TV preview: Spike Lee's 'If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise'

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2010; E01

As forecasters have warned, there's a surge of fifth-anniversary Hurricane Katrina retrospectives headed our way this week. None, I predict, will be as gripping, artful, outraged or even overblown as "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise," filmmaker Spike Lee's sprawling, two-part follow-up to his chronicle of despair in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast.

Lee returns to Louisiana and Mississippi with the same inquisitive anger that so eloquently became "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," his award-winning 2006 documentary about the immediate aftermath of Katrina in and around New Orleans. This sequel is four hours long, split between Monday and Tuesday nights on HBO.

Lee picks up his story with scenes of the city in an ultimate act of trademark bacchanal: It's February 2010 and the Saints have miraculously won their first Super Bowl championship, smack in the middle of Mardi Gras season. The city is bonkers with a happiness transcending professional football, and Lee artfully arranges a montage of jubilant dancing, strutting and chants of "Who dat?"

It goes on and on -- an obvious and acknowledged metaphor, victory for New Orleans at last -- and then Lee allows it go on too long, in order to make a point: Part of the city's story is a powerful sense of overindulgence, reckless abandon and often mindless devotion to its unique identity and traditions.

"At the end of the day, we've got to realize it's a football game," observes Jacques Morial, a community organizer and part of a local political family. Historian Douglas Brinkley, one of dozens of Lee's interview subjects, goes that idea one better, linking the boisterousness and boosterism of "Who dat?" to a curious "inferiority complex." Is it possible that New Orleans is too in love with itself to fix itself?

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That's only one of the deeper angles explored here. Before it's done, "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" describes no fewer than a dozen lingering (endemic, really) crises that Katrina merely exacerbated, including: New Orleanians' terrible eating habits, which lead to poor health-care options, which lead to the forlorn Charity Hospital, which is still fenced off after five years, while the city attempts to raze a couple of hundred acres of old neighborhoods to build a new hospital complex.

And there are still housing issues of every kind, as poorer residents resent the state and federal government efforts to replace the New Deal-era and Great Society-era projects with mixed-income housing (still largely unbuilt); the displaced list their lingering symptoms associated with formaldehyde exposure from living in FEMA's toxic trailers. Some evacuees never came back; others came back and suffered a host of mental illnesses, just in time for the state to close the only inpatient psychiatric facility in town.

But it's worse. There are the struggling schools and the residents' resistance to reform. There is the crime, the police corruption, the coverups. There is the intricate fabric of racism that informs the place. There are the levees. Lee remains transfixed by the Army Corps of Engineers' failures in the levee construction department, which brought on the flood. New Orleanians remain immobile on this point: Katrina did not cause the floods is a mantra, while New Orleans is below sea level seems an irrelevant bit of trivia.

Lee slowly connects many disparate dots into a near-perfect tone poem about American dysfunction. For all the attention New Orleans's woes have received, it is still drenched and moldered in a feeling of abandonment and every flavor of exasperation. It is our heaven and our hell. "We're not really part of the United States," Garland Robinette, a longtime local newsman, tells Lee. "We're like a rich Haiti."

Lee's work here rivals that of filmmaking's finest documentarians; he keeps the anger that has defined his scripted features mostly in check, letting people and situations speak for themselves. (Though I continue to remain unmoved by the passion of spoken-word poetry, which Lee uses to excess, and I suspect I'm not alone.) He returns to some of the original storm survivors and evacuees profiled in "When the Levees Broke," nearly all of whom look older than they are. Time has healed them, in a few cases, but it's also been unkind.

Nearly everyone gets a say here, including humbled players like former mayor C. Ray Nagin and former FEMA director Michael "Heckuva Job" Brown, who says he never fully understood the administrative missteps of the Katrina response until he read a long dissection of the disaster in Vanity Fair. It's a true act of journalistic wonder that Spike Lee can make an after-Katrina film in which Brownie, of all people, can convey the pain of permanent failure.

By the time "If God Is Willing . . ." is over, everyone is to blame for the condition of New Orleans, starting with New Orleans itself (and its myriad injustices) and eventually fanning outward to state and federal government. The Bush administration is still to blame, and now so is the Obama administration, with its tentative approach to the BP oil spill.

This blame eventually fans out to you, the non-New Orleanian HBO subscriber, who simply will never get the culture of the place -- including those of us who stuck through the lackluster middle episodes of HBO's "Treme."

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Then comes the BP spill, with that inexorably gushing spillcam, which pushes both Lee and his film over the edge. Here, it's the same Katrina-esque problem all over again, in which lack of federal oversight and basic greed triumphed over all else, destroying environment and wounding the culture. Though it's a tidy bookend to the Katrina story, it all feels a little too soon for the spill to work as a denouement. Nevertheless, Lee focuses on irreparable ruin at the hands of BP, the scope of which is still largely unknown.

Yet it does all go together, doesn't it? Describing her feelings about the BP spill and the use of chemical dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico, Tracie L. Washington of the Louisiana Justice Institute makes the documentary's most apt analogy, in that the past five years have felt like being doused by one dispersant after another -- housing dispersed, schools dispersed, hospitals dispersed, people dispersed. "My point is stop spraying us with these [symbolic] dispersants," she says. "There is no magic elixir to the man-made problems we have in Louisiana. Don't 'sperse me, bro."

So how to "fix" New Orleans?

Like most documentaries, "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" absolves itself of prescriptives. Watching it, a tax-averse viewer might conclude that the only answer to New Orleans's problems rests in mountains of imaginary state and federal cash to support its poorest residents with the full complement of social services -- a lifetime of affordable housing, health care, education, employment assistance, transportation and of course, 100 percent hurricane protection.

But at the same time, New Orleans asserts its need to be left alone, to be uniquely itself. Lee finishes with a "Who dat?" reprise. After four hours of lament, the jubilation becomes somehow hollow, as the people of New Orleans dance off into what feels like permanent oblivion.

If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise

(two parts; two hours each) airs Monday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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