Spike Lee’s When The Levees Broke was a tremendous piece of documentary filmmaking, preserving the timeline and the images of what happened to New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit and—more importantly—what happened afterward, when the victims were made to feel powerless and in some cases even suspect. Lee’s greatest achievement in When The Levees Broke was to let people talk, to tell their stories and air their grievances, even if they just wanted to spout conspiracy theories.
The Levees sequel, If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise, is more scattered than its predecessor. Lee and his crew return to New Orleans to catch up with the residents and see how the rebuilding process is going, and they take several detours along the way: to cover the Super Bowl champion Saints, to revisit the mistakes made by the Bush administration, to talk about the response to the devastation in Haiti, and to provide on-the-ground reporting of the BP oil spill. The structure is loose, and Lee’s not always straightforward about where he’s headed with this accumulation of anecdotes, rants, and corrections to the historical record. But Creek has the same value as Levees in that it provides a sympathetic ear to people who’ve been trying to find anyone who’ll listen.
And like Levees, Creek is remarkable for how its stories build in power as they play on, in large part because Lee’s team makes an effort to interview as many pertinent people as they can, even if that means giving those that some New Orleanians identity as “the problem” a chance to defend themselves. If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise may even make some viewers sympathize for the first time with former FEMA director Michael Brown, who reveals how the Bush administration shifted from defending him to scapegoating him—both unduly—once they realized that he was a convenient target for public ire. And the film evokes a mix of pity, frustration and rage when it describes the grassroots efforts to repair and revive New Orleans’ public schools, public hospitals and public housing, while the government and business leaders drag their feet, trying to figure out a way to rebuild New Orleans as a place for the monied, not the poor.
What’s most impressive about Creek—again, like Levees—is that while Lee clearly blames the government for underserving New Orleans, and clearly believes racism has been a major factor in the city’s enduring woes, he provides an open enough forum that someone could watch all four hours of Creek and come to the opposite conclusion. When Lee shows what Brad Pitt has done to help build safe, affordable new homes in the Lower 9th, or when he shows the citizens of New Orleans volunteering to renovate an elementary school, it’s almost an argument that private action is preferable to government action—especially given what the documentary reveals about widespread government corruption and incompetence. Similarly, while many of the interviewees in Creek complain about the delayed government response to their problems, it’s also clear from the film that haste isn’t necessarily preferable, since it’s haste that’s to blame for unsanitary FEMA trailers and shoddy new public housing projects. And Lee doesn’t shy away from stories of black-on-black crime and people slowly killing themselves through drugs and poor diet—problems where personal choice plays a role, alongside the insidious cycles of poverty.
Ultimately, If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise is a documentary about the myriad ways that the poor stay poor, and the way our society marginalizes them by reducing them to numbers on a balance sheet instead of people with their own unique stories to tell and their own network of friends and family who love and rely on them. The film culminates with a long passage dedicated to the BP incident, which happened while Creek was in production. While the media has largely been reporting this story as a political one, tallying up how it hurts and/or helps the pro-oil cause of the Republicans and the pro-regulation cause of the Democrats, Lee shows the people who have been directly affected by the spill already, and effectively accuses all concerned—the media, the government and BP—of lying about the magnitude and long-term impact of the damage. Again, Lee peels the layers away, taking a big-picture story and zooming in on the people who usually get pushed to the edge of the frame.
-Though I appreciate the “not just numbers on a balance sheet” approach that I noted above, I confess that I’m something of a number-hound, and wish that when people discussed the crime or poverty statistics in Creek that they provided more context: comparisons with other cities, other countries, whatnot. Not to go off on a political tangent, but one of my biggest personal complaints with news coverage today is that it’s more anecdotal than based on hard data, which leads to a lot of trumped-up outrage on the part of the political parties and their respective constituents. I prefer data supported by anecdotes, not the other way around.
-That said, Creek’s anecdotes do angry up the blood: stories of the police pepper-spraying citizens shut out of a public hearing on housing; stories of plans to demolish the historic Charity Hospital; stories of Mississippi getting more federal funds than Louisiana because it had Republican leadership (and stories of Mississippi spending that money on casinos rather than schools and libraries).
-I like that Spike Lee doesn’t leave his style at home when he makes documentaries. Some of the strongest sequences in Creek are purely visual: montages of everyday life and/or terrible destruction, interspersed with portrait-style close-ups and set to mournful Terence Blanchard music.
-Lee also retains his interest in eccentric human behavior. It may have jack-all to do with the political message of this documentary, but he finds the time to let one interviewee talk about how he fell in love with his current wife the first time he saw her bare feet.
-Of all the stories about New Orleans’ failing institutions, the one that hit home the most for me was one about a woman who was displaced from New Orleans to Texas by Katrina and would like to move back but can’t, because her autistic son is getting good social services where she is now, as opposed to the complete absence of services back home. I happen to live in a place where we’ve good help for own autistic child; I can’t imagine what it must be like for parents who have little to no help from their communities.
-Part One of If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise airs tonight on HBO at 9:00 p.m. eastern. Part Two airs tomorrow at the same time. Both parts will be re-run in the weeks to come.