When the Levees Broke: Inconvenient Truths and the Limits of National Identity
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When the Levees Broke:
Inconvenient Truths and the Limits of National Identity

Today, the people living along the Gulf Coast continue their daily struggle to rebuild, revive, and renew in these United States of America

(opening dedication of When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts)

Introduction

Spike Lee's epic documentary testifies to the inconvenient truths that enabled the social disaster so spectacularly showcased by Hurricane Katrina. Where Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth (2006) highlights the often willful blindness with which the catastrophic threat of climate change has been greeted, Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) points to a complicated web of social, political, and environmental blind spots that led to Katrina and its catastrophic aftermath. These truths, which hovered just beneath national consciousness, constituted a disaster of racial and economic disenfranchisement that was exposed and further exacerbated by the levee breaches in August 2005. What apparently began as only a natural disaster soon revealed itself as something all-too-human, disproportionately striking those already existing on the edges of survival. Not only was it that the predominantly black poor who were abandoned to the drowning city, but it is also this same group that has faced the most obstacles to returning and reclaiming their homes. Katrina dispelled the myth that disasters are social levelers, and vividly highlighted the role played by national governments in selecting the constituencies it chooses to protect. Lee's documentary thus raises inconvenient truths not only about race and class in America, but also about the limits of national identity in an increasingly divided and unequal world. Climate change, which is one of the inconvenient truths at the heart of Lee's film, vividly attests to the arbitrariness of national borders and the protections that these borders may or may not afford.

The film points to these limits by featuring a frequent insistence on the part of many of its protagonists that the hurricane victims were not, and should not be called, "refugees." Yet there is a sense in which these voices protest too much, and the film leaves the viewer with the lingering sense that particularly black America remains at the outer boundary of American national identity. To borrow a phrase from Yvonne Haddad, who uses it to describe the dilemmas of America's Muslim and Arab populations in a post-9/11 environment, Lee's film fails to dispel the notion that African Americans, and perhaps especially those residing in Louisiana's Crescent City, are "not quite American."

"These United States of America," referred to in the film's dedication, cited in the epigraph, and signaling a subtle yet powerful transformation of the definite article from single to plural, thus emerge in Lee's film as a deeply troubled site in which the relative protections of national citizenship remain elusive for all but a privileged few. The long history of African American disenfranchisement—placing a large proportion on the rough end of both race and class prejudice—means that America's black population plays a central role in illuminating the national drama [End Page 17] of inclusion and exclusion. This essay explores these dynamics by following the conversations in When the Levees Broke that, almost in spite of themselves, pit the terms "black" and "American" against one another. What emerges, however, is far more complex than the articulation of a simple black/white binary. As has been much noted, poor whites share in the post-hurricane neglect experienced by predominantly black people. Moreover, both Louisiana's French and Spanish pasts endow the state's race relations with a very different history from that of the rest of the United States. New Orleans, in particular, remains deeply marked both by European and West African culture. Louisiana's own persistent "foreignness" within the U. S. is underscored in the film on the part of one commentator who remarks that the state functions as a kind of colony of the federal government. This sense is compounded by the logic of another testimony from a resident of the state, who hesitantly draws parallels between the military "occupation" of Louisiana and the U. S.-led...