Spike Lee's wonderful 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, wasn’t just about Hurricane Katrina. Rather, it explored the social inequities that the hurricane laid bare, and the incompetence, confusion, greed, and stupidity that made a terrible situation worse. His latest effort, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise, which premieres on August 23and 24, casts a cold eye on the opportunism that followed in the wake of Katrina, finishing with a devastating hour about the BP oil spill and the political and economic forces that allowed it to happen. It has a south-of-the-Mason/Dixon-line storytelling style—a fondness for rococo details and digressions, a leisurely sense of pacing, and a generosity of spirit that leavens Lee’s justified outrage. It seems less like a postscript to “Levees” than a second chapter in a powerful and probably still-unfinished masterwork.
Taken together, the two documentaries are mournful epic poems about the absence of responsibility and decency in America—about the gap between what America claims to stand for and what it actually does. One example is the cheap, shoddy levees that collapsed before the hurricane made landfall (a fact irrefutably proved in video surveillance footage used in a successful class-action lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers). Another is the BP spill, a crisis which Lee depicts as potentially far worse than the flood—a poisonous murk spreading along the gulf coast, killing hope along with wetlands and wildlife. Lee sees the two disasters as sharing a common origin: the rush for short-term personal gain by a select group leading to long-term societal damage.
And those are just the major horrors. Lee draws our attention to many smaller ones, such as the replacement of Big Charity, the public Louisiana State University-run teaching hospital, with a new public-private hospital to be built in a neighborhood full of historic (mostly middle-class) homes seized through eminent domain.Lee treats this as a stand-in for New Orleans itself, and for America’s disturbing habit of erasing its own past. Another similar, localized tragedy is the demolition of public housing projects damaged in the hurricane, with so-called mixed-use private developments built in their place—a land-grab that some interviewees say wouldn’t have happened if so many poor, black residents hadn’t been driven from the city by the flood.
Lee insists that many of the changes in New Orleans, including the mixed-use developments, have been aimed at middle-class to wealthy (white) people, and have driven up rents to the point where poor residents dispersed to Texas and other states can’t return to New Orleans even though many want to. (The low-income homes that were meant to “replace” the old public housing look like flimsy oversized doghouses—a sad retreat from the sturdy brick structures built under the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.) “Creek” devotes a long, furious section to the Big Charity hospital controversy, pointing out that the drive to save it united residents that wouldn’t otherwise have had much in common, and drove them en masse to City Hall. They might as well have wished upon a star for all the good it did them. “I’m sick of you white liberals acting like you feel our pain!” a woman shouts at the council during a meeting just days before New Orleans’ largest public housing project, St. Bernard’s, was torn down after a unanimous council vote. The most unnerving image in the subsequent demolition montage is a wide shot of a steam shovel picking through rubble; it looks like a grinning steel mantis.
The citizens’ protests against assorted outrages—the government’s grotesque mishandling of the flood and the oil spill, and its mismanagement of the rebuilding effort; real estate developers’ merciless push toward gentrification—prove largely futile. Why? Lee’s pessimistic (or perhaps realistic) summary recalls a prescient routine by George Carlin: we don’t really have a democracy in this country, we have owners. And the people theoretically entrusted with defending us against the machinations of those owners always seem to end up protecting the owners’ interests. (Some of the most infuriating footage in Creek shows an angry throng of citizens being illegally locked out of a December 20, 2007 council vote to demolish the housing projects, then getting pepper-sprayed, Tasered and beaten by police after refusing to leave.
All these man-made events, the film argues, are disasters, too, with unforeseen, far-reaching consequences. But because they’re caused by institutions rather than by nature, and because the guilty parties are so numerous and often camouflaged, it’s hard to fix blame—and perhaps the sheer pervasiveness of rotten behavior over time implies collective responsibility. Corrupt police officers, deceitful developers, nest-feathering politicians, inept regulators, media outlets that treat official misconduct as today’s news and forget to do follow-ups—it’s impossible to keep track of all the people who bear partial responsibility for the ongoing, multifaceted catastrophe in New Orleans and the Gulf region. Few will admit a smidge of responsibility, much less apologize. Perhaps, Lee suggests, the entire country is responsible, or should consider itself responsible, for this self-enriching, self-destroying culture of selfishness, which predates Katrina by at least two centuries.
Like Levees, Creek is filled with talking heads—rich, middle class, and poor people; soldiers, journalists, teachers, environmental experts, urban planners, historians, shrimp fishermen, actors, musicians, neighborhood activists. All offer unique perspectives on what went wrong in America during and after Katrina, and what's still going wrong. There are sections about New Orleans’ troubled school system, its floundering public health care system, and the plight of residents displaced to other states, the tenure of New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, and President Obama’s response to the BP oil spill. Lee and his editors have amassed an awesome amount of data, but they've organized it in a way that feels organic, one specific incident or problem or anecdote flowing naturally (at times imperceptibly) into the next. Creek also puts the lie to the notion that Lee is a one-sided filmmaker who goes into every subject with his mind made up. Like Levees—and for that matter, like Do the Right Thing, Clockers, and Lee's other good fiction films—Creek has a strong point-of-view. But Lee doesn’t omit or distort opinions that complicate his own. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once wrote that Do the Right Thing isn’t about either/or, but both/and. Lee’s documentaries about the post-flood American south operate in the same spirit.
The opening section about the New Orleans’ Saints’ Super Bowl victory, for instance, sweeps us up in the rejuvenating joy that the team’s triumph inspired—but then it backs off and reminds us that the Saints are just a sports team, and that their win is ultimately a distraction from the city’s problems. Every section of Creek is likewise committed to a mature, prismatic view of life. You may think you know where Lee is going when he starts each section, but you don’t. Witnesses describe C. Ray Nagin as a barely-competent mayor handpicked by the city’s white business elite, and as an unlikely hero doing an amazing job under impossible circumstances, and both perceptions are allowed to stand. Our current president is likewise portrayed as doing everything he can and pathetically little. The documentary decries the white thugs who treated the hurricane as an excuse to hunt black folks, then goes on to concede that black-on-black crime in post-Katrina New Orleans is a far worse problem than white vigilantism. When Federal Emergency Management Agency Michael Brown appears on-camera, you naturally expect Lee to lump him in with the rest of the Bush administration’s devious bumblers, as he more or less did in Levees. What you get instead is a tough yet compassionate portrait of a man who was unprepared for his job, floundered during a crisis, dared bitch to his superiors about their own incompetence, and got hung out to dry. Brown reveals that mere moments before the president infamously grinned on camera and told him he was doing a heckuva job, he’d been griping to Bush backstage about the executive branch’s lame response. Which means the compliment was actually a punishment for not knowing his place. (Brown claims that if you watch the clip closely, you can see him trying not to wince.)
Like many auteurs, Lee likes to announce his presence behind the camera, often with awkward, off-putting results. But although Lee personally conducted the interviews in these documentaries, you hear his voice off-camera only when you need to hear a question in order to make sense of a subject’s answer, or when a subject says something so striking and odd that any reasonable person would interrupt to ask a follow-up. Here, as in Levees, he’s mostly invisible, with one very conspicuous exception: the lengthy closing credits montage which finds many of Lee’s people (and Lee himself) saying their names and occupations while holding picture frames around their faces. This is definitely a section that could have been cut for time, but I loved it. It’s both visually playful and revealing of the filmmaker’s storytelling style, which singles out individuals while keeping the larger panorama in mind.
The reportorial and explanatory sections of “Creek” are impressive. And yet the film becomes truly great in the visual vignettes cut by supervising editor Sam Pollard and scored by Lee’s regular composer, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, a New Orleans native who also appears on-camera in both documentaries with his cantankerous mother, Wilhelmena, a flood survivor. Splicing together similarly-themed shots—images of eerily isolated front stoops where housing projects once stood, backed by bleakly amused, “What did you expect?” noir-jazz; snippets of underwater surveillance camera footage of oil gushing from the BP pipeline scored to funereal organ music—Lee, Pollard and Blanchard distill the documentary's themes and feelings into cinematic arias. These montages are often disquieting, sometimes upsetting. But they’re conceived with such wit and passion that watching them is an elating experience.