This week marks five years since Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast and particularly the city of New Orleans. To mark that anniversary and update us on the situation in the region, filmmaker Spike Lee returns with his new four-hour, two-part documentary, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, which debuts August 23rd and 24th on HBO. Lee takes us back to the area to see what, if anything, has changed and what remains constant: the injustices and the resilience of the residents in the face of adversity.
Lee’s first documentary on Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts was enough to break your heart and shatter one’s faith in what the federal government was willing to do for its people who were most in need. Lee showed how unprepared the city of New Orleans was for such a catastrophic national disaster and how the poorest among us suffered because of the slow response by officials, the ineptitude of some and a general lack of concern for people who remained “invisible” because to notice them meant we’d have to care.
If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise shows the small steps of improvement but the new abuses endured by the people. Broken up into two parts the first starts off with a win, and a big one at that. The New Orleans Saints become the Super Bowl 44 champions and the jubilation of the city is palpable. Despite that good news there is still so much negatively effecting the people.
There are new people whose stories Lee focuses on, but they are an extension of people we met in the previous documentary, so the storytelling remains seamless even when dealing with bigger issues. We see how New Orleans resident Phyllis Montana-Leblanc, who was a breakout star of When the Levees Broke, has moved on with her life and now has a “home” where she and her husband reside. We also see Phyllis’ mother Clovina “Rita” McCoy and sister Catherine Montana Gordon who want to return home but have no choice but to reside in Humble, Texas because the services that Catherine now receives for her special needs son Nicholas, can’t be found in New Orleans.
WATCH ‘NIGHTLY NEWS’ COVERAGE OF SPIKE LEE AND HURRICANE KATRINA:
The audience of the first documentary will remember Kimberly Polk who lost her 5-year-old daughter Serena and whose cry pierced anyone’s soul who watched as she walked away from her daughter’s grave. Kimberly speaks of becoming the first college graduate in her family and wanting more for her two sons while still missing her daughter. Lee appropriately casts a light on the mental health of the residents and how the fallout from post-Katrina has irrevocably damaged the spirits of many.
Lee also shows the difficulty of moving on with so much red-tape. In their absence residents of the housing projects have had their homes demolished or are told they are not “livable.” While politicians contend they did this in the best interests of the people, residents and others feel it was done to get rid of public housing all together and what better time to do it after everyone was evacuated. It remains to be seen if former residents will be able to afford the skyrocketing rents that have been attached to the new mixed housing options. An ironic point in the film is when Spike Lee shows how actor Brad Pitt and the Make it Right Foundation have done more to get people back into affordable housing options in the Lower 9th ward than the local government.
Lee quickly but appropriately ties in the irony of how Port-au-Prince, the sister city of New Orleans experiences an even worse disaster with the January 12, 2010 earthquake. One person notes how the earthquake, “makes Katrina look like a garden party,” but like New Orleans getting the money and resources to the people is taking too long.
The bulk of part one has a balance of both good and bad times that the residents have experienced in the five years since the hurricane. One bright spot includes the victory for the residents of St. Bernard Parish when the Army Corps of Engineers were held accountable for the levee breach because a navigation channel attributed to its demise.
The second part of the documentary focuses on three main areas: the education system in New Orleans, crime and the BP oil spill that like Katrina has forever changed the region. Lee tells the story of the Louisiana Recovery School District which was created by legislation in 2003. It remains to be seen whether this model headed by Paul Vallas and includes public charter schools will be the answer the city of New Orleans has needed for so long to provide its students with a solid foundation for future success.
The alternative to a successful future in New Orleans is crime. It’s in this part where Lee shows us that Dinerral Shavers, a founding member of the Hot 8 Brass Band who appeared in the first documentary was shot and killed by a 15-year-old assailant who was going after his stepson. Lee does not stop at black-on-black crime because that would only be part of the story. The transgressions of certain former officers of the New Orleans police department are also put on display where in the days after Hurricane Katrina they killed innocent people and tried to cover it up.
It’s the oil spill where Spike Lee aptly captures the anger felt by the residents. After everything the region has endured we’re shown how the oil spill now threatens to undermine any progress that has been made. The difference here is that there was a faster federal response and the main culprit in this man-made disaster is BP. The film suggests that only time will tell what the total damage will be on the economy, health and spirits of the Gulf Coast residents.
Despite everything they’ve gone through, it’s the indomitable spirit of the people of New Orleans that compels you to pay attention and be hopeful for them and for our country. It’s the personal details of pain, anguish and redemption that Lee gets people to share with him and ultimately the viewing audience that draws you in from start to finish. As one resident puts it, “We like weebles baby, we might wobble but we ain’t never gonna go down.”