Media representations of Environmental Disasters

This week we watched, When the Levees Broke, Act 1, by Spike Lee. Today we will look at two topics

  • Brief background on link between hurricanes and climate change
  • Environmental Equality and Justice – climate change is not just a future worry, but impacting some people already, who?


hurrican spawning diagram

image from union of concerned scientists website

  • Hurricanes and Climate Change
    • To form hurricanes need:
      • high humidity
      • relatively constant winds at different altitudes
      • surface ocean temperatures exceeding ~79°F (26°C)
    • power and intensity (although not number) growing since 1970s
    • since 1970s tropical surface ocean temperatures have risen on average 0.5°C
    • since 1980s tropical surface ocean temperatures in the North Atlantic basin have risen ~0.7°C
    • PLUS warming oceans cause higher sea levels, so water starts at higher point
    • Largest Atlantic Hurricane on record = Sandy in 2012
    • “frequency of intense hurricanes in the North Atlantic is projected to rise.”
  • Weather versus Climate
    • weather is short-term conditions
    • climate is average weather over time and space: what is expected. i.e.
      • snow here in winter
      • monsoon, “rainy season” in India from July to September
      • very hot weather in Phoenix in summer
    • climate change is when the averages start to change
      • Buffalo used to have much more snow in winter!
    • climate models suggest that global warming will lead to more extreme weather events

graph of katrina death toll

  • Who is made vulnerable?
    • ~ 1/3 of the US population (more than 100 million people) lives in coastal areas
    • countries most at risk from sea-level rise
    • islands  most at risk from sea-level rise
  • “When the Levees Broke” by Spike Lee suggests that in US some are more vulnerable than others
    • African Americans, poor, sick, elderly – disproportionately affected by the Katrina 2005 disaster
      • ~1,245 people died, estimates go as high as 1,800
      • rich couple from New Orlean hear about disaster after viewing Pompeii ruins in Italy!
      • Klein chapter, argues that same demographic also suffered in Hurricane Sandy in 2012
    • FEMA and other government organizations were not ready
    • Planning and hurrican simulations showed that people without cars would find it hard to evacuate and that the flood defenses were not strong enough, Hurricane Pam simulation min ~29
    • ” … told very clearly what they’d be facing, that it’d be certain and absolute danger, it sort of saps some of my empathy for them – you play with fire, you get burned.  Though I’m still not certain how I feel about that, I’m still thinking about it…”
    • Film makes a strong connection between flood defenses and $ government is willing to spend
      • link to political ideology, public spending seen as big government and does not maintain adequate emergency infrastructure
      • note difference as government bails out banks – too big to fail –

When the Levees Broke: Documentary in 4 Acts by Spike Lee

  • Spike Lee – African Amercian Movie Director ( Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992) etc) – one of several influential African American Directors of 80s-90s, making and distributing major motion pictures
  • Made Different Choices than Josh Fox
    • does not include self
    • cinematography,
      • lots of found footage, very different styles, but what he shoots is steady, closer to traditional norms of documentary
      • lots of talking heads (local people, politicians, musicians, news media)
    • voice of authority? very interesting handling
      • no voice over
      • voices competing, contradicting, each speaker from own point of view – so also situated – nobody has THE SIMPLE TRUTH
      • BUT – Lee has chosen and juxtaposed these voices to make his points, uses the different people tactically – thoughts how? (~min 56:40)
      • NOTE: people in authority (Blanco, Nagin) do speak to Lee (didn’t speak to Fox)
    • organization
      • circling (like the hurricane?)
      • stories and themes wind in and out
      • Lee makes connections (like Naomi Klein)
      • not a simple story
      • layers and layers accumulate
    • four acts – four hours long – why such a choice?
      • act 1 – the storm and those caught in it, people, politicians, victims, rescuers – the Super Dome – small mention of looting – African Americans not treated as citizens – evident lack of co-ordination of rescue efforts
      • act 2 – continuing distress of those caught, Super Dome etc. evacuation, responsibilities and activities of government – local parishes (preventing people escaping), mayor, governor, president/federal response
      • act 3- aftermath, where people went, devastation, army corp story starts
      • act 4 – aftermath, who is still missing/found dead 6 months later, army corps story continues, insurance not paying up, start of story of gentrification of New Orleans
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: Still

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Still

  • African Americans and cinema – potted history below, parallels actual history
    • first representations of African Amercians very stereotypical (30s, 40s)
    • then rejection of stereotypes, focus on middle class integration i.e. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with Sidney Poitier (19676), no difference black or white
    • then embrace and complication of “stereotypes” via Blaxploitation of early 70s (made originally for an African American audience) to directors like Spike Lee,  John Singleton (Boyz in the Hood 1991), celebration of differences
  • Audience and meaning in media
    • media refers to norms, cultural codes and expectations
    • audiences interpret the images, speech acts, texts, diagrams etc. based on their own expectations and world views.
    • imagine this film being watched by an African American audience; Dick Cheney, George Bush and Barbara Bush; a group of school children in Sweden, in Soweto
      • their own lives, their history and experiences would cause them to not only react to the film differently but to interpret the film differently

Watch beginning of second act – > 1:08:47

  • Spike Lee deals very boldly with stereotypes of African Americans in all his films and in this film we see:
    • images reminiscent of third world/refugee misery – images that Americans expect to consume on TV not to live (~min 38:19)
      • solidarity with war torn others
      • also makes the point that African Americans were not treated as US citizens
      • anger at being labelled refugees which has connotations of people without a country
    • African Americans as helpless victims – reference back to the helplessness of slavery days, a reference that is extremely painful, (several of the talking heads make connection explicit) – but Lee shows that  the white people left in this situation were co-equal victims, it was not something that anyone could rise above
    • African Americans as looters/criminals  – Lee includes footage unapologetically – but returns swiftly to the story of the misery of those surviving in New Orleans: on rooftops, wading through filthy water, in the Super Dome (~min 61)
    • These stories are contrasted with stories of people taking care of family members; of trying to help others; and of claiming their human rights/rights as citizens – to have their government step in in a disaster. (~min 48)
    • AND contrasted with police in surrounding parishes refusing to let people escape the disaster, their fears stoked by news reports of chaos, of stolen guns, of babies raped (~min 67)
  • VERY WORTH WATCHING all four acts! available on youtube.