As much as When the Levees Broke is a experience ripe with intimate engagement with its cast of suffering interviewees, it is also quite broadly a fully-realized, highly dense indictment of the Bush administration’s slow-as-molasses response to the tragedy. The film makes no secret of its intentions–the compilation of responses ranging from saddened to frustrated and outright venomous or the highlighting of critically shameful moments like Barbara Bush’s comments or the infamous “Heck of a job, Brownie” soundbite all form a blistering convergence. It is clear that Lee’s intentions for this film were to be mobilize some kind of public gaze onto America’s great shame and thus engender some kind of constructive dialogue, social response, or criticism of the government and those responsible. However, the indictment of the government and media leaves out a critical piece of the puzzle of this tragedy–the American people themselves. While Lee directly implicates how the slow response and disregard for the people of New Orleans was because of the city’s racial makeup and lower-class elements, Lee is far less quick to accuse the American people of their lack of regard. However, upon re-examining the film I feel that one particular scene subtly gestures at the country’s unknowing or indirect complicity in the government’s abandonment of New Orleans during crisis.
The scene in question is the rather jarring moment when–amidst the collective recollection of immediate reactions to the flood casualties–an old man and his wife recount their memory of first hearing about the storm: during their trip to Pompeii. The man’s drawn-out, distant recollection of his vacation spot, limousine ride, and the overall specificity of the details of luxury from his trip feel incredibly out of place against the gravity of this sequence. A little research revealed some distinct irony: this man is Charles McHale; a New Orleans attorney and a key figure in the civil rights movement. I was very confused by this revelation–why would Lee have taken the testimony of such a commendable figure and place it in a context that portrays him as so wealthy and out of touch?
I believe that Lee contextualized this particular footage in order to imply the American people’s lack of action or attention to New Orleans. McHale’s narrative ultimately builds to a comparison between the preserved, ancient corpses in Pompeii to the corpses in the streets of New Orleans; a juxtaposition that Lee realizes visually immediately after:
The effect of McHale’s narrative is that he comes off in that instance as more of a tourist of Italy than as a resident of New Orleans. I believe that this is quite intentional on the part of Lee. By juxtaposing Pompeii and New Orleans, Lee draws parallels not just between two sites of disaster, but also between two popular destinations for tourism–in the case of New Orleans, this extends to recall the United State’s problematic history of treatment towards New Orleans as we discussed it in class. If we consider this with Lee’s negative portrayal of the media throughout the film, it is as though he is reflecting onto the viewers how the United States’ tourism of New Orleans extended through this tragedy. Through the media’s perpetually twisted portrayal of the events, the American people had constant, 24-7 access to the tragedy, yet it failed to mobilize the proper scale of response–our relationship to the tragedy ultimately amounted to little more than a kind of tourism. We discussed in class how Lee’s actual voice is largely absent, but his personal biases and perspective are very much at play beneath the surface–this is just my interpretation of one such instance.