Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? Historical metaphors and mythical realities in Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke


  • Nicholas Gebhardt Birmingham City University



Hurricane Katrina, jazz, New Orleans, Spike Lee


In many of Spike Lee’s films, jazz is a medium of cultural transformation, enabling African-Americans and other ethnic and racial groups to understand the cultural legacies on which their collective identity depends, by reconciling them for better or worse to their common history as citizens of the United States. The recurrent theme in all of Lee’s films is the cultural consequences of excluding African-Americans from that history, especially given their enormous influence on it, and the losses and distortions that necessary follow from such exclusions. In When the Levees Broke (2006), his four-part television documentary about the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, Lee transforms this theme into a powerful story of individual and collective cultural rebirth through jazz. In this essay, I want to offer some initial thoughts on how Lee connects this story with the dominant historical metaphors and mythical realities of nationhood in the United States, especially those that identify jazz with the themes of displacement, homelessness and homecoming.

Author Biography

  • Nicholas Gebhardt, Birmingham City University

    Nicholas Gebhardt is a Senior Lecturer in Popular Music and Media Studies at Birmingham City University. He is a member of the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research and co-edits the book series Transnational Studies in Jazz for Routledge USA


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How to Cite

Gebhardt, N. (2013). Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? Historical metaphors and mythical realities in Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke. Jazz Research Journal, 6(2), 113-128.