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Katrina survivors find ‘cleansing’ in Lee film

The premiere of Spike Lee's 'When the Levees Broke' generated tears and laughter for an audience of Hurricane Katrina survivors in New Orleans.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Candid, and at times graphic, Spike Lee’s documentary on Hurricane Katrina captured people’s desperation and their ability to keep smiling no matter what.

“There are some jokes and humor,” Lee told the thousands of people gathered inside the New Orleans Arena for the premiere of the documentary “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” on Wednesday night. “So feel free to laugh.”

The occasional moments of comic relief were welcomed amid the footage that otherwise ranged from horrific and heart wrenching to emotionally tender.

Tears streamed down the face of Gerry Carter, of New Orleans, who lived near Mid-City and now lives in Baton Rouge. She had to take a break midway through the screening.

“The dead bodies, that was hard to see,” she said, her eyes red and swollen. “And to see the children, what they must have felt being separated from their parents, their families.”

Several in the audience wiped away tears and sniffles could be heard resonating throughout the arena as one man described his mother’s death in her wheelchair outside the convention center.

In all, the audience was quite interactive: Laughing at jokes about federally-issued trailers and overall predicaments including battles with insurance companies, and loudly booing and hissing when government leaders like President Bush and Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff appeared on screen.

The film will air in two two-hour segments on HBO on Monday and Tuesday nights. It also will be shown in its entirety Aug. 29, the one-year anniversary of Katrina’s landfall.

Lee has been criticized by some who got an early look at the film for not including more representation from Mississippi Gulf Coast residents and New Orleans’ white population. Lee said there is diversity in the film, but “because of the historical significance ... we chose to focus here. That was my vision. I wanted to concentrate on New Orleans.”

‘Still in dire straits’In New Orleans, much of the city’s poor black population did not evacuate ahead of the storm and had to be rescued later. Many were stranded for days at the Superdome and convention center. The film includes footage from those facilities.

Lee has not tried to hide his anger about New Orleans’ devastation by levee breaks and the government’s slow response. He has even gone so far as to call the events “criminal.”

“The devastation here was not brought on solely by Mother Nature,” Lee said. “People in charge were not doing their job.”

If nothing else, Lee said he hopes his documentary will bring attention back to the region, where it’s needed. “People are still in dire straits. We want to put the focus back here,” he said.

One evacuee, back in the New Orleans area to find a home after evacuating to Cleveland, said she felt “spiritually drawn” to attend the screening.

“I wanted to come to this so bad. I needed to come,” said Mildred White, 59. “I feel like I haven’t had a good cleansing. I feel like this will be cleansing for me, like going to a funeral.”