... If “observing” is how you’re supposed to mark these ginned-up, media-flogged occasions, you could do worse than to spend a few evenings with Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (available on DVD or through HBO’s on-demand service; it’s actually 5 parts). The series suffers from some of the same problems that afflict Lee’s movies: It’s repetitious and muddled at points, especially when the chronology shifts from the hurricane’s passing to its horrific aftermath, and fraught with the usual polemical rage. But Lee’s business here isn’t merely to lay blame (although Bush comes off as the fatally detached numbskull he is; Blanco does nothing to dispel her image as over-stressed and over her head and looks as if she consented to be interviewed at gunpoint; Nagin, who appears to have been more than eager to cooperate with the celebrity director, skates away much too easily for our taste, despite the periodic appearances of his arch-critic [among many], the historian Douglas Brinkley, whom Lee trots out to give some needed context to the proceedings).
By devoting most of the series to snippets of straight-on interviews with New Orleanians---most of them black, some white, almost all possessing that special cross-racial brio that marks the native of the city---Lee unmasks the full human face of the tragedy in a way that we found deeply moving, and we generally try to remain unmoved by anecdote or artful narrative.* One especially affecting presence is Wendell Pierce, the actor and New Orleans native who plays Baltimore homicide detective Bunk Moreland, one the best characters in the history of television drama, on HBO’s The Wire (itself a moving and dead-on exploration of slow-motion urban disasters), who evenly recounts the fucking-over his 80-year-old father sustained after the storm at the hands of his insurer. Pierce recalls how his father, after returning from World War II, scrapped together enough to buy a new house in Pontchartrain Park in Gentilly, one of the city’s first suburban enclaves for middle-class blacks. The house was destroyed by the waters and Pierce’s father relocated to Baton Rouge---a reminder of how many of the displaced were working- and middle-class homeowners with deep roots in the city, including many, many people who are now settled in Houston. Lee’s series also left us with a newfound respect for Sean Penn.
As we noted here shortly after the storm, no large municipality in the country was more ill-equipped to deal with a disaster of Katrina’s proportions than New Orleans. Along those lines, we recommend these anguished pieces in N.O.’s Gambit Weekly dealing with the recent surprise guilty plea by City Councilman Oliver Thomas for taking a $20,000 bribe from a city concessionaire---a crime he committed a couple of years before Katrina. Thomas was viewed as a conciliator and a unifier in what apparently is an increasingly racially divided city and was on track to become mayor; his downfall was especially dispiriting. The paper’s editorial on the same subject refers to the “secret fatalism” that afflicts too many people and politicians in South Louisiana**, a sobering flash of civic self-knowledge that you rarely see in the media, anywhere, especially around here .
In the meantime, it’s perhaps salient to remember that while Houston isn’t New Orleans, the city’s never been tested by a similarly scaled disaster, Alicia and Allison notwithstanding.
And we hope it stops raining soon.
*This is a joke, we think.
**Something of which we have first-hand knowledge.