When the Levees Broke

Spike Lee is an uneven filmaker (like so many filmakers) but like the best he has a personal style, a vision, moxy, a surfeit of talent and the ability to get daring projects done by sheer force of will. In other words, like all great writers, he changes the landscape with his work, leaving behind him a different, expanded cinematic world.

Tonight is the HBO television premiere of Lee's When the Levees Broke. (If I'd been paying attention, I would've known about the local premiere and seen it then.) I've heard only good reviews of this film, and from the clips I've seen, it's probably your one chance to get even a faint idea of the extent of devastation here--still present a year later. I've shown you photos of Lakeview and the Lower Ninth Ward, but you can't begin to understand it unless you watch long tracking shots of entire blocks. I've said before that it looks like Hiroshima but without the burn victims dying of radiation poisoning. That's still true today.

The wooden houses of the Ninth look like piles of matchsticks. Though Gentilly, N.O. East and Lakeview suffered the same fate, most of the houses were brick, so they're still standing. That landscape looks like the cities in Battlestar Galactica: as if a hydrogen bomb had been tested there, leaving nothing but a thin film of gray ash as a pall over the landscape and giant piles of debris and personal detritus on the sidewalk.

Imagine if 9/11 had destroyed 2/3 of Manhattan. That's what New Orleans looked like in January. It still looks like that today. And Spike Lee has captured it on videotape.

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