Spike Lee's exploration of the physical, economic, political and social effects of Hurricane Katrina which hit the Gulf Coast, USA in 2005 and devastated the famous city of New Orleans is, in my opinion, the best documentary ever made, certainly the most affecting, powerfull and compelling that I have ever seen.
Lee allows the story to unfold in a simple and linear fashion, allowing his mixture of 'talking heads' to tell the story whilst news footage shows us what happened. He uses a variety of voices - male, female, young, old, black, white, working class, middle class, famous, unknown, articulate, blunt, professional, layman - to great dramatic and narrative effect and makes it plain:- Hurricane Katrina effected everybody in New Orleans, nobody escaped its wrath.
The cast of characters include the Mayor Of New Orleans, the Governor of Louisiana, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and, of course, the Bush White House, who unsurprisingly deigned it unneccessary to add their voice to the collective featured in the film. None of the major public figures involved emerge with much credit. Mayor Nagin is a man in deep and choppy waters (literally and figuratively speaking,) without a paddle and without a clue. Governor Blanco seems more concerned with passing the buck. FEMA is swamped in bureaucracy. Whilst George 'Dubya' is on holiday.
The central motif of the film is that Katrina was not just merely a natural disaster but also a man-made one. New Orleans had suffered hurricanes before, as recently as 1965 when Hurricane Betsy hit, it was therefore no secret to anyone that it would be at risk again. No more than it is a secret that California is at risk to earthquakes or New York to terrorism. Metereological experts had forewarned those in power of the necessity for action but nothing was done. The Levees were not fit for purpose and were not even fully built when Katrina hit some forty years after Betsy.
The film evoked memories of reading Cecil Woodham-Smith's magisterial 'The Great Hunger' about the Irish Potato famine in the 19th Century. In the book it is explained that the Potato Blight triggered the disaster but it was the attitudes of the English towards the Irish peasants and the slavish adherance to the principles of laissez-faire capitalism which served to perpetuate the famine, worsen the human scale of the tragedy and allowed the amount of deaths to swell into millions.
In similiar fashion it was clear that the Bush White House did not see the inhabitants of New Orleans as socially important - mainly black and poor - and subsequently action that needed to be taken at a Federal level immediately in the aftermath of Katrina was not taken and left one of the most famous and culturally significant cities in the United States of America to drown in its own filth. Katrina did not just wash away people's homes it also washed away the pretence that 'Compassionate Conservatism' existed as anything more than just a hallow electioneering slogan.
Documentary-making at it's best is simply storytelling and that is what Lee does through a range of voices in a way that is even-handed and lacking in Michael Moore-style polemical flourish and is all the more powerfull for it. To quote New Orlean native James Lee Burke "That was a storm with a greater impact than the bomb blast that struck Hiroshima and peeled the face off Southern Louisiana. One of the most beautiful cities in the Western Hemisphere was killed three times, and not just by the forces of nature."