Monday, August 23, 2010


Life in New Orleans is anything but easy

By Edward Copeland
Spike Lee can be a great feature filmmaker, but often ends up with mixed results. However, when Lee turns his focus to documentary moviemaking, he has yet to fail and that is the case again with his two-part HBO documentary If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise, which debuts on the pay channel tonight and concludes Tuesday evening. If God Is Willing follows up on Lee's brilliant When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, a previous HBO work that also aired in two parts and examined New Orleans after Katrina. The new work returns to The Big Easy five years after that cataclysm and broadens the scope to other locales and also explores the new nightmare to hit the region thanks to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and BP's consistent lies about how its oil spill is much worse than it wants known and the effects on the region's ecosystem and economy may last for generations. Still, hope persists. As one of the more than 300 people Lee interviews for the film says, "We like Weebles. baby. We may wobble, but we never fall down."

After revisiting some images of the immediate destruction following Katrina, Part I focuses on a high point for New Orleans earlier this year: When the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl and the entire city had a positive thing to rally around with the "Who Dat" nation. One witness describes the event as a phoenix rising from the ashes, but others have a more realistic take. After all, as proud as the victory made New Orleans feel about their town and their team, it was just a sporting event and many of the systemic problems that plague the city, many of which preceded Hurricane Katrina, continue to haunt them. The Super Bowl win gave them a chance to celebrate momentarily, but it didn't change the circumstances that still hinder the city's recovery from the 2005 disaster. Though the game wasn't their only victory, as the photo at the top of this post shows, after being denied a chance to hold the Army Corps of Engineers accountable for the failure of the levees, footage recovered from a TV transmitter proved that the Corps' story that the levees didn't fail until waters topped them was false. They failed BEFORE Katrina even made landfall because of the Corps' poor maintenance of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, which led to the catastrophic flooding. A federal district court found the Corps culpably negligent, leading the way for long-sought financial restitution to many. Still, as historian Douglas Brinkley explains, Katrina was just part of the continuum in the history of New Orleans, which had seen more than its fair share of disasters: yellow fever, typhoid, fires, flooding, Civil War, slavery. When he spoke, the BP oil spill had yet to come. Though Katrina occurred Aug. 29, 2005, many evacuees remain in exile, for different reasons. Lee takes a side trip to Houston, where many former residents of New Orleans still remain. In the case of one family, it happens to be because they have a child with special needs and New Orleans lacks a school system for children with disabilities (and lacked one prior to the hurricane as well), so they feel they must stay in Houston for the child, despite their admission that they "hate Texans." Another reason many have failed to return were they were renters and rent in New Orleans has skyrocketed, in one case from $380 a month to $800. Some rent tops $1,000 a month. One group, led by Brad Pitt, has been doing its part to try to help build new, green, hurricane resistant housing in the Lower Ninth Ward.

The rent increase symbolizes one of the biggest outrages post-Katrina: the demolition of public housing projects that really weren't damaged much by the storm. The very first public housing project, the St. Thomas Projects, were built in 1941 under the orders of FDR. However, much post-Katrina development seemed aimed at giving largesse to contractors, even if it left the city's residents behind. Citizens led huge protests against the planned demolition, much as Clarke Peters' character Albert did on David Simon's recent HBO series Treme. In fact, it's amazing how much of the real events covered in this documentary were reflected in Treme. One of Lee's most frequent interview subjects in the film, Jacques Moriel of the Louisiana Justice Institute, actually appeared as himself in Simon's series giving political advice to Steve Zahn's character. In real life, the New Orleans City Council closed a public meeting where they planned to vote on the planned demonstration, to the point the people were locked outside and hit with pepper spray and the handful of protesters who did manage to get into the meeting were met with stun guns. It didn't matter. The council voted unanimously to tear down the projects in favor of building supposed "mixed-use" residences. Then-Mayor Ray Nagin still claims the projects were unusable, while others claim that the plan, spearheaded by then-President Bush's HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson amounted to a form of ethnic cleansing. As one protester quite reasonably asks, "Where in the United States do you find people making $250,000 a year living next to people make $20,000 a year?"

Things aren't any better on the health care side, as plans are made to close the legendary Charity Hospital and demolish other historic structures to build a new private care health complex. The health infrastructure following Katrina went from bad to worse to the point that in one woman's case, she had to go to Houston to be placed on a waiting list for cancer treatment. Many will tell you that though the storm hit almost five years ago, its aftermath still is acquiring a death toll. New Orleans' suicide rate is twice the national average, yet current Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal closed the city's only in-patient mental health facility and people who need mental health help now get treated at the jail. Lee also compares how quickly the Obama Administration responded to Haiti after its catastrophic earthquake compared to the incompetent government reaction on all levels to Hurricane Katrina from the Bush Administration on down, including how though Louisiana received 75% of the storm damage, aid was split evenly between it and Mississippi thanks to the lobbying of GOP heavyweight Haley Barbour. He also speaks with Sean Penn, who was seen aiding New Orleans in When the Levees Broke, as he tries to aid the quake victims in Port-au-Prince. Lee also interviews Michael "heckuva job Brownie" Brown who reveals the logistical problems he had getting anyone in there because back in D.C. then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued for days against freeing up air support to get troops into the storm-damaged area. As with the previous documentary, the longer you watch, the angrier you get.

As we move into part two (which airs Tuesday night), we learn more of the corruption that afflicted the Crescent City in terms of its school board (where one member even managed to sell off school pianos) that preceded the storm and the police department, which was so bad that many citizens feared the criminals less than the cops. (Some police even beat up a Good Samaritan in order to cover up one of their murders.) Progress seems to be being made on the police front, which hired a civilian attorney for the first time to head its integrity unit while there's much debate over an education expert brought it to start forming charter schools. Some swear by them, others view them as yet another scheme to keep the minority population down.

The second part proves to be especially even-handed as it explores many of these issues, especially the issue of former Mayor Ray Nagin. Some feel he got a raw deal, others think he is a joke. One interesting statistic: In his first election, he garnered 80% of the white vote, but only 24% of the black vote. When it came to re-election, many African Americans returned just to help him and the vote breakdown was reversed. As one black voter indicates, they saved Nagin's ass and then he did nothing to help the minority population, continuing to believe the private sector would save the city. Things seem destined to change with the Mitch Landrieu era and then he got hit with a new catastrophe: The Deepwater Horizon explosion that led to the BP oil spill and the worst environmental disaster in the history of the world.

If your anger has subsided, once he reaches the BP section of the film, your blood will start boiling again as the endless string of lies from the oil company is recounted along with previous BP malfeasance in Texas City and Alaska. One engineer tells how when the pictures of the plumes of flowing oil begin to show and BP claimed it was only 5,000 gallons of oil, even his 5-year-old son could recognize that it was more than 5,000 gallons of oil.

What's disturbed me all along is how BP was allowed to give orders to the Coast Guard and the FAA to keep the press away from seeing what really was going on. As one witness says, "Louisiana didn't land on BP, BP landed on Louisiana." It tells how BP used a dispersant that's banned in the United Kingdom, even though other dispersants were less toxic and more effective. BP's plan though was to sink the oil to where it can't be seen. As Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquesmines Parish in suburban New Orleans said, every day brought a new lie from BP and their attitude wa "out of sight, out of mind." Tracie L. Washington of the Louisiana Justice Institute sees dispersant as a metaphor for how they try to solve all problems: charter school dispersant, affordable housing dispersant, private care dispersant and now oil dispersant. As the ER doctor who lived in Mississippi said, former BP CEO Tony Hayward who wanted his life back, "deserves a beatdown." Another witness says he'd jump on him like "stink on shit" while still another tells of how he was brought up to fear the Soviets and the communists, he never knew it would be the return of the British to fear. In one of the funniest moments, a man unveils a rant with an array of other things BP could stand for.

Historian Douglas Brinkley finds some fault with Obama's reaction to the crisis. "Once in a while, presidents need to get angry." This is certainly one of those cases as it threatens already vanishing wetlands, the economic livelihood of Gulf Coast residents, especially fishermen, who provide 40% of the nation's seafood. As current New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and others point out, the story would probably be different if this disaster had happened off the coast of Nantucket or The Hamptons. Nungasser illustrates what a piss-poor cleanup BP is doing as he shows what he and some friends were able to scoop up early one morning using boats and run-of-the-mill ShopVacs. More frightening are the unknowns of what could happen should another storm make its way to the region, sending the oil and dispersant not only into the air but also allowing it to contaminate the fresh water supply in the area. Lee has made a more than worthy followup to When the Levees Broke with If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise. Part One airs on HBO tonight 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT with Part Two airing Tuesday at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT.

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Fantastic review. I still haven't seen Levees. I need to make time for that. Now I can watch both in one big depressing double-feature. This has me motivated to get to both films soon.
When the Levees Broke was probably my favorite documentary since Hoop Dreams and I almost consider it Lee's best work, even above Do the Right Thing. I wish I had HBO to see this (to say nothing of Treme). I wish Michael Moore would take some lessons from Lee, who is not only better at capturing outrage in his docs but better researched. And Lee is just as egotistical as Moore, but he never injected himself into WtLB which I found key to its incisiveness. He never refocuses the outrage.
It's true, especially on some issues where he's presenting both sides such as Nagin, charter schools and whether or not to have an offshore drilling moratorium. You never see Spike's face until the end credits when he has a really interesting montage of all the interview subjects and the crew and you only hear his voice when his question is needed to be heard in order for the response to make sense.
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