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Spike Lee's Reality TV

When the Levees Broke brings Katrina's devastation into clear and timely focus

Blanchard has long been the musical voice of Lee's stories. His was the trumpet behind Denzel Washington's character in Mo' Better Blues; he even had a cameo in Lee's Malcolm X. Now, the story being told is, in part, his. At one point, Blanchard walks through a devastated Ninth Ward, playing the hymn "Just a Closer Walk With Thee." At another, he escorts his mother back to her home, where he was born and raised. She breaks down crying in the doorway when she realizes everything inside has been destroyed, right down to the family photos.

"It's weird to have a very personal moment like that videotaped," Blanchard says. "I had mixed emotions about Spike using it because it was my mom. I'd never seen her like that. But I thought people need to see what we're going through, not just to hear about it secondhand or get a politician's reaction to it."

Levees makes devastating use of memorable public moments: President Bush's comment "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job"; Mayor Nagin, during a call to Garland Robinette's radio show, imploring the federal government to "get off your asses and do something"; CNN's Soledad O'Brien confronting FEMA's Michael Brown about the thousands stranded in the Convention Center ("Why are you discovering this now? It's been five days"). Here, linked, they form a detailed indictment.

"Our government has done a lot of things in a sneaky way," says Lee. "But all this was blatant, no camouflage: 'We don't care.' "

Lee's film deftly tells a story on a personal level: We grasp the human cost of this crisis in ways simply not conveyed through headlines and soundbites. And beyond analysis of government inaction and faulty levee policy, Lee forcefully reminds us that the culture of New Orleans—the music and food, patois and attitude we celebrate as our nation's soul—is imperiled.

Initially, HBO and Lee had planned Levees as a two-hour, $1 million project. "But as I got into it," Lee says, "I realized that the scope of this story demanded more." HBO doubled the budget and airtime. "And even that's not enough," Lee says. "The movie doesn't end with a 'to be continued,' but the story goes on."

Many critics wondered aloud whether or not Oliver Stone's World Trade Center arrived too soon. Timed to mark the anniversary of the hurricane, Lee's Levees bis just in time—not so much a commemoration as a wake-up call.

"There's a thing called Katrina fatigue," Lee says. "It's going to be a year now, and people need to move on; we've got wars and whatever else to think about. But the people in New Orleans and the Gulf region can't afford to be forgotten."

I caught trombonist Glen David Andrews, who appears in Levee's final scene, leading the Treme Brass Band on a Sunday night at Vaughn's, one of the city's best-loved holes-in-the-wall. In between sets, he looked me in the eye and spoke with pride about the many musicians in his family. But his gaze and his voice lowered recalling two days in the Superdome following the storm, and six months "in exile," in Houston. He's back in New Orleans now, living in a FEMA trailer.

The day before, Andrews was at the Music Shed to work on the film's ending. It's a mock New Orleans jazz funeral, a traditional way to mark the passage from one realm to another in anticipation of rebirth. The Hot 8 Brass Band led an empty casket on wheels marked "Katrina." Andrews held his horn at his side and sang a familiar hymn: "When I die . . . hallelujah, by and by, I'll fly away." But on the final verse, he altered the lyric: "New Orleans will never go away."

Lee was concerned that the last line was buried. He sent Andrews back in for a voiceover.

"I want everyone to hear that," he said.

"Like a declaration?" asked Andrews.

"Yeah," Lee snapped back. "A declaration."

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