Spike Lee documents New Orleans’ tale of woe

Spike Lee, shown during the filming of his documentary, If God is Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise, follows the twin disasters of Katrina and the BP oil spill.

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Spike Lee’s new HBO documentary starts on a high note: Super Bowl Sunday 2010, when the New Orleans Saints claim victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

Saints fans, many still reeling from Hurricane Katrina’s aftershocks, are deliriously happy.

“It’s a rebirth,” says an overjoyed New Orleans native.

“It’s divine intervention, man,” says another local.

But cautionary words are voiced as well. The Saints are world champions, but in the real world there are bills to pay and neighbourhoods to rebuild.

Then, only 17 minutes into If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise, the BP oil spill enters the narrative.

“We sold our soul for the Super Bowl,” says Dean Blanchard, fearful that he might lose his seafood business.

The party is over.

Lee, the gifted director and documentarian, had long planned a return to the Gulf Coast for a five-year follow-up to his acclaimed When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.

He began shooting Feb. 7, when the Super Bowl was played. The triumph by the Saints seemed a glorious conclusion for his new film.

“We thought we had our ending on the first day,” Lee said in a recent interview. “Little did we know.”

By the time the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and releasing a gusher of oil, Lee had wrapped production and was well into the editing process.

“But I knew we had to make that a part of the piece,” he said.

He does, dwelling on the BP disaster for roughly 40 minutes of the four-hour, two-part If God Is Willing, which premieres Monday and Tuesday on HBO.

The stage is set with painful, all-too-familiar images of Katrina’s immediate wrath in 2005.

Then, as the film goes on, the government’s failure to protect New Orleans from the storm surge is compounded by seemingly endless failures to aid the recovery.

The five years didn’t pass without successes, and the film covers those as well. They include a legal victory against the Army Corps of Engineers for shoddy maintenance of a navigation channel that resulted in some of the worst flooding. And there are non-profit reconstruction efforts such as Make It Right, led by actor Brad Pitt, that have built affordable, storm-resistant homes.

But then, just months after the Super Bowl win, the BP disaster struck.

Scores of people share their stories on-camera, including ordinary, often overlooked local figures.

To his credit, former FEMA Director Michael Brown is among those who participate.

Like other interview subjects who, when it counted, fell short, Brown points fingers. He says former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff “didn’t know what he was doing. Let’s be frank.”

He also offers context for the widely derided tribute — “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” — laid on him by President George W. Bush.

“If you look at that video clip closely, you’ll see me wince,” says Brown, and, replayed in the documentary, it bears out his claim.

But it goes beyond “strong support,” said Lee, who believes BP has been allowed to call the shots in its own interest, and often counter to the public good.

Heartbreaking but defiant, “If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise” picks up where “Levees” left off, as a catalogue of plagues that largely could have been averted.

Why they weren’t is not so puzzling, said Lee. “It’s greed.”


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