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by Danny Evans
Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke is both utterly powerful and utterly gruelling. It is an assault on complacent modernity in both its unflinching depiction of its failures and its disregard for the fast food attention span. It is long, but gripping. Tragedy unfolds upon tragedy, outrage upon outrage. Strong labouring faces crumple in the struggle to show stoicism, drunk women spit scorn on their rulers and a student tells Dick Cheney to go fuck himself, speaking from the wounded soul of a city and for the whole of the thinking world.
It is a film about division and control, and about humanity. Humans divided from nature and divided amongst themselves. Humans who control nature and are controlled by it. It features humble and beautiful people, the frightened and the righteous. Musicians and pastors, sons, mothers, orphans.
Also starring are pen pushers and plutocrats who, like so many racist Noahs, attempt to manage the effects of a flood that was meant to be under their control. And, introducing, in his first feature, a mayor that, for all that the film is soft on him, nevertheless comes across as so smug that you almost wondered how many people could have floated to safety atop his massively swollen head, had FEMA had the wherewithal to push him into the tide. Had FEMA been there at all.
The management of water by humanity is the story of civilisation as we understand it. The irrigation works of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Holland were the basis of their advancement. More broadly, the bringing of a natural force under the control of human society is the basis of industry. But as the ability to exploit humans through our natural labour power increases, so the rupture of human beings from ‘nature’ becomes more marked, so the ability to rationally protect humanity from our environment decreases.
Lee’s film focuses on talking heads and footage from within the city, allowing each failing and each spark of bloody minded solidarity to speak for itself, with the wider implication – capitalism is fucking us over and if we don’t do something about it our bodies will rot in the streets while the rich bid pennies for our houses – left to the imagination of the viewer.
Some of these failings are specific to America, the Bush administration and the way in which race and class overlap, but more often than not it comes back down to the prioritising of profit and property over people. The Louisiana wetlands that should offset the effects of storms before they reach the interior are also the largest source of crude oil in America. It is widely understood that the 8000 miles of cuts and canals that industry has made into this area have damaged its capacity to protect the land.
The levees themselves, built primarily for shipping purposes by the army corps of engineers, would have been inadequate had Katrina hit Louisiana at full tilt (a factor 5 hurricane), but in fact were insubstantial in the face of what was by then, the film suggests, a category 4 or 3 hurricane. The film contrasts the Louisiana levees with the giant, hi-tech structures in Holland and it wouldn’t be believable to someone with no idea of American history and particularity. On the two previous occasions when New Orleans has suffered major floods, in 1927 and 1965, there have been allegations that the levees were exploded at strategic points to prevent the floods from reaching the city’s richer areas and, in effect, sacrificing the poor districts. That this occurred in 1927 now appears to be received wisdom. At the start of When the Levees Broke the possibility that this re-occurred during Katrina is raised by residents who swear to hearing an explosion. If this is treated with some scepticism, such speculation is justified by the obvious contempt with which poor lives are regarded in the U.S (and elsewhere) by those in power.
Nightmarish mismanagement and criminal neglect in the build up to the levee breach saw budget cuts to disaster-prevention free funds that were diverted to disaster production in Iraq, while bumbling, Bush-approved incompetents replaced experts in FEMA. The evacuation of New Orleans was not declared mandatory until 24 hours after such declarations had been made in other Louisiana cities. Mayor Nagin’s apparent reluctance to issue such a declaration may be explained by his much trumpeted ties with the ‘business community’, whose representatives in the tourist trade would surely be appalled at the loss of revenue had Katrina been a false alarm. Whether that explains the inexplicable or not, what is clear is that the 4x4s got away, while the necessary redirection of all available public transportation into the evacuation effort (possible only in the event of mandatory evacuation) did not take place until it was too late.
The response to the disaster, as its scale became apparent, matched the build up for stupefying incompetence and blind prejudice. The pictures shock viewers desensitised to the pornography of destitution because – holy floating corpses, Batman – this is the richest country in the world. While thousands of people waited in a boiling, stinking arena for water and medicine, the forces of law and order were attempting to re-establish their priorities amidst chaos. The first workable institution to surface was a makeshift jail in the Greyhound bus terminal. For looters, you understand.
Never mind that there was no-one to pay when New Orleans residents wanted essentials from abandoned shops. Never mind that food-stuffs left behind in stores would have been unusable by the time they were reclaimed. Respect for property will be enforced, at gunpoint if necessary, even as it turns to rubble. The obscene irony of describing taking goods from shops in such circumstances as ‘looting’ was not lost in a city, a country, built on the two fold looting of Native Americans and Africa.
In the wake of the storm Jabar Gibson, a New Orleans resident, discovered an empty bus that was still workable. Commandeering it, he packed it full of his city folk and drove to Houston. This was the first evacuation after the storm hit, and it was organised spontaneously by a man lucky not to have been shot as he boarded. Meanwhile residents were held at gunpoint attempting to cross the Mississippi Bridge.
While Spike Lee highlights brave and bold efforts on the part of ordinary residents and the US lifeguard, what comes across most starkly is the sheer bloody waste; the wilful indifference of a ruling elite to a city that had outlived its usefulness. New Orleans: a city whose name evokes such a rich mythology that it makes Athens look like a city without stories, and provides the pulse and rhythm of the only music worth bothering with. Its relentless mongrelisation of musical forms – that Cajun French country blues jazz rock ‘n roll funk disco stew – beamed across by radio to Jamaica and forming the bedrock of Ska, gave rise to a living culture. But living culture is not the same as living labour; the bricks of the town that blues built were just dead weight as far as money making was concerned.
And here we come to the final insult of the New Orleans tragedy; the thousands of the homeless Diaspora, maligned as ‘refugees’ by the media in their own country, still unable to return, having their homes eyed up for ‘re-generation’ by corporate developers. There’s always more money in rebuilding than maintaining and it is little wonder that the sanctimonious Mayor Nagin, who couldn’t refer to black people as ‘brothers’ often enough when in front of the camera, has promised that rebuilding New Orleans will be ‘business driven.’ Our global capital of culture will be a victim of the culture of capital twice, the second time in its rebuilding as a soulless husk.
While there are aspects of Katrina that are specific to its time and place; you can’t watch When the Levees Broke without gaining an idea of the extraordinary levels of incompetence and racism associated with the current US administration; its root causes and effects would be the same anywhere where profit holds sway. And this will only become increasingly apparent as our natural disasters get less and less natural. Unless we can do something to turn the tide of frenzied money making in the fuck-you free-market, no amount of scotch guard will protect us from the hard rain that’s a gonna’ fall.
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