Spike Lee Returns with a New Documentary About New Orleans (and the Oil-Soaked Gulf) Five Years After Katrina on HBO
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(The trailer for the HBO documentary film, If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise.)
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(From the New Orleans premiere of Spike Lee’s Katrina sequel, If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise. Witness Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc and actor Wendell Pierce, who are now featured in the HBO series, Treme, appear.)
(This is a much longer interview than the two-minute CNN documentary, although the quality is not as good. Lee talks about his experience revamping the New Orleans documentary to include the BP spill.)
I knew Spike was returning to show how New Orleans and the Gulf Coast has fared five years after Katrina, and I hadn’t seen or heard anything until I saw a short interview on NBC News Wednesday night.
Once again, Spike has done the region a great honor in revising his film just about at the last moment, and including the voices of those who’ve lost their livelihoods and communities in the subsequent BP eco-tragedy. And it’s going to play out in the last hour of the film, without the kind of media intervention and filtering that tends to Simonize BP’s piecemeal efforts.
Spike screened the film, If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise in New Orleans Tuesday evening, which was attended by the city’s big wigs like Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Representative Joseph Cao (who was elected in the stead of William “Cold Cash” Jefferson) as well as the little people of New Orleans. Hundreds attended the screening at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre, compared to the thousands who flocked to his first Katrina documentary in 2006.
However, he’s been doing publicity for a few weeks or so in the step-up to the film’s debut on HBO next Monday and Tuesday, August 23 and 24, in time for the fifth anniversary. Naturally, as on all other occasions, Spike’s been on point and as controversial as ever; defying his increasingly graying goatee. He’s been a public figure and lightning rod as well as a creative force now for nearly 30 years.
He’s gone back to interview some of the people who were interviewed in his previous documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Like the other film, If God is Willing… is in four parts. Some who are now living in other states have moved on to somewhat better lives, while others are homesick for New Orleans. Those who managed to return and stay in the city are barely hanging on, but they can’t afford to and don’t want to leave the neighborhoods and the way of life that they’ve been used to all their lives.
Yet the film’s ambition is not simply to show individual struggle but to set events in New Orleans in a historical context.
One section makes a comparison between New Orleans and Haiti after its January earthquake, following actor Sean Penn’s philanthropic efforts on the Gulf coast and in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.
“If God is Willing” also focuses on three recent events to pinpoint how the city has moved on: the election of mayor Mitch Landrieu, the Saints victory at the 2010 National Football League Super Bowl and, most of all, the Gulf oil spill.
Lee began filming in February and wrapped production before April 20, when an explosion and fire on [the BP Deepwater Horizon] rig in the Gulf of Mexico triggered the worst oil spill in U.S. history. He said the spill forced him to “reconfigure everything”.
New Orleans is the home to many companies involved in offshore drilling and the Gulf coast south of the city is home to a multi-billion dollar seafood industry.
“People are still angry (about the storm). But the anger (over the spill) is directed mostly at BP. People are furious at BP,” Lee said.
They’ll continue to be furious at BP, just as Bush, Cheney and Brown and even Condoleezza Rice get no respect down there five years after the fact.
If government failed the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, then BP, representative of big corporations, seem to have completed the job by failing the inhabitants of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, many of whom are dependent on the water for their living, whether by fishing or the tourist trade. All of these people are/were involved in small businesses, or are/were self-employed. They were essentially self-sustaining. Particularly with people like the Vietnamese, they gave their own people jobs in the fishing industry.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the underlying theme is not necessarily the destruction and the rebuilding, but how does New Orleans and the Gulf rebuild from all of this, without not only government, but the corporations like Big Oil who also claim to be for people’s interests–until it comes to their bottom line. And also how New Orleans and the Gulf protects itself from the excesses and betrayals of both.
For example, the levees are still incomplete, and many fear that another hurricane might drive the polluted waters still further inland, damaging not only wildlife and crops, but clean drinking water. There’s already a cancer corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans; something far bigger in magnitude than this could spur even more permanent dispersals from the Crescent City and its residential environs.
Spike admits that even with Barack Obama in the White House, some things have definitely stayed the same.
There will be a way. Somehow, some day. No doubt.