By Michael Dellapi
Spike Lee’s documentary, “When the Levees Broke” centers on the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the larger social issues that were brought up because of the disaster. Initially, it seems as if Lee’s documentary is only concerned with the physical destruction associated with the hurricane. The first act of the film details the overwhelming power of the storm and the sense of loyalty associated with those who refused to leave the place that they called home regardless of circumstances. The film leads the viewer to misplace the purpose of the documentary, as the viewer places their empathy strictly on those physically affected by the hurricane.
As the documentary progresses, however, it is revealed that we have as much to learn about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as we do about the storm itself. As catastrophe strikes the New Orleans area, the dynamics between the Federal Government and a traditionally Black city are explored. The turmoil of Hurricane Katrina may be fresh in the minds of many Americans, but what is often ignored is the lack of government support given to those affected. The message of “When the Levees Broke” is universal, as relevant now as when the storm occurred ten years ago.
The lack of proper federal response to the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina is just as startling as natural disaster itself. The severity of the government’s impact on what happened in New Orleans is initially established when the walls of the levee broke during the first several days of the hurricane. The levees were inadequately made by the Army Corps of Engineers, resulting in widespread catastrophe once they broke. The apathy toward proper flood protection on the part of the Corps is nothing short of appalling, yet is pervasive among other branches of the federal government. The federal reaction to Hurricane Katrina was unbelievably delayed, highlighting the government’s indifference towards those affected. This indifference is indicative of a larger political and social issue that is explored by a multitude of different accounts. These accounts express concern from both a professional and personal involvement towards what happened in New Orleans.
These accounts reveal that the lives of lower class Black Americans are of little political and economic concern to the Bush administration, and the question that this raises is unbelievably haunting. Is federal concern for U.S. citizens only determined by what the citizens can in turn provide for the federal government? The U.S. Government saw the poor Americans in New Orleans essentially as a lost cause, and it makes one wonder if anything has largely changed from over a decade ago. Still today, we see a lack of concern from many political figures towards the lives of those that need this concern the most. “When the Levees Broke” reminds the viewer that racism in America is defined by so much more than white versus Black conflict. Racism is not defined by individual acts so much as it is defined by corrupt institutions, and these institutions have remained largely unchanged.
Michael Dellapi is a Highlighter Staff Columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org