I remember my mom saying you never know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes. This documentary achieves this goal - we walk a mile in the shoes of those who live in New Orleans just before, during and after hurricane Katrina. Particular attention is paid to the shameful five days after Katrina when our government did nothing to help the people of New Orleans who were stranded with no electricity, food or water.
I learned so much from this documentary about the spirit of New Orleans, the people that make up this unique place and how they were failed by local, state and federal government. It is astonishing. Spike Lee showed intense respect for the people of New Orleans, he did what he does best in the background completely hidden. He let the people speak for themselves and he made the correct choices. He let people of all income levels, races, and walks of life speak about what happened in intensely personal ways through the lenses of their own experiences. More importantly he let them speak in their own words including profanity, frustration, racial slurs, and raw emotion as well as through prayer, song and music and thoughtful criticism.
He also exposed the shameful inaction of the federal government. There were interviews with New Orleans Mayor Ray Naggin, the Louisiana Governor, Lt. Governor, former mayor, Al Sharpton, Harry Belafonte and many other local politicians. The most surprising and eloquent critique came from Al Sharpton. Both his media critique which was thoughtful and fair (referring to American citizens who were displaced by Katrina as refugees) and his reaction to Barbara Bush's comments about how the hurricane was better for the poor people who relocated to Texas (not a direct quote - what she said was much more insensitive) while she was being interviewed in the Houston arena in front of the New Orleans natives.
He includes famous and notable people including, Sean Penn, Michael Eric Dyson, Harry Belefonte and others sharing their insights but he never let's the expert, famous or intellectual voices take over; he never forgets the focus is the people of New Orleans. In this documentary you can feel his deep respect for them.
He gives a picture of their lives before, a history of New Orleans culture and what makes it unique and he uses the notable and learned effectively to set the background and add to the viewers understanding of what makes New Orleans special. The expert voices add to our picture of the issues related to Katrina but are not the primary source of information about the people of New Orleans and what happened during and after Katrina. New Orleans natives are the source of information about the experience of Hurricane Katrina and Spike Lee works hard to ensure that they are the focus. The experts are like a group of spices they add flavor but don't change the substance of the dish; he uses experts to shed light on the story but never supplants or marginalizes the people who lived it in the discussion of Katrina and its lasting impact. This is part of what makes this documentary so powerful is you hear from people who lived it and are still living it.
He also uses actual news footage and interviews members of the media who covered Katrina including Soledad O'Brien and the radio talk show host who did the now famous interview with Mayor Naggin which is credited with embarrassing and shaming the Bush Administration into action; Lee chooses not to include the entire interview but it is available online.
Spike Lee also explores the power of the institution of the Presidency and how important it can be when wielded properly on behalf of citizens in need. It matters what the President and members of his administration were doing while people suffered and died for five days after the hurricane. President Bush on vacation, VP Cheney was out fishing, Condoleezza Rice buying shoes and seeing Spam-A lot while people suffered and died. Lee finds a contrasting example in President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson, another Texan, went to the Gulf region after a hurricane in the middle of the night with a flashlight to tell the people that he was their President and to lend aid and comfort right away; he put citizens above ego and he was there.
Spike Lee did what many documentary makers struggle to do, he found a way to let viewers like me share in the experience depicted on film. While I watched this documentary I walked in their shoes and I will be forever changed by this glimpse into their lives.