Spike Lee’s Best Movie? [Chicago Reader blog post, 2007]

Posted on the Chicago Reader‘s blog, Bleader. — J.R.

Spike Lee’s best movie?

Posted By on 01.01.07 at 01:53 PM

If my 20 best list for the past year could have been based purely on artistic criteria rather than on packaging and marketing categories, Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts — which premiered on HBO on two consecutive nights in late August, a year after the tragedy in New Orleans—would have belonged somewhere near the top. Although I missed the third act at the time, I’ve recently watched the whole thing on the recently released three-disc DVD box set — which adds a fifth act called “Next Movement” as well as a slide show of photographs called “Water Is Rising,” accompanied (like the documentary itself) by a Terence Blanchard jazz score—and the experience as a whole is so powerful that I’m tempted to call this over four-hour documentary Lee’s masterpiece to date. For its remarkable cast of characters, its comprehensive and even epic treatment of a major catastrophe in all its multidimensional aspects, for its political and ethical clarity (as well as its focused and wholly justifiable anger), and above all, for its soul, it shows a maturity and balance that may be unparalleled in Lee’s work. In fact, I’m hard put to think of another Lee work as beautifully shaped and grandly conceived as this astonishing act of witness, including Do the Right Thing. And as a native of Alabama, I was especially impressed by the way Lee’s New York background in no way blinds him to the nuances and diversity of southern culture—something that I feel hampered much of the otherwise eloquent writing of James Baldwin. I suspect Lee’s background as the son of a jazz musician and composer undoubtedly helped. Furthermore, his DVD commentary, based on the portions I’ve sampled so far, qualifies as a genuine enhancement—almost as if one were sitting next to Lee while watching the documentary and getting clued into Bush’s simultaneous cultivation of New Orleans’ mayor and freezing out of Louisiana’s governor and updated on the spirited Hiatt employee who apparently lost his job because of the forthrightness of his interviews. The fifth act, whether or not it consists of outtakes, is as fascinating as the rest—especially a detailed account by Sean Penn and others about the adventures of their own rescue team. [1/1/07]

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Comments (12)
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This film is powerful but scattershot. To those viewers – not to mention the non-fans who see Lee as a provocateur, or worse, a troublemaker with an apocalyptic view of race relations in the United States – some words of reassurance. “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” – which debuted last Wednesday before an audience of 12,000 at the New Orleans Arena and appears on HBO Monday and Tuesday nights at 9 (it also will be shown in its entirety on Aug. 29, the one-year anniversary of Katrina’s landfall) – is powerful, thoughtful and deeply compassionate. That said, “Levees” is often scattershot and undisciplined; this can be vacuum-cleaner filmmaking with a willingness to suck up everything, then cursively address each issue, topic and controversy (even global warming) that raged around one of the great tragedies in modern American history. By servicing all things, no one thing is adequately explored. Nor is “Levees” always a pure “documentary” – though this word will have to do – it’s also agitprop. One senses that Lee would have dearly loved to cast this story in a heroes/ villains mold. But the complexity of the narrative, not to mention the facts, overwhelms that impulse at every turn. Yes, the Bush administration’s response – in particular, the response of much-maligned Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown – is viewed as incompetent and almost criminally negligent. That, however, was brutally, and visibly, established at the time for the entire world to see. Other quibbles: Mayor Ray Nagin is interviewed at length but never asked about the sensational charges raised in historian Douglas Brinkley’s 2006 book on the flood, “The Great Deluge.” In this richly – and presumably carefully – reported history, Nagin is portrayed as a preening paranoid who hides in a hotel room, oblivious to the tragedy around him. In “Levees,” he is cool, calm and collected, a voice of passion and reason at the center of the real and proverbial storm. There are also a handful of blessedly brief interviews with “celebrities” and other notables – the Rev. Al Sharpton, Sean Penn, Harry Belafonte, Kanye West and so on. But their presence is usually the equivalent of fingernails dragging across the chalkboard. When Belafonte starts chatting about a meeting he had with Venezuela president Hugo Chavez “to discuss what he could do to help and while we were at it, to see what he could do to help other needy black people in the United States,” you can almost feel “Levees” sag to the point of rupture. West has a deer-in-the-headlights stare when asked about his controversial “Bush doesn’t care about black people” remark made during a Katrina charity telethon – the one that got so much outraged press at the time. Here, he has nothing else to contribute.

Posted by Jane on 01/02/2007 at 12:56 PM

If you’re going to post a comment from last August, why not say so, or at least try to update it? Your post, which appears to be strictly a recycling operation, has nothing to do with the DVD, which in fact contradicts portions of it (e.g., Lee is quite critical of Nagin in his commentary, sometimes hilariously so).

Posted by Jonathan on 01/02/2007 at 2:47 PM

I think ‘Levees’ is a tremendous effort by Spike Lee, far more impressive than the polemics of Michael Moore in that Lee keeps himself out of the film and allows the participants to tell their stories. However, I think Lee will always be remembered first for ‘Do the Right Thing,’ it is simply the best example of Lee’s ability to fuse drama with his desire to expose US race relations.

Posted by Mr. Bloom on 01/02/2007 at 7:09 PM

I agree it far and away trumps any of Moore’s pictures but I think, in time, 25th HOUR will come to be regarded as his finest achievement. Or, at least, it will be hard for me to find a film finer than it in times to come. But who knows? Pronostication isn’t really valid, whereas reflection is, and that’s why 25th HOUR and LEVEES hit me in ways that DO THE RIGHT THING can’t. That said, DTRT is essential, too.

Posted by Ryland on 01/02/2007 at 9:57 PM

Bamboozled hit me like no other Lee film I’ve seen–I can’t decide whether I like it, whether I think it’s good or bad, which I respect about it; it’s one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, which is why I’m somewhat surprised it seems to have come and gone quietly.

Posted by whetstone on 01/02/2007 at 10:21 PM

I saw this when it premiered on HBO back in august and found it amazing. I was shocked when it didn’t receive one mention on the Indiewire Critics’ poll (not even in the documentary category.) It’s good to hear that the DVD is worth checking out.

Posted by Brian on 01/03/2007 at 1:53 PM

Brian – for films to be eligible for the Indiewire poll, they have to have been released in theaters, which “When the Levees Broke” wasn’t. A silly rule perhaps, but that’s how they do it. Otherwise I’m sure it would have ran away with the Doc category.

Posted by Rob on 01/03/2007 at 9:49 PM

Hi Jonathan Most of the interviewees are noticeably and justifiably frustrated by the situations and much political talk ensues. I think the criticisms, in most cases, are apt. However, the one thing I wished “Levees” would have done more is to acknowledge the stellar support from individuals who made a difference working within the organizations that are widely being disparaged. There were many people who worked within the system who were not villains–yet these people (many who worked for months on the streets of New Orleans or with the evacuees) are largely dismissed. This is a shame for them and a blemish on an otherwise exemplary documentary.

Posted by Jack on 01/03/2007 at 11:39 PM

Why exactly were you unable to include this on your top twenty list? The list itself is not exactly studio-heavy.
Posted by Jeff McM on 01/05/2007 at 5:01 AM

My list is always based on theatrical showings in Chicago. And even if I’d broken this rule, I didn’t see all of this documentary until well after my list was due.

Posted by Jonathan on 01/05/2007 at 9:04 AM

I understand it debuted on TV, but it’s unfortunate that so many lists are extolling the virtues of “United 93” as important commemoration when Lee’s film is all but ignored.

Posted by Doug on 01/05/2007 at 3:03 PM

I understand why a pro critic like Jonathan would want to base his list on local theatrical showings (it’s the best way to appreciate cinema, among other reasons). It’s interesting to note that, perhaps more than ever, that type of list would vary significantly from one based purely on artistic criteria. First, it’s seems to me that there are more good films that only play at festivals than in the past. Secondly, there are quality films released, at least initially, on cable TV. My list of recent examples includes: Spike’s definitive take on the disaster in New Orleans, the short “Din of Celestial Birds” by E. Elias Merhige (Turner Classics), and Joe Dante’s “Homecoming” (Showtime). Then, you have the fact that some great (or near great) films are going straight to video. Recent standouts: “That Day” by Raul Ruiz, the improved (my opinion) version of Lodge Kerrigan’s “Keane” edited by S. Soderbergh, and Alain Resnais’ “Not on the Lips” (one of hundreds of films I’ve experienced and enjoyed thanks to Jonathan). The state of cinephilia has changed a lot since I entered it in the 1970s. I wonder how many critics would include “When the Levees Broke” in their lists if they could do so.

Posted by Oscar on 01/08/2007 at 2:59 PM
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