Spike Lee has evolved into a truly amazing filmmaker. His initial films (Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, School Daze, Malcolm X) are impressive, don't get me wrong, but all of those were so strongly product of Spike Lee, that the message almost got lost in the hype, the style, the Mars Blackmanosity of the whole thing.
But Spike's late career work (25th Hour, Inside Man, and - most recently for me - When the Levees Broke: a requiem in four acts) shows that he has evolved so much further beyond where he started, that he is beginning to edge toward being mentioned in the upper echelon of greatest American directors of the last century. he has taken his persona, his previously-omnipresent personal style and subsumed it almost entirely when it better serves the story to let the words speak for themselves. Instead of Spike screaming into the camera with vulgarity after vulgarity, racial slur after racial slur, we get Spike sitting behind the camera and letting things roll, happy in his position of framer of the story rather than ranter of the tale.
Most recently, I saw this impressive maturation in Spike's sublime and painful HBO documentary, When the Levees Broke. I sat down this past week and watched all four acts, finding myself drawn more and more tightly into the world of the Katrina victims through the simple act of hearing them tell their tales. There were no fancy camera tricks, no tracking shots through the city, no scripted screaming at the screen (as Spike has used so powerfully - even recently in 25th Hour, though I can't link to it because of the strongly school-inappropriate language search for it on YouTube, really, Ed Norton does a hell of a job). Spike is, in fact, heard only once in the documentary's four hours when he prompts a subject to tell a little more of her story.
The documentary is amazingly well put together, beginning with the storm warnings and briefly tracing back the scientific community's previous attempts to warn the government of what could happen if a huge hurricane hit New Orleans. The first act continues through the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, while the second act covers the immediate aftermath - in the Superdome; on the expressways out of New Orleans; in the lower Ninth Ward; in the corridors of power where the state, federal, and local governments each attempted to both barge in and fall back, saving neither their backsides nor the lives of trapped New Orleans residents; and on the rooftops of New Orleans where so many people risked their lives to save those of the stranded. The third act covers the late storm repurcussions of New Orleans residents scattered to the winds and trying to find their families, returning home to ruined or missing houses, and beginning to consider rebuilding. The final act sees New Orleans host their first post-Katrina Mardi Gras, take on the insurance industry, and begin to lay blame - and there is much to be laid, at many feet.
Never does Spike give us an answer, however. He doesn't say what should have been done or who is to blame. He lets people of New Orleans tell that they believe that the government bombed open the levee walls to save more affluent neighborhoods, and he even shows that there is prescedent for that, but he also lets other people tell that the explosive sounds were from barges hitting the eye walls or even just from the walls themselves failing and being thrown back into the city they were built to protect. Spike seems to know that the tale is too big, too messy for any tidy answers, for any certain conclusions, so he never steps forward to offer even his opinions as to what he thinks probably was the case. (That's a problem I had a year or so ago with another documentary.)
We all know what happened in new Orleans with Katrina.
I knew. I'd seen it on the news and heard the stories on NPR.
But I didn't have a clue as to what it was like to be in New Orleans when Katrina came to town until I saw When the Levees Broke.
If you have the time, you could do a lot worse than sitting down to learn something by immersing yourself in this film.