Wednesday, November 18, 2009

When the Levees Broke: Spike Lee's Sonogram of an American Stillbirth

by Barry Michael Cooper
(originally published in the Huffington Post: 2 September 2008)  

01. September. 2008/Monday 

Both Truman Capote and Saint Teresa of Avila made copious notes on the tearful taxes that come with the cosmic payoff of answered prayers. I don't know if the Rt. Rev. James Dobson and his Pharisees-On-The-Family minion Stuart Shepard are aware of the havoc they might have caused by asking their flock to pray for rain in order to sabotage a certain political convention.
Their prayers were answered. Only thing, that "Abundant rain, torrential rain, urban and small stream flood advisory rain" in Shepard's venomous supplication during his "Spotlight" broadcast, pounded the Gulf Coast instead. Not Denver. The powerful eyewall of rain and wind that fell in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Plaquemines Parish, also set its' sights on St. Paul, Minnesota, resulting in Hurricane Gustav's collateral disruption of the Republican National Convention's opening ceremonies.

Thus far, Gustav has not been as destructive as his older sister Katrina, but the damage has been done, literally and figuratively. Many who were scheduled to speak tonight at the Xcel Energy Center--including President Bush and Vice President Cheney --have decided to focus on the relief efforts in the hurricane's aftermath. Quoting a story reported in the Sunday New York Times by Patrick Healy and Adam Nagourney:

 "With the storm expected to hit the Gulf Coast on Monday, Mr. McCain and his team spoke by phone on Sunday morning and, one participant said, quickly decided that there was no choice but to cancel much of the first day of the convention. McCain advisers said the programming for the rest of the four-day convention would be determined on a day-to-day basis, and many questions remained open, such as whether Mr. McCain, of Arizona, and his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, would appear here to accept their party’s nominations, or would appear by video from the Gulf Coast."
Wow. Memo to Dobson and Shepard:
Wrong prayer. Wrong day. Right (wing) convention.

For the second time in three years. the power of Providence has used a mighty wind to blow the roof off of Republican hypocrisy. In 2005, New Orleans was a ghoulish snapshot of collective agony. An obscene Polaroid of bloated corpses floating down city streets, the elderly dying in wheelchairs, people of all races drowned in their own homes, stranded on rooftops and abandoned underneath a shredded Superdome. The homemade horror flick of a Third World nation sitting in the lap of a First World mega power. 

But this was not a movie, this was real: President Bush waited almost a week before coming to New Orleans himself. This was a moral power outage in that Shining City On The Hill, and a chastisement to the Christian Compassionate Conservatives who had paid tithes and lip service in church, but forgot The Word on their way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The birth of an all new, all inclusive, Republican Party in the new American Century had died in the delivery room of New Orleans on August 28th, 2005. Katrina was GOD's Biblical reminder from Numbers 32:23: "Behold, if ye will not do so, behold, ye have sinned against the Lord: and be sure, your sin will find you out."
It seems fitting on this epochal day--one of many epochal days in what's shaping up to be an epic year--to revisit Spike Lee's monumental 2006 HBO documentary, When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Parts.
Quite possibly one of the greatest American films in the last 20 years, by the most prolific filmmaker of his generation, Lee's Levees is both the antithesis and the answer to D.W. Griffith's cinematic screed, Birth Of A Nation. When The Levees Broke is Spike Lee's sonogram of an American Stillbirth.
If Picasso's immortal Guernica could be redesigned as a triptych, When The Levees Broke would be the second panel in Spike Lee's portrait of the abomination of race relations in America. His highly anticipated new film Miracle at St. Anna--about a heroic group of four black Marines from the 92nd Division, a.k.a., The Buffalo Soldiers, in WWII Italy--serves as the third panel, with Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X as an interchangeable first panel.

This is a thought that dawned on me after sitting down with Lee a few months ago, for the September 2008 issue of Interview Magazine (on newsstands right now). If you get a chance to catch Miracle when it opens the Toronto Film Festival on Sunday (07. September. 2008) or nationwide on September 26th, don't miss this film. Alternately gut wrenching and soulfully poignant, Miracle--inspired by James McBride's storied novel-- might win Lee a well deserved Oscar.
Tough and poignant are also the brushstrokes Spike Lee uses to connect the dots in the colorful pointillism splashed on Levees' expansive canvas. As a way to thread the myriad of stories that had spun into the national (and global) news cycles in furious real-time, Lee--who is never onscreen in When The Levees Broke and barely heard speaking--uses the film as a cohesive narrative to link the viewer into the lives of all of the Crescent City natives, who were also interconnected to each other. 

Even if they didn't know each other.

Like Herbert Freeman, Jr., whose mother elderly and ailing mother, Ethel, died in her wheelchair because there were not enough buses to get the evacuees out of the city. Or Garland Robinette, the popular New Orleans journalist and host of "Think Tank" on WWL AM, breaking down and crying as he thought about how the government casually discarded the all of the residents--including the whites, like himself--of New Orleans as if taking out the nightly trash. Or Darnell Herrington who describes hearing a blast, and then his body being lifted up in the air, as he was viciously shot by a group of gun-toting white vigilantes who mistook him for a looter.
Or as a black pastor--Pastor Willie Walker--recounts in partial disbelief how a Hollywood A-list actor-director like Sean Penn assisted in the rescue effort, as we watch Penn jumping into chest-deep, diseased-filled water and carrying people from flood ravaged homes (Levees also exposed the media's fraudulent depiction of Penn as guessed it...gun-toting vigilante). Or the truly heartbreaking scene of jazz legend (and Lee's favorite composer) Terrance Blanchard consoling his beautifully elegant mother Wilhelmina Blanchard, as she breaks down in his arms while surveying a house full of great memories reduced to water ravaged debris in less than a day.
All this while Condoleezza Rice is in New York City shopping for Ferragamo's on 5th Avenue and President Bush slaps former FEMA chief Michael "Brownie" Brown on the back for a job well done.
The reason why Levees is so moving and powerful, is because Spike Lee allows everyone to tell their own story in their own voice. A voice that has found itself in the diaphragms of millions of American citizens--black, white, Asian, Latino, Native American, male, female, straight, gay, Democrat, Republican, and Independent--who remember Katrina's catastrophic legacy, the White House's ennui, and are looking for true change this year. A voice of real compassion for all people. A voice that has galvanized Barack Obama and Joe Biden's campaign.
If Senator John McCain is smart (okay, he was cagey in naming Alaskan governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, but now it's surfacing that she has her own impending dark clouds overhead),
I mean really smart, a viewing of When The Levees Broke might put his Straight Talk Express back on the right track. It might even find its way into his acceptance speech on Thursday night. But McCain needs shore up his own political levees. His first task is making a call to Rev. Dobson and Stuart Shepard and ask them to focus on reading the Bible a bit more carefully before inculcating anymore poisonous entreaties. Galatians 6:7 might be of some assistance to them: "Be not deceived; GOD is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soeth, that shall he also reap." After that, he and his staff need to monitor the Weather Channel over the next few days, as another hurricane--Hanna-- is forecast for this week.

It's expected to make landfall in when Senator McCain hits the podium.

When it rains, it pours, y'all.

You can read my "When The Levees Broke: Spike Lee's Sonogram of an American Stillbirth" in my new collection of essays and reporting titled, "Hooked On The American Dream (Vol.1): New Jack City Eats Its Young, which will be--GOD Willing--published on Kindle/ in September 2011.

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