Saturday, August 19, 2006

Decoding Spike Lee's movie

Is Spike Lee's When The Levees Broke too Afro-centric? Its impossible to tell for those of us who haven't seen the film.

I was not in the crowd at the Arena when Spike Lee debuted When The Levees Broke. I don't have HBO either, so I don't know when I will get to see the film. I do know that the Times-Picayune gave an immense amount of ink to a movie reviewer to discuss it, and his impression focuses I think too much on the predetermined line of it's too black and talks about the levees blowing up. These are the themes echoing on anonymous online forums and on conservative radio. He seems to have gotten the talking point memo, even if only by osmosis.

There is an instructive discussion going on at People Get Ready. I think Schroder's initial response relies to heavily on the Picayune review, which presents a synopsis of the film that other viewers reject (in the discussion at PGR and elsewhere) as patently unfair and incorrect. None of us will be able to judge the movie until we see it for ourselves.

At the risk of impuning Dave Walker or angering Schroeder, someone I like and admire, I have to ask everyone who is writing or talking about it how what baggage they bring to the film. Walker's review has this one line that struck me: "In one of his future installments, perhaps, will be the stories of Lakeview families whose losses were every bit as tragic as the stories told so movingly in this film". Where does Mr. Walker live? Is he a native of New Orleans?

The last is the most important question, because of the one piece of baggage everyone born and raised here carries around: we are all to some extant racists. I don't mean that the city is equally divided between secret White Citizens Councils and devotees of Louis Farrakhan. It means that virtually all of us were raised, directly or indirectly, to have a racially tinged view of the world, learned the language of racial indentity, the code words for ourselves and the Other.
Many of us, thankfully, are racists in recovery, who have to work every day of our lives to keep from taking that drink from the demon bottle we were weaned on, but like alcoholics it is the daily work of a life time to keep the deeply ingrained impulse in check. That young man walking behind you as you return to your car in the Garden District; would you hurry your steps the same if he were white? Did you really vote for Nagin because he was the best candidate, or because he was one of your own?

I am sure there are some people in New Orleans who don't fit this mold, but I have a feeling most did not grow up in the south or in New Orleans. My children, raised in the upper Midwest (and through the labor of years to do or say nothing that might transmit this inherited syndrome) have not a bit of it. I hope that in their new city, they will be a shining beacon for everyone they meet.

Spike Lee is a Black film maker. He's not a Black man who makes films; he makes films about the Black experience. Still, is his focus on the Ninth Ward any different than that of the national media, who made that neighborhood the poster child for the federal flood? Did he arrange it so that the majority of people at the Convention Center and Superdome were black? Or did he just come to report what he learned as he watched CNN with the rest of us a year ago August, that the poor and the Black were left behind in the evacuation, and suffered terribly in the days after.

T-P reviewer Dave Walker is right: people lost everything in Lakeview and Gentilly, but most of those people did not spend days on Convention Center Boulevard begging passing soldiers for a bottle of water, only to be ignored. Most of those people in the old suburbs died in their homes or in the streets outside, swept away as the water came in, and not on a lawnchair on dry land. As I reported in the first week of September last, white people were dying in the heat in the Chalmette Slip and Asians at Mary Queen of Vietnam church in Versailles, waiting for the rescue that seemed it would never come the same as everyone at the Convention Center. I found that news after extensive digging because I had some experience of those places, cared about the fate of those people. The major media, however, focused on the disaster right around the corner from their hotels.

Was Spike Lee wrong to start from the story all America heard in the first days after, the story that his audience already knows, so as to draw them into a four hour event? Ultimately, I don't know. I hope that all of America will feel drawn or at least obliged to watch this film, just as I sat through the four hours of the Sorrow and the Pity at the Prytania years ago, not for an evening's entertainment but to educate myself about something terribly important.

What troubles me about this entire debate is that it is the wrong debate at the wrong time. It it just another exercise in digging ourselves deeper into the hole we're in instead of trying to get ourselves out of it. It is not about race. It is about the levees, the incompetence of government(at all levels, involving politicians of all races and creeds), about the future of New Orlenas. I'll dredge up words I wrote about the mayor's famous "chocolate city" speech in Martin Luther King Day:

The unintended outcome of the speech, both in its religious rhetoric and in it's signature "chocolate" moment, was to rip the scab off of the huge gash that separates New Orleans into separate, warring camps: by race, by section, by church, by income.

It's not all Nagin's fault. It's all of our fault, that we measure each other by skin color or the car we drive, or where we park that car on Sunday morning or at night.As long as we view each other like fellow travelers through a fun house mirror maze, distorted and funny strangers who are just part of the wild carney ride's landscape, we will never make it.

The Bitch didn't care. Her waters came up the MRGO and took the paint-bare, black-eyed-pea shotguns of the Lower Nine the same as it took the Bunny Bread, virgin-in-a-tub brick ranch houses of Chalmette. Claiborne Avenue or Judge Perez drive, they cried and struggled and drowned just the same. The waters that swept up Canal Boulevard and Paris Avenue didn't stop in at the Hibernia to check anybody's balance. They took everyone in their path, no checks accepted.

Don't let anyone forget. It's not about black or white, Lakeview versus NinthWard, rich and poor.

Its about the damned levees.

Thank you for this excellent, truth-filled post.
I cried the first time I read that post you quoted, and damn if I didn't cry again. Another great post, Mark. It needed sayin'. I wish I was as certain as you are, though, that it was just incompetence that kept 'em from coming to the rescue.
A good post. But I think Spike Lee did everyone a disservice by reviving the canard about the levees being blown up, a highly charged racial accusation.
I also think that Mayor Nagin is diverting attention from the current mess, mcuh of his own devise, by focusing on the racism issue.
Look, you are viewing racism as though it were a matter of personal attitude. But that's not how it's understood generally. Rather it's a matter of structure. Just for one example, it's an example of structural racism that the RTA operates solely within the confines of Orleans Parish which means poor black folks have a great difficulty taking a bus right into Metairie. That's an example of structural racism.
On the other hand, the racism charge is so potent that black politicians use it all the time to rally the troops. Especialy when they are taking actions that actualy go against the interest of the poor and black.
You know, like Mayor Nagin. I've got a post on that today at my blog
It is about the Levees and The Lra and the GNOF and the UNOP and Baton Rouge, and who are the folks that are behind the curtain? Pulling the strings getting ready for a piece of anything coming our way
I personally know at least two Lakeview residents who rescued from their homes and spent time in the Superdome. Neither is poor.

The national media focused almost exclusively on race as an economic indicator. Half of all the African American residents of the city are not poor and there are also many poor white residents.

The media never asked economic questions, they assumed that all African Americans are poor and all whites are not. The only person I saw asked about it on the overpass was an African American woman who was an administrative employee of the Dock Board, a solidly middle class job.
Hey rk -- I think you and mominem are both adding a couple of important perspectives into the discussion that the mainstream press totally missed. Are they a bunch of idiots, or do they think we're a bunch of idiots?

Karen, I wish everyone who has a voice would get on the same page as the rest of us living it day to day.

Yeah we need to have a race discussion in this town and in this country. It's long overdue.

But Mark is right that there are far more insidious problems related to far less sexy issues that are at the root of our problems, and those issues need to be in bold large point letters on front page headlines every single day.

Unfortunately, waving a banner for "institutional reform" at the Corps of Engineers hardly gets people's attention like images of crowds of desperate people baking in the hot sun and cries of racism. And Nagin knows that, because he's either lazy, or he's a stooge for an agenda that wouldn't be approved if he actually said it.
Schroeder, I vote "stooge".
Deluded stooge probably. He may even believe he's the big hero.
We just shouldn't think that tv commentators make good mayors.
I am watching Arnie Fielkow, Shelley Midura, James Carter and Stacey Head to see if they can provide real leadership in the future.
Some hopeful signs there. They seem to be caring, working closely with their constituencies and brniging a fresh approach. Nagin he's a write off. But we should look ahead to better leadership.
Schroeder, this is where I get lost. I believe that the perspective of those living amidst the ruins counts above all else, without question, and I don't feel like it's my place to talk about Nagin, 'cause he's not my mayor, but I'm missing something, some distinction between the issues. To me, the need for "institutional reform" at the ACoE is what led to "crowds of desperate people baking in the hot sun", and some out of the sun, in places like hospitals. Each was just a different stage of the abandonment and deception. JMHO.
Agree with everything you said, except I cringed when (if I interpreted you correctly) you wrote that your kids are somehow less prone to racial bias or to see things in a racialized way because they were raised in the Midwest and because of your own actions as a parent (kudos to you for the latter!). I cringed because this is America and unfortunately, the negative images and stereotypes about blacks and other minorities are everywhere for kids to unknowingly and unintentionally internalize. On a personal note, and it's just my opinion, but Chicago was the most prejudiced place I've ever lived ( I think MLK said something similar after he marched there), much more so than the 3 southern cities I've lived in. It seems to me that many white northerners, not having lived in the South where we have had to face Jim Crow and racism head on, mistakenly feel different and more fair-minded than white southerners -- until they are in situations where they come into contact with more black people than they ever have before.

Just my 2 cents. Maybe I misread you, but if I didn't and, if God forbid, your kids say/do something "racist," I hope you don't feel like it's your fault. It's just this fucked up world. You sound like a very thoughtful, caring, and good parent.
My children are less prone to racial bias because they grew up in an area where they were by-and-large not exposed to it. When they were (in the way people in Fargo, N.D. treated the large number of refugees brought their from central Europe and Somalia by Lutheran Social Services) we pointed it out, and explained why it was wrong that some parents pulled their children away from the Roma or Somalis at the playground in our neighborhood. They were largey shielded from the treatment of the native population, didn't have to hear people say "the rez" in the same tone of voice people here say "the bricks" [housing projects]. As a result, they're just not programmed that way. Yes, my fourteen year old in particular hears a lot of racially (and sexually/gender) charged crap, much of it from the dark side of hip-hop culture, but they treat it as an anomoly and not as the normal view of things.

For this more than all their fingers and toes and as much as their inherent intelligence I am incredibly thankful

However it came to be, they don't really have
Of course it's great you are raising your kids right and best you can, but I really think the personal issue of racism is missing the point of how institutions and structures deny opportunities to groups of people.
It's so much more complex because the very people who talk most loudly about racism are themselves part of the problem. In New Orleans these are entrenched politicans like William Jefferson and the other "families" who are essentially gangs of kleptocrats who use political office to line their pockets. Ever notice that the same family names keep showing up to stand for election? In previous generations they were white,now they are black but they are still thieves and crooks.
What difference does it make how you raise your kids if these folks are hijacking the most sacred principles of the civil rights movement for their own gain?
Now Nagin is doing the same, playing from the same play book. In his case, I don't believe he's a crook, but he is dividing the city racially to excuse his ineptness and indecision. his motivation seems to be wounded pride.
That's what's hurting us.
Okay I saw the film last night on Channel 10, most of it.
The chief issue is that it's incoherent and lazy.It doesn't try to answer the questions it asks. E.g. how culpable was Nagin? What help are people getting? How will some of these stories turn out?
I think now that Dave Walker was wrong on the race issue. There are certainly plenty of white folks. Yes it's primarily about the black experience but the peopel who suffered a lot were black.
That said, I think the real problem is that there's no controlling consciousness. And so the overall effect is just a haze. I was moved by many many scenes. Especially the silent ones. The imagery of the dead bodies was overwhelming and powerful for isntance.
But far too much air time was given to potty mouth Phyllis Montana who didn't have much to say. Spike may not have intended it but he made some people seem like nothing would make them happy. I betcha dollars to donuts Ms. Montana has always been unhappy and always will be.
Harry Belafonte personifeid the completely idiotic. Sad that this once great singer and actor has turned into a pompous rattlebox of pap. He went off to see Chavez, and then what? What happened? It was a stunt and really a load of crap. It just shows that being angry doesn't make you smart, it just makes you angry. The left seems as empty gestured as the right.
I think many of the complaints people had in the film are being answered by such programs as Road Home, at least to some extent. For instance the family that got a bad claim estimate. The guy went on and on about his dad being a veteran and I was touched. But then later I thought: why the hell didn't he call a lawyer? Why didn't he fight back? Samea bout the woman who complained that FEMA put her in a hotel and wasn't helping her. Well they put her in a hotel-- I mean what are they supposed to do for her? Do you think maybe she coudl do alittel for herself? The self pity and narcissism of some of the speakers and the sense of entitlement was pretty blatant.
I really wondered whether some people weren't being exploited, like Terence Blanchard's mother-- I wouldn't put my mother through that on camera. It also felt staged and manipulative to have people walking through empty streets playing their horn. A bit of a crock. A real lapse in taste.
This film needs serious editing and a more curious filmmaker who would do the hard work of following up on stories and building up lines of narrative. There were so many missed opportunities. It was liek raw footage. A failure as a documentary.
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