When the Levees Broke, which was a one-year-later examination of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. That two-part, four-hour film was a riveting howl of pain and anguish; with If God is Willing, Lee intended to revisit the people he met in the first film and to track the progress of the region. And then, on April 20th of last year, the Deepwater Horizon exploded. Lee’s film was suddenly even more of a sequel than he intended.
Like its predecessor, If God Is Willing runs four hours in two parts; Lee devotes the last hour or so to the BP spill. Before that, he is focused on post-Katrina New Orleans; the film begins on Super Bowl Sunday 2010, with the victory of the New Orleans Saints, a moment of fierce pride for the hobbled city. The joy of the section is infectious; it’s also bittersweet, because we know what’s coming just a couple of months later. And, as one activist notes, “at the end of the day, we’ve got to realize it’s a football game, and a football team.” Winning the Super Bowl doesn’t solve the city’s problems. If anything, it diverts attention. Lee refocuses that attention; Let’s go back, he seems to say. Let’s remember, and reflect.
Lee covers a tremendous amount of ground over the course of the films. He finds New Orleans residents who moved to Houston, and stayed. He examines how the hurricane allowed city authorities to close the projects; some call it forced gentrification, others are more blunt (“ethnic cleansing”). He compares and connects the flood to the earthquake in Haiti. He talks to Katrina’s public enemy number one, horse show organizer/FEMA head Michael Brown, who blames exhaustion (“I hadn’t slept in four days”—and?) and everyone from Chertoff to Rumsfeld for the spectacular bungling of the federal response—and Lee, to his credit, lets Brown tell his story. He examines the “political dynamics” that may have played into the level of response—the funds made available to Mississippi (and its Republican governor) compared to Louisiana (and its Democratic governor) by the Republican administration. (Governor Haley Barbour is briefly seen, mouthing what amounts to a vile, direct slap in the face of his Louisiana neighbors, and all their “whining” and “victimhood.”)
And there’s more, much more. Formaldehyde in the FEMA trailers. The fight to save Charity Hospital. The struggle to reestablish schools. The rise in crime. The broken justice system. The corruption of the NOPD (Danziger Bridge, Henry Glover, and so on). And then, bang, oil in the Gulf. If God is Willing originally aired on HBO in August, so the wounds of the spill are still fresh; the film benefits from the power of looking at events from an ever-so-slight distance. The bitterness and anger at BP are raw, bristling; a funny and piercing interlude includes some suggestions for what “BP” might actually stand for. Lee gets his interview subjects to speak candidly (“If you can’t close the hole,” asks Mayor Mitch Landreiu, “what are you doing drilling there anyway?”), and captures the hopelessness of that time simply and brilliantly with a montage of shots from the “gusher-cam” as the days tick by, one after the other.
That’s a tremendous, powerful sequence; so is the montage of front steps—and nothing else—remaining in the lower 9th ward, and the “May God bless the dead” sequence of chilling still photographs. In that scene, and the powerful overtures that open each part, Lee makes maximum use of the music of Terrence Blanchard; some complain that his scores are overblown and melodramatic, but that’s one critique that doesn’t apply to subject matter like this.
In spite of the exhaustive amount of material, Lee and his editors Sam Pollard and Geeta Gandbhir never rush or stretch; the picture navigates easily between topics and subjects, deftly melding archival footage (though perhaps a bit too much from When the Levees Broke) and new B-roll with memories and analysis from residents, writers, historians, sociologists, and politicians. It is a smart documentary, stunning in places (the footage and images of police keeping residents out of a city council meeting regarding the demolition of the projects), heart-wrenching in others (the simplicity of the young man whose father, seen in the first film, was shot and killed in the interim). When the Levees Broke is one of Lee’s crowning achievements; If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise is a worthy companion.
The second part concludes with a long closing “roll call” of the interview subjects, each holding up a picture frame in front of their face and introducing themselves. What they say is telling; some opt for simplicity (“Brad Pitt,” the actor muses. “Self-employed”), others go way overboard (lookin’ at you, Michael Brown). The entire thing runs a good ten minutes, and seems, at first, a little tiny bit goofy. But it continues, the subjects are often spirited and funny, proud and fierce, no matter what their troubles or tragedies. That sequence (also done in the first film) amounts to the movie’s “second line”: the people who remain behind, still breathing, still fighting, still dancing, still going. If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise gives them their due. It’s a powerful, overwhelming experience.
"If God is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise" makes it DVD debut on Tuesday, April 19th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.