You flip on When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Parts (HBO, Monday and Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET) with a head full of ideas about its director, Spike Lee, only to emerge with one more: that he is also a minor master of what we’ll have to call filmic jazz. Since She’s Gotta Have It, his 1986 feature debut, it’s been tempting to read the most attractive and energetic elements of Lee’s style—the quick cutting and fast-talking didacticism, the confrontational monologues and provocative collages—as straight debts to Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave. But his two-night documentary about Hurricane Katrina and the people and places it wrecked is a reminder that the director’s greatest artistic debt might be owed to his father, Bill Lee, a jazz bassist and composer. The style is as American as gumbo or Gershwin.
The film’s prologue is an impressionistic road map to the four hours that follow—that is, a road map to a town with half its roads washed out. It cuts together images of New Orleans from before and after the flood: streetcars, spray-painted alerts of corpses, stock-footage segregationists, Mardi Gras krewes, water rising so high that it threatens to submerge a green sign marking Humanity Street, survivors at the Superdome, tape of the lazy Mississippi. On the soundtrack, Louis Armstrong sings about the lazy Mississippi and wonders if you know what it means to miss New Orleans. What follows has an academic thoroughness, a tabloid sense of immediacy, and an aversion to the sentimental. It can get to feel arduous—unflinching explorations of genuine tragedy do tend to wear you down—but it’s never gratuitous or dull.
Lee and his producers unobtrusively interview almost everyone you want to hear from and even a few people you don’t: politicians, journalists, intellectuals; Sean Penn, because he was on the scene; Wynton Marsalis, because being a talking head is the sort of thing he does instead of being serious. The movie not only gets Kanye West talking forthrightly about what was going through his head when he did his effective bit of performance art (“George Bush doesn’t care about black people”) at the post-hurricane telethon, it also captures writer Michael Eric Dyson doing an impressive Dr. Evil impersonation when talking about the stunned nonreaction of Mike Myers, West’s on-screen partner that night.
But the film’s most memorable slices of thought come from regular people, and their accounts of in-the-moment terror and continuing disruption ring with irregular eloquence, a well-chosen blend of religion and pop. One woman describes getting the news that Hurricane Katrina was half an hour from shore and starting to beg for holy mercy—”I’m getting my husband prayed up. I’m getting me prayed up”—before realizing, in a shock: “You know what I never thought about—God’s will.” She reappears a bit later to talk about how the wind ripped and rolled through her neighborhood: “It’s just like that Daryl Hannah movie … The 50 Foot Woman or whatever the hell she was. That’s what Katrina was. She was pulling our shit apart.” There’s even something empathetic in the way one beer-swilling woman says of the politicos and engineers who built the levees, “I hope they can sleep at night.”
It was especially nice to learn why the guy who famously redirected Dick Cheney’s one-time Senate-floor imperative to Patrick Leahy—”Go f*** yourself”—back at Cheney during a news conference said it twice. “Well,” he thought, “I better say it again just to make sure that he heard it.” That’s how the refrains, profane as well as sacred, go here: Voices pile in asking for nothing more or less than to make themselves clear. When the Levees Broke is a monument of oral history. Without fanfare, Lee orchestrates a multivoiced blues for the common man.