Getting the Full Picture

In the credit sequence of “When the Levees Broke,” there is a notable uniformity in presentation. Each of the film’s interviewees, with his or her face contained within a picture frame, looks at the camera and tells his or her name, position, and place of residence. The scene acknowledges “When the Levees Broke” as a kind of art, as the ornate frames immediately bring and association to museums, galleries, or even framed family photos. Each of the New Orleans residents, in the frame, becomes a piece of the collection. Similar to the individual artworks in Steve Prince’s Katrina Suite, each piece contributes to an aggregate understanding. In both cases only an examination of all components of the collection can result in the fullest picture of the Hurricane Katrina experience.

I commend the filmmakers for their approach here because it avoids both the crutch of scorn that Beth has mentioned in class and the constriction of boundaries that Roach says often takes place in the formation and representation of community. “When the Levees Broke” features a cast of perspectives ranging from New Orleans residents affected by the disaster to those commonly held in part responsible for the extent of the damage. It would be easy, perhaps tempting, for director Spike Lee to eliminate people like former governor Kathleen Blanco from his picture of a post-Katrina New Orleans. This could help ease the pain and ire felt by those who were affected. However to do so would be, to paraphrase the Ralph Ellison quote at the beginning of Echoes in the Bone, remembering New Orleans during and after the storm as that which it should have been; or that which we hope to be. A showcase of testimonies that censors out the controversial may be just slightly easier to stomach, but it is also incomplete.

The New Orleans jazz funeral, mirrored in Steve Prince’s Katrina Suite, includes both the somber dirge and the upbeat second line; the grieving over that which might be deemed desirable to forget is unified with a more joyous celebration of that which is desirable to remember. This same approach is seen in Spike Lee’s selection of perspectives for his film. Retrospect looks upon the mistakes of the government and its actors unfavorably. Yet those actors, their mistakes having been acknowledged, are present in the credits’ framing scene. Lee, in his construction of a New Orleans community, does not “pull back by excluding or subordinating” the ethical periphery—those with blood on their hands—as Roach suggests is often a characteristic of community construction. They too are granted full participation in the procession of framed shots at the film’s close because they are a part of the story. All the individuals shown have ties to New Orleans and ties to Katrina, and are thus worthy and necessary to include in a portrait of this place and time. Whether viewed in retrospect in a positive or negative light, all the film’s participants are a part of New Orleans’ story and thus a critical piece in the comprehensive collection.

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