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 the earthquake in Haiti. It is beautifully shot and edited; Lee has a dour view of the world but a palpable love of its individual inhabitants, and he’s able to extract genuine life from everyone he puts on screen. (Michael “heckuva job” Brown, formerly of FEMA, is especially lovable.) The score, by the New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard, is gorgeous. But the film’s obdurate refusal to comply with the conventional imperative to show New Orleans beginning a new and more hopeful chapter gives If God Is Willing a dead-end quality. Here, New Orleans seems just to have stopped, or to have found a way to take off from what was already a desperately bad situation before Katrina into a never-ending, far-deeper-downward plunge.
The technique of If God Is Willing is roughly the HBO house style: no on-camera host, no voice-over, just filmed scenes and people being interviewed. It’s a method that does not require the filmmaker to draw any stated conclusions, and Lee makes an effort to represent a range of opinion in his selection of interview subjects. Still, from the aggregate of the voices he chooses to present and from the order in which he presents them, it’s easy to infer his own position in the battles over the fate of New Orleans after the storm. Because of the overlay of chaos and recrimination the categories were not perfectly neat, but, generally, there was a faction in New Orleans (which thought of itself as reformist) that wanted to use the storm as the occasion to remake the city in a more efficient and high-functioning form: close the housing projects and Charity Hospital, rebuild ruined homes zone by zone according to a plan, refuse to rebuild everywhere, replace the old public schools with charter schools.
This camp largely won (except on planned rebuilding), and its ideas are what Lee appears to be dead-set against. Most of the people to whom he gives the last word in his treatment of each of these issues believe that the black infrastructure of the city—the schools, the neighborhoods, the projects, Charity—is being taken away because it’s inconvenient and threatening to the white business elite, and because Katrina offered an irresistible opportunity. Conversely, restoring (and improving) pre-Katrina black New Orleans in toto is the only morally acceptable approach now.
Such a restoration could take place only through a much, much larger infusion of money than New Orleans got after the storm, and the only place so much money could come from is the federal government. The city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana, even before Katrina, were far too poor to offer the most basic government services at a decent level, let alone rebuilding funds. The local business elite—a puissant-sounding off-camera presence in most treatments of Katrina and its aftermath—actually doesn’t have much money compared to its counterparts in other American cities, even in the South: New Orleans has no home-grown big business like Coca-Cola in Atlanta, FedEx in Memphis, or Hospital Corporation of America in Nashville.
Congress and the Bush administration did spend heavily in New Orleans, but a few months after Katrina Bush balked at what was probably the closest thing to a big comprehensive plan that he might plausibly have endorsed, a proposal by a Louisiana Republican congressman named Richard Baker for a big federal buyout of flooded housing. Baker’s plan was meant to lead to an overall remaking of the city: whole neighborhoods would be bought up, resold, and redeveloped. Instead the administration and Congress appropriated billions in grants to individual homeowners who wanted to move back, and to specific building projects for schools, water treatment plants, libraries, and so on.
All of these monies were distributed notoriously inefficiently. Funding for most of the project grants wasn’t released for years. The program for homeowners, called Road Home, was run by the administration of Louisiana’s governor at the time, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco—who appears in If God Is Willing as an entirely admirable figure—with appalling delays in the release of the funds. In any case, the premise of both Road Home and the project grants was friendly to patchy redevelopment of a kind that made it nearly impossible for the strapped city government, which had to bear most of the burden of providing basic services like police, fire protection, public transportation, and garbage removal, to give its scattered citizens what residents of most American cities take for granted.
Toward the end of If God Is Willing, Lee gets a number of his interviewees, including even the usually genial Mitch Landrieu, to assert bitterly that the BP oil spill could never have happened off the shore of the Hamptons. In one sense this is true: residents of the Louisiana coast, even after the spill, have eagerly promoted offshore oil drilling in a way that it’s hard to imagine at least the summer residents of the Hamptons doing, if there were oil to be drilled there. But there’s also an implication in these comments that the blown well would have been plugged sooner if it had been in the Northeast. That’s probably not so—it’s doubtful that either BP or the Obama administration had a solution in place by May that they delayed until September because the spill was in Louisiana—but it bespeaks an authentic New Orleans attitude, a feeling that all of the city’s spectacular misfortune hasn’t happened in the first place, and doesn’t get more fully corrected after it has happened, just by unhappy accident. There is, so many feel, an uncaring attitude, or even a malign intent, behind the city’s troubles, which stem from New Orleans’s being a poor, black-majority city.
Another of the recent crop of New Orleans documentary films, by a British-born New Orleanian named Katherine Cecil, is called Race. The title is a too-obvious, though maybe irresistible, double entendre, referring to the 2006 New Orleans mayoral election and to the theme underlying it. The civil rights movement—in particular the 1965 Voting Rights Act—generated a much larger and more engaged black electorate in New Orleans. For one historical moment this made blacks the key constituency in elections between white candidates; the first politician to take advantage of this was the white candidate Moon Landrieu, Mitch Landrieu’s father, who was elected mayor in 1970 with a big majority of the black vote and a minority of the white vote.
Landrieu’s successor was the first black mayor of New Orleans, Dutch Morial, who had one son, Marc Morial, who was mayor of New Orleans in the 1990s, and another, Jacques Morial, who is a frequent interview subject in If God Is Willing. As the years passed, movement to the suburbs decreased the white population of New Orleans to the point where the political situation had reversed: white voters became the swing constituency in elections between black candidates, so the black candidate who was more acceptable to whites usually won. But for a black mayor to retain the loyalty of voters of both races was very difficult, and not just because of public policy differences. New Orleans whites like a kind of nonconfrontational bearing in black politicians that doesn’t play well with black voters. Dutch Morial, on the morning after his reelection in 1982, told two interviewers from the Times-Picayune, “I don’t know why people want me to deal politically differently than any other mayor. Is it because I’m a nigger? Because I’m a nigger, I’ve got to be shat on by everybody else?” That was the end of whatever love Morial had in white New Orleans.
Ray Nagin, the black mayor during Hurricane Katrina, followed this pattern. He was elected in 2002 by presenting himself as a businessman devoted to government efficiency, carrying the white vote while losing the black vote. After Katrina and the forced out-migration of tens of thousands of black voters, as his reelection campaign came into view, Nagin realized that he was going to draw mainly white opposition, so he altered his self-presentation so as to appeal more to black voters. During a speech he gave on the Martin Luther King holiday in 2006, just months after Katrina, at the height of the debates over how to rebuild the city, he said:
It’s time for us to rebuild a New Orleans, the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans. And I don’t care what people are saying Uptown [where affluent whites live] or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day.