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When the Levees Broke

The logo for the documentary shows the title on a depiction of a damaged New Orleans street sign
Directed by Spike Lee
Produced by Spike Lee
Samuel D. Pollard
Music by Terence Blanchard
Cinematography Cliff Charles
Editing by Barry Alexander Brown
Geeta Gandbhir
Nancy Novack
Samuel D. Pollard
Studio 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks
Distributed by HBO
Release date(s) United States August 16, 2006
Running time 255 min
Country USA
Language English
Budget $2,000,000 US

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts is a 2006 documentary film directed by Spike Lee about the devastation of New Orleans, Louisiana due to the failure of the levees during Hurricane Katrina. The film runs for 4 hours, and premiered at the New Orleans Arena on August 16, 2006. The television premiere aired in two parts on August 21 and 22, 2006 on HBO. The film was shown in its entirety on August 29, 2006, the one-year anniversary of Katrina's landfall. It has been described by an HBO executive as "one of the most important films HBO has ever made."

The documentary was also screened at the 63rd Venice International Film Festival on August 31 and September 1, 2006. It won the Orizzonti Documentary Prize and one of two FIPRESCI awards. In addition it was shown at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival on September 15 and September 16, 2006. On July 19, 2007, it was nominated for five Emmys, and it won three on September 16.

The title is a reference to the blues tune "When the Levee Breaks", by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie (later repopularized by Led Zeppelin) about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

The film's original score is by Terence Blanchard, a New Orleans-born trumpeter who also appears in the film with his mother and aunt as they return to their flooded home.

The documentary consists largely of news footage and still photos of Katrina and its aftermath interspersed with interviews. Interviewees throughout the film include politicians, journalists, historians, engineers, and many people from various parts of New Orleans and the surrounding areas who give first hand accounts of their experiences with the levee failures and the aftermath.

The first installment opens with a photo and film montage of historic and recent New Orleans scenes with a soundtrack of Louis Armstrong performing Louis Alter's "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans". At the end of the last episode is a similar montage with Fats Domino's "Walking to New Orleans" on the soundtrack.

In the style of Michael Apted's Up series, a documentary series that interviews Apted's subjects every seven years, Lee has planned to interview the interviewees in Levees at least once more.[1]



The film focuses on the forever changed lives of New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina hit. The film shows the citizens in the midst of disaster dealing with death, devastation and disease. In a statement made by director Spike Lee about the film he states, "New Orleans is fighting for its life. These are not people who will disappear quietly — they're accustomed to hardship and slights, and they'll fight for New Orleans. This film will showcase the struggle for New Orleans by focusing on the profound loss, as well as the indomitable spirit of New Orleaneans."[2]

This particular documentary is Spike Lee's third, preceded by 1997's 4 Little Girls and 2002's Jim Brown: All-American.

Shooting for the film began some three months after Hurricane Katrina hit. Lee along with his camera crew took the first of eight trips to New Orleans where they conducted interviews and taped footage for the film. It was Lee's hope to obtain varying opinions of the storm and response to the storm's destruction. He interviewed nearly 100 people of diverse backgrounds and opinions for his film.

Points made by the film

New Orleans Arena before the premiere of the film

The film focuses on the suffering of those affected by the disaster and their will to survive.

The film points out that the disaster in New Orleans was preventable, caused by levees poorly designed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, with the suffering afterwards greatly compounded by failures at all levels of government, most severely at the Federal level. These points are in line with mainstream investigations, including the bipartisan U.S. Congressional report "A Failure of Initiative" and the Army Corps of Engineers' own studies.[3][4][5][6][7][8]


People appearing in interviews include:


When the Levees Broke has received a Peabody Award as well as a Image Award for Outstanding Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special. At the 63rd Venice International Film Festival the film was awarded the Horizons award in the documentary category. The film was also selected as part of the 2008 Whitney Biennial.

See also


External links



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