If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
Trouble the Water
Spike Lee’s latest long documentary film about New Orleans, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, which aired on HBO last summer, begins with a set piece on the outburst of ecstasy occasioned by the Saints winning the 2010 Super Bowl. Louisiana is football-mad and Saints fans were being redeemed after decades of suffering through losing seasons, but there was a special intensity to the celebration because, plausibly, it could have marked the beginning of the post–Hurricane Katrina era in New Orleans—the moment when rebirth rather than tragedy became the reigning local metaphor. There was a similar moment in local politics just the day before the Super Bowl, when Mitch Landrieu, son of a former mayor of New Orleans, brother of a United States senator, and a white politician who seems to believe deeply in racial reconciliation, was elected mayor.
By the dictates of narrative logic, the boisterous opening scenes of If God Is Willing have to be a straw man that can then be knocked down, and Lee doesn’t disappoint. What follows is a comprehensive, vivid, detailed, relentlessly negative portrait of the state of the city, which ends with a photomontage of corpses. (And then the credits begin, in the manner of the final scene in Fellini’s 8½, with a shot of the documentary’s enormous crew supposedly celebrating the Super Bowl victory.) The Saints seem like bread and circuses, and Landrieu like a well-meaning guy in an impossible situation.
Crime, we learn, is back at its unconscionably high pre-Katrina levels. The police force is brutal and corrupt. Poor blacks are on the receiving end of white vigilantism and cursory, rough, inefficient treatment in the court system. Federal aid is pathetically low, and so, therefore, is the pace of rebuilding. Residents of the tens of thousands of trailers put in New Orleans by the Federal Emergency Management Administration are being poisoned by formaldehyde. Business interests are using Katrina as a pretext to take over the city. The BP oil spill, raging out of control, has ravaged the Louisiana coast, environmentally and as a source of livelihood for its residents.
Spike Lee’s first post-Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke, which aired on HBO in 2006, was raw and painful—it got across the pure horror of the aftermath of the storm. If God Is Willing is a more elaborate and measured production. There are many interview subjects, from high government officials to movie stars (Sean Penn and Brad Pitt) to some of the ordinary people who appeared in When the Levees Broke. It covers an enormous range of topics and settings, including even…
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