When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

TV review by
Heather Boerner, Common Sense Media
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts TV Poster Image
Spike Lee's masterful and disturbing Katrina docu.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

People act heroically to save themselves and others in the face of a catastrophic storm and the inept government response. Elected officials act to save their political careers instead of the lives of people stuck and suffering in New Orleans.


Considerable graphic imagery of the fatal effects of the hurricane and levee breaks. People talk about watching others drown. There are numerous images of dead, bloated, and discolored corpses. An image of a woman hanging. A man talks about his mother dying waiting for buses to arrive at the Superdome, and images of dead people in wheelchairs. Talk of men who killed themselves in dispair after the hurricane. The documentary shows the funeral of a 5-year-old killed in the floods following the levee break. Aside from actual violence and death, there are numerous pictures of adults and children in dispair, crying and scared, as well as enraged. People attempting to escape the flood waters are prevented from crossing a bridge, using guns. A man describes being shot with buckshot. The New Orleans Police Chief talks about babies being raped during the fall-out of the flood.


One woman jokes that she'll have to "give someone a blow job" to get a FEMA trailer.


Considerable salty language, including "hell," "s--t," various permutations of "f--k," "ass," "godd-mn," "bulls--t." A man tells Vice President Dick Cheney to "go f--k himself" and a woman says "President Bush can kiss my ass." A t-shirt says, "Run, motherf--er, run."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A woman drinks a beer as she talks about her struggle through the flood and with the flood relief effort.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that When the Levees Broke: A Requieum in Four Acts is a documentary about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath that is understandably disturbing. There are multiple images of dead, decaying bodies, descriptions of death and suffering during and after the flood, as well as the deaths of children and the pain and anger at the government's response to the crisis. People are angry, grieving, and shell-shocked as the documentary goes on, and those strong emotions, as well as director Spike Lee's meticulous description of how government officials responded, are likely to be too intense for sensitive viewers.

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What's the story?

Director Spike Lee's documentary, WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE: A REQUIEM IN FOUR ACTS, is a harrowing, vivid documentation of the lives of the people affected by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Over four hours, the film uses home video footage, news broadcasts, and interviews with regular people, actors, politicians, and musicians to piece together a living history of the hurricane and the flood caused by inadequate levees and poor government response. There's the man who struggled to get his elderly mom to the Superdome only to watch her die in the heat waiting for buses to arrive. There's the mother who must bury her little girl. There's the police chief, so overwhelmed with his own grief and fear about the safety of his own daughter, who tells people that babies are being raped in the Superdome. Because this is a Spike Lee joint, this documentary is also incendiary, sharing the theories of the city's largely African-American population that the government destroyed the levees in the poor black neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward to save richer neighborhoods. It also shares the city's rich African-American history and explains how traumatic it is for African Americans to be torn from their home after generations of their families were ripped apart by slavery.

Is it any good?

Lee has created a masterpiece of journalism. When the Levees Broke is an undeniably American story that asks and begs: Why was the response so shamefully slow? At one point, police chief Eddie Compass, struck by the suffering around him days after the flood, says, "I need someone to get me a cruise boat or some type of boat, a cruise ship or some type of ship that I can put my people on, that I can give my people some comfort, so I can help my people."

In answering the question of the year, Lee spares no one, up to and including the president, New Orleans' mayor, and a culture that abandoned the poor, black people of New Orleans long before Katrina hit. This is challenging viewing, but it's also hopeful, and full of the power of the human spirit, laced with some wonderful musical performances and a deep faith in the power of the people of New Orleans to come back.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about some of the ideas presented in When the Levees Broke: A Requieum in Four Acts. Do you believe, as some of the residents Lee interviewed do, that the government could have dynamited the levees to save richer neighborhoods? How do you think elected officials fared during the crisis?

  • What role do you think race played in the way the levee breaches were handled?

  • The documentary also offers a good opportunity to talk to teens about altruism, helping others, and how to recover from traumatic events.

TV details

  • Premiere date: August 21, 2006
  • Network: HBO
  • Genre: Drama
  • TV rating: TV-MA
  • Available on: DVD, Streaming
  • Last updated: September 15, 2021

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