If my 20 best list for the past year could have been based purely on artistic criteria rather than on packaging and marketing categories, Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts—which premiered on HBO on two consecutive nights in late August, a year after the tragedy in New Orleans—would have belonged somewhere near the top. Although I missed the third act at the time, I’ve recently watched the whole thing on the recently released three-disc DVD box set—which adds a fifth act called “Next Movement” as well as a slide show of photographs called “Water Is Rising,” accompanied (like the documentary itself) by a Terence Blanchard jazz score—and the experience as a whole is so powerful that I’m tempted to call this over four-hour documentary Lee’s masterpiece to date. For its remarkable cast of characters, its comprehensive and even epic treatment of a major catastrophe in all its multidimensional aspects, for its political and ethical clarity (as well as its focused and wholly justifiable anger), and above all, for its soul, it shows a maturity and balance that may be unparalleled in Lee’s work. In fact, I’m hard put to think of another Lee work as beautifully shaped and grandly conceived as this astonishing act of witness, including Do the Right Thing. And as a native of Alabama, I was especially impressed by the way Lee’s New York background in no way blinds him to the nuances and diversity of southern culture—something that I feel hampered much of the otherwise eloquent writing of James Baldwin. I suspect Lee’s background as the son of a jazz musician and composer undoubtedly helped.
Furthermore, his DVD commentary, based on the portions I’ve sampled so far, qualifies as a genuine enhancement—almost as if one were sitting next to Lee while watching the documentary and getting clued into Bush’s simultaneous cultivation of New Orleans’ mayor and freezing out of Louisiana’s governor and updated on the spirited Hiatt employee who apparently lost his job because of the forthrightness of his interviews. The fifth act, whether or not it consists of outtakes, is as fascinating as the rest—especially a detailed account by Sean Penn and others about the adventures of their own rescue team.