This week marks the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina which ravaged New Orleans and much of the same gulf coast that has been damaged by the BP oil gusher. With all the media coverage, no show will have the long-term impact as Spike Lee’s HBO documentary: ‘If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise.’ I am glad to have HBO but realize many others do not. I also want to focus this article on what the film covered about the BP Oil Disaster. This article highlights key lessons from the film about with how corporate greed and governmental ineptitude led to the BP Oil disaster that continues to seriously threaten our communities and ecosystems. This film will be important for urging us to action now; as well as a historical record for the future of bad luck and trouble in the Gulf.
Click for the film’s lessons, cool pix and interviews.
Given my own love of New Orleans, I did appreciate the details provided by this top-notch film. I was particularly impressed with the last hour that covered the BP Oil Spill. This four-hour film does inform and inspire the viewer – but may prove TOO long for the modern attention span. So I will suggest some key lessons that the film provides about the one-two punch the Gulf region has experienced ; before presenting highlights of what other reviewers have written.
- Both the flooding with Katrina and the BP oil spill are examples of institutional problems – particularly negligence, corruption and lack of communication and coordination among key actors involved.
- Serious issues of environmental justice and racial equality need to be addressed in order to ensure that the poor and minority communities are given the same resources and opportunities to rebuild.
- Damage from disasters goes well beyond physical and economic damage to include psychological distress, social pathologies, and community devastation.
One of the most entertaining and engaging parts of the film involved a marching man who fired off a series of alternative words that fit the BP acronym. I used slow-motion to write down the more appealing ones:
Before it’s done, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise describes no fewer than a dozen lingering (endemic, really) crises that Katrina merely exacerbated, including: New Orleanians’ terrible eating habits, which lead to poor healthcare options, which lead to the forlorn Charity Hospital, which is still fenced off after five years, while the city attempts to raze a couple of hundred acres of old neighborhoods to build another hospital complex. …
Lee slowly connects many disparate dots into a near-perfect tone poem about American dysfunction. For all the attention New Orleans’ woes have received, it is still drenched and moldered in a feeling of abandonment and every flavor of exasperation. It is our heaven and our hell. “We’re not really part of the United States,” Garland Robinette, a longtime local newsman, tells Lee. “We’re like a rich Haiti.”
Lee’s work here rivals that of filmmaking’s finest documentarians; he keeps the anger that has defined his scripted features mostly in check, letting people and situations speak for themselves. (Though I remain unmoved by the passion of spoken-word poetry, which Lee uses to excess.) He returns to some of the original storm survivors and evacuees profiled in When the Levees Broke’ nearly all of whom look older than they are. Time has healed them, in a few cases, but it’s also been unkind. …
By the time If God Is Willing is over, everyone is to blame for the condition of New Orleans, starting with New Orleans itself (and its myriad injustices) and eventually fanning outward to state and federal government. The Bush administration is still to blame, and now so is the Obama administration, with its tentative approach to the BP oil spill.
The spill, with that inexorably gushing spillcam, pushes both Lee and his film over the edge. Here, it’s the same Katrina-esque problem all over again, in which lack of federal oversight and basic greed triumphed over all else, destroying environment and wounding the culture. Though it’s a tidy bookend to the Katrina story, it all feels a little too soon for the spill to work as a denouement. Nevertheless, Lee focuses on irreparable ruin at the hands of BP, the scope of which is still largely unknown.
Just as Lee believed filming was complete, tragedy struck the Gulf once more. On April 20, a deepwater offshore oil rig operated by British Petroleum exploded, unleashing torrents of oil into the Gulf, resulting in one of the biggest environmental disasters of all time. Lee and his crew immediately returned to assess the impact of this latest calamity and capture the reaction of area residents.
“The people of the Gulf Coast feel they’ve been victimized by greed – again,” says Lee. “The Army Corps cut corners and built the faulty levees. Oil companies and gas companies are jeopardizing the barrier islands and the wetlands. They too are trying to cut corners, and 11 people are dead because of it. The people want answers. They want their environment and their way of life to be saved.”
But even in the face of this recent catastrophe, the resilient strength of New Orleans and Gulf Coast residents remains intact, observes the filmmaker. “The story is not over yet,” Lee says. “I’m proud HBO has given me the opportunity to tell the stories of these great Americans and that people will see how strong their spirits are.”
“If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise,” Lee’s four-hour update on New Orleans’s recovery—which debuts on HBO in two parts August 23 and 24—mostly coasts along on the momentum established in the earlier work. While not offering the same inspired blend of journalism and poetic anguish that “Levees” did, the new installment covers enough fresh ground for a thorough, occasionally enlightening survey. His concluding chapter on the BP spill is genius. …
Landrieu’s speech on the BP oil spill allows Lee to drift into the extremely topical last hour, which succeeds better than anything that came before it. By placing the spill in the context of its impact on the ecosystem of New Orleans’ once-thriving marshlands, he shows the potential for the residual oil to cause greater economic distress than even the flood itself.
As “Levees” did for Katrina, the final hour of “Creek” does for the BP spill. Lee may not speak with Tony Hayward—news clips do the job there—but he does reach scores of angry fishermen and others protesting the mediocre clean-up job. Blanchard’s now-famous “Levees” theme, when set to images of the oil rig explosion, extends Lee’s intentions from examining New Orleans’s post-Katrina era to lamenting its Job-like suffering in the wake of the spill.
After probing the harrowing prospects of a storm carrying contaminated water into the French Quarter, Lee returns to the lower class and otherwise marginalized New Orleans citizens whose fury defines the mood. A direct address to the camera by poet Shelton Shakespeare Alexander closes the second part on a somber note; the following curtain call, where each interviewee speaks his or her name to the camera, takes a page from the ending of “Levees.” A reminder that Lee has reapplied the same mold, it also implies that he could easily return again. Whether or not he does, the second half of “Creek” serves as an ideal chapter in Lee’s despair-ridden New Orleans opus.
The tensions are on display from the film’s opening. Its first scenes include, in sequence, an angry and defiant poem (“No more use of our Gulf Coast waters, wetlands, heritage and soil/ No more ‘Up yours Louisiana,’ because we all know there’s blood in that BP oil/ If God is willing and the creek don’t rise”) read by the star of Lee’s earlier New Orleans documentary, Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc (now a star of David Simon’s “Treme”); images memorializing Katrina’s devastation; and the joyous celebrations of the Saints’ improbable 2009 Super Bowl victory. …
The people telling the story in this documentary are many of the same people whose names appear in the paper. Some are policy wonks; others, activists or artists; but nearly all are fervent New Orleanians. Some of them speak in a strongly held hyperbole that hints at madness or mania, both about the good and the bad here. There are angry words, never precisely defined, about “the powers that be” and their efforts at “ethnic cleansing” on the one hand, and on the other, references to the Saints’ Super Bowl win that suggest a local belief that the victory was an act of God, as if New Orleans, like the long-suffering Job, had been rewarded for its faith. This is the bipolar parlance of life here, stemming from the widely held belief that the city is vastly better than, worse than, and not really a part of the rest of the country.
Most of these sentiments are presented in the documentary without any evident endorsement from Spike Lee, who seems more enamored with his subjects’ intense feeling for their homes and threatened way of life than with the specifics of their claims. He is particularly interested in their suspicions about race, the government and corporations. The firmness of the beliefs held by so many people here is just as important as the accuracy of their claims. …
Lee is not without hope. He is clearly a partisan of this city, a place where real recovery and reconciliation are the daily work of thousands of people. The efforts of the people of this city and region appear to have given him reason to believe — despite the ever-present risk of rising water — that something better may yet emerge from the tragedies along the Gulf.
“People’s spirits are not going to be broken, their wills are not going to be broken, they’re going to keep moving on,” Lee says. But the oil spill sullied a region primed to celebrate a comeback, even if symbolic, reflected by the New Orleans Saints’ surprising NFL championship. Lee knew he needed to reflect what had happened. “We had to rethink and reconfigure,” says Lee, who made eight trips to the region since April, incorporating nearly an hour of spill footage and interviews.
BP executives and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declined Lee’s requests for interviews. But polarizing figures such as former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, who was criticized for his decisions after Katrina, weigh in. So does Nagin’s successor, Mitch Landrieu, who sheds light on his role: “Being the mayor of this city is like being in an emergency room on the field of battle.”
Actor Brad Pitt, whose Make it Right project has spearheaded efforts to build 150 affordable and sustainable homes in the Big Easy’s hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward, is prominently featured. Reflecting on those responsible for the oil spill, Pitt can barely contain his contempt. “I was never for the death penalty before,” he says. “I am willing to look at it again.”
In “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise,” airing Monday and Tuesday on HBO, Spike Lee returns to New Orleans, the scene of his post-Katrina documentary “When the Levees Broke” to assess what might be called the damage being done by the recovery. He also assesses the actual recovery, the illusory recovery, the psychological recovery, and the assault on the recovery that is the BP oil spill — an unfortunate and unavoidable late addition that, though not specifically related to Katrina or the following flood, fits his larger themes of class war and bad luck and enlarges his portrait of a land that can seem beleaguered by God or cursed through voodoo but which most definitely shows the scars of human mismanagement, corruption and greed. (Lee brings in the Haitian earthquake, as well.) …
Then you get to the final hour, an unplanned extension that was added when the BP oil disaster struck. In this last, best section, Da Creek takes on a focus, a passion and an often bracingly bitter sense of laughing-in-the-graveyard humor that had been missing up to then. It’s a one-sided look to be sure, but if it can serve to stoke debate and to keep the fate of the Gulf of Mexico and the wetlands from fading from public view for just a little while longer, it will have served a valuable purpose. And if that hour makes you angry, sometimes anger is the only rational response.
While making the film, the BP oil disaster occurred, leading Spike Lee to return to include it’s affects on the people of New Orleans. At the Television Critics Association Press Tour to talk about the upcoming August 23rd and 24th premiere, Spike Lee showed just how passionate he was about this matter and how telling this story has affected his life. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
How close were you to being finished with this film when the BP spill happened, and how did that change things?
Spike: We were done shooting, and then the thing blew up, so we had to re-think, re-configure and make another seven trips down to New Orleans. We were just there shooting, as late as three weeks ago, because of the Danziger Bridge indictments. They finally indicted the guy that shot Donnell Herrington. Donnell was in the first documentary, and the capping of the well. So, we had to re-think everything, but we’re done now.
Do you have any hope that they’ll ever get anything right in New Orleans?
Spike: It’s not like they’re not trying to get things right. Some of the stuff, they had no hand in. If you connect Levees with this, the big connective tissue is greed. It was the greed of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, who cut corners in the construction of the levee system, consequently leading New Orleans to be 80% underwater. It was greed again that reared its ugly head with BP, who did not want to buy this blowout protector, which only cost half a million dollars. They were behind schedule.
We’ve had enough instances where, any time you try to cut corners, it ends up biting you in the butt, later on. What gets lost is that 11 people are dead because of the negligence of BP because they threw safety precautions out the window. MMS (Mineral Management Service) was not doing their job. They had been corrupted by Super Bowl tickets, sex orgies and whatever, and they weren’t doing their job regulating stuff.
And, we have people who get appointed to positions, who are elected, who lay down and pray at the altar of the all-mighty dollar. They’ll put their mother on the corner, if they had to for a dollar, with no regard to what’s right, wrong or moral. All they think about is the money. And, if people have to end up dying and being hurt, they don’t give a fuck, excuse my language. It’s as simple as that.
Right now, all these scientists are coming out of the woodwork saying that we just had the biggest oil disaster in the history of the world, but all of a sudden, abracadabra, presto change-o, 75% of this oil has disappeared? Where the fuck did it go to? I don’t care how many scientists BP buys, that oil did not disappear. We are still cleaning up from Exxon Valdez, 20 years ago, so how, all of a sudden, is everything all right now? You shouldn’t buy that. It’s a lie. BP has been lying from the get-go.
Then, do you not have any hope that things will ever change?
Spike: I’m not going to have any hope if we allow people to get away with murder and people lying to our faces, and we say, “Okay.” In Part 4, there are many people who say General Honoré should have been the one heading this thing. BP told the United States government, “We don’t want Honoré. We want Thad Allen,” because they were chummy.
You’ll see in Part 4 that there’s way in the world BP should be able to tell the FAA who can fly where. There is no way in the world that BP should be able to tell the Coast Guard who can come into the waters. Honoré wouldn’t have gone for that. He said, “Don’t get it confused. Don’t get it twisted. Just because you’re paying for stuff, we’re running this shit.” But, it’s been the other way around. BP has been dictating what’s going on, and that shows you the power of this company. There is no industry in the world that makes as much money as the oil and gas industries.
Did you have any access issues when you went down to shoot Part 4? Were you able to get into the marsh and shoot as much as you wanted?
Spike: Yeah, we shot in the marshes. There were certain areas that we couldn’t go in, by decree of the Coast Guard and Thad Allen.
Did you have any specific confrontations with BP over shooting?
Spike: It wasn’t confrontations. There are just places where you can’t go. I’m not going to go up against the Coast Guard. We just shot where we could shoot. I thought it was more important to interview people who say, “We tried to fly over here,” or “We tried to bring our boat here.” It just amazed me. The power that BP has was really eye-opening, as far as how this whole thing went down. They were running the show.
They say that everything you do in life changes you, in some way. How have you changed from doing these documentaries?
Spike: That’s a hard question. Well, number one, I have friends for life now that I wouldn’t have had if it wasn’t for doing these two documentaries. It has really exposed me to the culture of that region, and the great resiliency of these people who, time after time, get knocked down, but they put one hand on the rope and pull themselves off the canvas. They’re only human beings. Every night, I pray to God because, right now, we’re in the heart of the hurricane season and it is said that this is supposed to be a very active hurricane season, as active as 2005 was. The doomsday scenario is this BP oil and the hurricanes. That’s what everybody is thinking about.
TR: So on top of the tenuous recovery comes the BP spill. Recently you said you didn’t believe the pronouncement from the oil company that in fact, 75 percent of the oil in the Gulf is gone.
SL: That’s a lie! Now are they saying 75 percent of the oil on the surface? The Exxon Valdez happened 20 years ago, and they’re still cleaning that up. This oil disaster is the biggest one in the world, ever. How is this all of a sudden all right and peachy clean? And what gets lost in the sauce is that 11 people died. Somebody needs to go to jail! …
TR: What do you want people to come away with from the documentary?
SL: The thing that affects me the most — and I don’t know how it would affect other people, but me personally — is that we have to get off our addiction to fossil fuel, and it really enlightened me, so I’m going green now. I’m fanatic on the lights, man, lights off. We never recycled at my office, 40 Acres and a Mule, before, but now we’re on it. Because I was ignorant like a lot of people who were [thinking] that this was some white, hippie, you know … but that was ignorant thinking on my part. This is everybody’s earth, everybody’s planet.
TR: Are you still angry?
SL: About BP. About injustice. About people being murdered for no other reason than greed. I pick and choose better what I get angry about. But part of that is being married. And she’s [wife, Tonya Lewis Lee] on me, too, about that. ‘Don’t say nothing! Don’t say nothing! Let somebody else say something!’ It helps.