Thank God for Spike Lee. I must admit I had reservations about Lee's second post-Katrina documentary film for HBO If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise before seeing it. I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, another Gulf Coast city, and we've always looked at New Orleans as a big sister: our town was actually the first capital of the Louisiana Territory and is home of the original Mardi Gras (look it up).
That said, as an NPR junkie I had already overdosed on its phenomenal Katrina coverage along with CNN's back in 2005. That along with my numerous calls home to friends and family for up-to-the-minute updates after the storm, I was not particularly blown away by When the Levees Broke -- Lee's Emmy and Peabody Award-winning first post-Katrina documentary. Though it was smart and earnest with Lee's deft filmmaking at work, I felt I had seen and heard it all before about the worst natural disaster to ever hit our shores. That's just me. Most folks loved it.
This time around, however, Lee simply blew me away.
From the moment we hear Terence Blanchard's haunting score against Cliff Charles's hypnotic cinematography then once again see Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc --whom you may remember from her fiery commentary in Levees-- ignite the screen, I knew it was going to be special. This time Montana-LeBlanc first explodes in a spoken word piece. So captivating is her performance that it immediately reminded me of Rosie Perez's no-holes-barred dance number to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" at the start of Lee's 1989 film Do the Right Thing. The stage was set. I thought, "Get ready, baby. This is about to be good."
It was that and more. It was brilliant.
Regardless of how many times I'd seen the post-Katrina footage or heard NPR's coverage --the lines of people huddled in the stifling heat at the Superdome like cattle, a Black grandmotherly woman draped in the American flag, bodies floating in the flooded streets-- Lee, who said in an interview that he always knew he'd return to New Orleans for a follow-up film, made it all feel fresh again. Brand new. I actually had to hold back tears at a press screening. It was just that painful. It was as if the passage of time had illuminated even more so the horror of August 2005.
You think that with years gone by, one would be able to look at the disaster more clinically. After all, the earthquake in Haiti was much worse. And that situation is still playing out in extremely sad fashion.
But what Lee has been able to do is to continue to let the resilient people of New Orleans tell their story. Their history. What's clear is that Lee understands the importance of the historical and social context of their stories. He respects it and its many layers, its far-reaching tentacles. And historical and social context is something that we seem to want to forget in our fast-paced, Twitter-byte universe. We don't want to get mired in the details. The recent Shirley Sherrod incident told us that much.
In our just-give-me-the-headlines culture, lingering too long over serious issues makes some of us actually have to deal with things that can make us uneasy. Uneasiness can be a good thing. Let's face it. You can't tweet the aftermath of a storm. Yes, you can pass on the information. But not the ruthless heartache. The pain in a child's eyes. The grief that even a Saints dramatic Super Bowl victory ultimately can't eliminate.
For this type of real-life drama, you have to almost blow on it like hot gumbo on a spoon then let it go down easily. One spoonful at a time until you can make sense of the fact that the children of Katrina are still suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, that many innocent people were gunned down --several by law enforcement-- in New Orleans in the days, weeks and months after the storm. That many young people are killing each other in the city. That there are many who feel that the city has let them down, that it does not want them to return, to educate its children. To heal their pain.
In four hours of mesmerizing television, Lee takes his time to get to the roots. His attends to the nuances, the souls and heartbeats of the people. Putting it simply, he cares. And a good storyteller in any discipline must care enough about his or her subjects to get to their core being. Lee lets the folks have their say.
I asked Lee in an interview at HBO how he so skillfully gets his interview subjects to open up so much about so many sensitive topics. Like former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, for example, who reflected on his legacy and how he responded to Katrina and others who gave their candid and biting assessments of the former mayor. He said, "I do all of the interviews, so I think people think they know me and they know that I'm not going to take their words out of context."
Lee covers it all: The ongoing lack of affordable housing situation. The school system. The political climate. The horrible crime situation (New Orleans has the country's highest murder rate per the FBI). Even the BP oil spill. Ironically, after Lee had finished shooting the film, in April --just two months after the euphoria of the Super Bowl-- the BP oil spill occurred and he and his crew returned to New Orleans to cover that nightmare and its disturbing details. It's a surprising end with amazing conversations about our planet, corporate greed and the price of our dependence on fossil fuels. It's rather scary what impact this spill could have on our future.
What Lee proves with If God Is Willing, as he has in so many of his projects --- particularly his provocative documentaries like his Oscar-nominated Four Little Girls --- nothing beats the power of the moving image. Like the news footage of the civil rights era that, once making its way around the globe, helped bring down Jim Crow, I hope films like this can continue to help motivate us to get up and stand up for other people, for our environment, for what's right. That companies like BP and governments like ours, and citizens alike, will be motivated to act wisely and ethically, so that next time the storms of life start raging or a corporate executive is contemplating a cost-cutting move that could harm our planet for generations, that they will do the right thing. I plan to do my part. That is, if God is willing and da creek don't rise.
If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise, a four-hour, two-part documentary debuts tonight and tomorrow night on HBO.