English department holds virtual showing of documentary “When the Levees Broke”

James Hess and Annabelle Nickoll

The Upper School English department screened Spike Lee’s film documentary “When the Levees Broke” on Zoom May 8.

The event served as contextual material for Jesmyn Ward’s novel “Salvage the Bones,” a reading material of the school’s English II curriculum. Both works pertain to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and its effects on impoverished African American communities.

Co-chair of the Harvard-Westlake Parents’ Association and Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee Stacy Messaye (Matthew ’22, Hannah ’23) opened the event by reminding the audience to consider the value of empathy.

“We have to understand the shoes that we wear, and how we can move past them,” Messaye said. “It is there, in the learning and understanding of personal perspectives, where we will begin to make important changes.”

Independent writer and former Upper School English teacher Tyler Sage discussed Spike Lee’s impact as a filmmaker. Sage said that through films like “Do the Right Thing” and “BlackKkKlansman,” Lee has broken into a predominantly white area of the media.

“He has become a presence in American cinema, and is really the first Black filmmaker to make it to the top of the Hollywood mountain,” Sage said. “You could argue that he was the first person to change that fundamental lack of diversity, at least in terms of race.”

The English department played one of four acts from “When the Levees Broke.” Documented by Lee in New Orleans through the course of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the film features graphic videos and testimonials from survivors of the tragedy. Black Leadership Awareness and Culture Club (BLACC) leader Cameron Herring ’20, who participated in discussion after the screening, said she was struck by how suddenly families’ lives were uprooted.

“In thinking about college and what it means to relocate, and how much finances go behind that, I’ve realized how huge of a burden this would be,” Herring said. “And on top of that, having to leave your home and just hope it’s there when you get back is inconceivable to me.”

Similar to “When the Levees Broke,” Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones follows the story of an African American family in Mississippi through its survival of Hurricane Katrina. The novel won the National Book Award for fiction in 2011, and has been praised for its vivid and haunting descriptions. Jaden Bobb ’23 said the screening helped him understand the gravity of the hurricane and the public’s response.

“The movie was great for me to see because I had heard people refer to Hurricane Katrina but had never understood the country’s failure to provide resources to those who needed it most,” Bobb said. “It was also hard since many people were struggling to survive as the government dismissed them.”

Upper School Dean Nia Kilgore encouraged students to use their future careers to improve the lives of others.

“You will be going into areas where you can affect change, and make sure Katrina doesn’t happen again,” Kilgore said. “My hope for students is that it doesn’t end here and that you create a legacy in leadership in whatever you pursue.”

Bobb said the time he spent at the screening worthwhile and that there should be more opportunities for students to connect culture with education.

“Overall it was an enlightening experience, and Harvard-Westlake as a community should strive to host more events like it,” Bobb said.