2006’s must-see documentary

Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke is one of those films a lot of people know they ought to have seen, but didn’t necessarily get around to it when it first aired on HBO. Now coming out on DVD (12/19), this devastating chronicle of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina serves as the essential, definitive documentation of an American tragedy.

What makes this four-hour, four-part retelling so powerful is that it puts the random images of suffering (and government ineptitude) we all saw on the TV news in context; through eyewitness testimony, and in forensic detail, we learn exactly what happened and why.

Some 100 interviewees made their way into the final cut of this elegiac film: an eloquent, angry, rattled range of New Orleans residents; local and national politicians and activists (Governor Kathleen Blanco, Mayor Ray Nagin, the inevitable Reverend Al Sharpton); and cultural figures (such as Wynton Marsalis).

Unlike most of the media, which lost interest in the city after the Superdome cleared out, Lee and his crew descended on New Orleans three months after Katrina. The result is a documentary with a particularly clear-eyed, long-view perspective on what America really lost when this city went under.

“>WATCH a clip from When the Levees Broke

“>BUY When the Levees Broke

“>RENT When the Levees Broke on Netflix

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2006’s must-see documentary