- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2006

A tale of two calamities, two anniversaries and two controversial ax-grinding filmmakers: Oliver Stone surprises, and pleases, most critics with an apolitical, conventionally inspirational take on September 11, “World Trade Center,” timed slightly ahead of the five-year anniversary of the attacks.

Spike Lee surprises no one — not me, at least — with a relentlessly one-sided jeremiad about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, one year later. His epic documentary, grandiosely titled “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” will air in two-hour installments Monday and Tuesday nights at 9 on HBO.

It’s fitting that Spike Lee’s Katrina occurred in close calendar proximity to September 11, because, to him, Katrina was very much an attack in its own right. To Mr. Lee, the destruction suffered by New Orleans — and, he grudgingly admits, the wider Gulf Coast region — was caused only incidentally by nature. It was, instead, primarily imputable to specific human beings — powerful, arrogant and probably racist persons in government and industry.

There’s President Bush, whose administration, particularly the slow-to-respond Federal Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security Department, fiddled while New Orleans drowned; the Army Corps of Engineers, which knowingly failed, for decades, to properly fortify New Orleans’ levee system against even a Category 3 hurricane; Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, Louisiana Democrat, who purportedly chose to nurse a political grudge against Mayor C. Ray Nagin rather than cooperate in the city’s best interest; and the political novice Mr. Nagin himself, although he is eventually absolved by virtue of his very smallness.

The oil-and-gas industry, too, comes in for a pummeling: Mr. Lee fingers its offshore infrastructure for the loss of wetlands that might have protected New Orleans from Katrina’s storm surge. Over the course of this four-hour marathon of mau-mauing, there’s also a condemnation of the insurance industry (stingy payouts to victims) and real-estate developers (who, Mr. Lee implies, secretly hope to keep black New Orleanians out of the city for good).

“When the Levees Broke” also squeezes in a discussion of how global warming produces stronger storms — even though the documentary spends a sizable chunk of time explaining that it was not Category 5 Katrina that devastated New Orleans, but, rather, a much weaker residue of the storm that later topped the levees that protected the backside of the city.

Now, a reasonable human being would look at all this and see a confluence of natural disaster and normal human folly. Mr. Lee, and a cast of onscreen mouthpieces that includes anti-American extraordinaire Harry Belafonte, rent-a-historian Douglas Brinkley, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the comically pretentious author Michael Eric Dyson, see something quite different.

Much as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would like to see Israel wiped off the map, they cumulatively suggest that rich elites would like to see black New Orleans washed into the Gulf of Mexico to make room for a lily-white playground. Meteorology, in this demented view, is just another useful tool in the permanent impoverishment of blacks.

Lost in this narrative of victimization is any recognition that New Orleans had been catering to white interlopers for years — precisely the nonproductive economic model that ensured the city was a shambles long before Katrina arrived.

As urban policy expert Joel Kotkin observed in the American Enterprise magazine earlier this year: “Just a month before Katrina hit, the city hosted a major conference in which edgy culture and high-end tourism were touted as the key to its economic prospects.”

Other cities, continued Mr. Kotkin, have fallen for the same bill of goods: “Trying to foster a cool atmosphere has done little to stop Detroit’s economic decline. Baltimore struggles with rising crime and a tepid economy. And San Francisco, despite all its natural advantages, has lost jobs and much of its middle class, mutating into a playground for young, affluent liberals.”

You won’t find any such nuance or sober analysis in “When the Levees Broke”; the film attacks its many targets like an angry ideological pit bull, subverting its celebration of New Orleans’ rich culture and resilient citizens. The historical insights provided by the brilliant jazz musician and New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis never seemed so ill-fitting — here he’s like a temperate Ken Burns interviewee stranded in a Michael Moore propaganda film.

To be sure, Mr. Lee and cinematographer Cliff Charles include much heartbreaking footage. The first two parts of the documentary offer an easy-to-follow chronology of destruction and desperation. Remarkable is former Police Chief Eddie Compass’ admission about the consequences of his tales of rescue helicopters under fire and baby-rape in the Superdome: “I guess I heightened people’s fears.”

The documentary implies that Mr. Compass’ unsubstantiated, and false, reportage was partly to blame for the denial of entry to blacks into the terrified white enclave of Gretna, La., the city across the Mississippi River from New Orleans.

Amid Mr. Lee’s slanted narrative, however, these stories of death, dispossession and dislocation seem hollow and strained. They provide tear-jerking cover for what is essentially an indefensible political tirade.

I’m not sure exactly when I tired completely of “When the Levees Broke,” but I know when I gagged most violently. It was when Harry Belafonte notes — without irony — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s offer of help to America’s underclass in the wake of Katrina.

“When the Levees Broke” is full of such jaundiced left-wing lunacy. It may have the perverse effect of diminishing its viewers’ sympathy for a still-hurting city.



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