. Spike Lee.  2012. Photograph. Wikimedia Commons.  “Spike Lee.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation. 20 April 2013. Web. 5 May 2013.

2. Blanchard, Terence. “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.”  2006. Photograph.  HBO.  Web.  5 May 2013.

Works Cited

“Spike Lee Produces a Vision of Katrina.” Interview by Ed Gordon. NPR. NPR, 18 Aug. 2006. Web. 21 Apr. 2013. <;.

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Directed by Spike Lee. Forty Acres and a Mule Film Works, 2005.

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