If he never does another thing in his entire career, writer/director/agent provocateur Spike Lee can die knowing his creative legacy is set. Not with his fiction films, though many of them are masterpieces. No, his import will be cemented by a series of documentaries so skillful and seminal to the African American experience in this country that they truly have no equal. From individual portraits (A Huey P. Newton Story, Jim Brown: All-American) to bigger picture productions (the fantastic Four Little Girls) , he finds the essence of the meaning and makes the message all too clear. This is especially true of what is perhaps his greatest achievement - the two film, eight hour investigation of New Orleans and the impact of 2005's apocalyptic Hurricane Katrina. Beginning with When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts and now in If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise, the controversial artist drops the 'angry' demeanor to let events do all the fuming. The result is one of the most devastating portraits of race in America ever offered in the context of a more contained and localized tragedy.
When it was all over, when the waters finally receded and the damage (and the dead) could be accounted for, New Orleans was left at loose ends. If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise begins to tie up many of these leftover narrative threads, moving easily from a 'where are they now' overview of personalities we initially met in Lee's Levees, to addressing new horrors like FEMA's infamous formaldehyde trailers and BP's oil refinery fire and massive spill. Even with the DVD release of the first documentary, the filmmaker knew there was more to the story, much more. He even promised the participants that he would be back, and Creek is as good as his word.
Over the course of four additional hours, we learn of the housing project debacle, the lack of affordable health care and homes in the region, the fight over Charity Hospital and its devastating effect on the indigent and mentally unstable, as well as complaints (and proof) of increased crime and police brutality. But Lee also lets in some light, focusing on Brad Pitt's efforts to bring the 9th Ward back, activists attempting to address many of the city's needs, and perhaps most importantly, a landmark lawsuit which saw the Army Corps of Engineers held liable for the levee breach as well as the devastating effects afterwards. Oh yeah, and the lowly Saints somehow win the 2010 Super Bowl.
If Levees was/is an ode to survival, Creek is a companion in struggle. At this point, Lee will have to wait a few more years to see if all the good (and the decidedly bad) that still remains in Louisiana will lead to anything remotely resembling success. There is a trilogy needed here, closure to complete the journey from wild and vibrant "party town" to decimated symbol of politics and power gone bad, and if anyone can pull it off, it's Lee. Sure, the Super Bowl win was a boon, a solid shot in the arm for a region reeling from a sense of need and lack of identity. But this filmmaker is no fool. He makes sure to show us how the white folk dance around the Miami site of the world's biggest football game while, back home, those who built the Crescent City sit in bars and private gatherings to celebrate their sports. Even during the parade afterward, Lees camera catches a kind of community togetherness that he will later exploit and undermine through with the truth. In many ways, New Orleans is coming back. According to Creek, however, it's being reconfigured in a way to keep the true population locked out and/or left behind.
From the outset, we meet a mother and daughter who've decided to stay in the "terrible" state of Texas (they had been relocated there are part of Katrina's mass evacuation - and eventual exodus). Why? Because their beloved Louisiana home no longer has the school system set up to help the younger woman's special needs son. Oil town Houston does. Similarly, more than one relocated resident describes the feeling of isolation and loss upon finding themselves in New York City, Memphis, Tennessee, or most famously, a small isolated community in Utah. Many would love to go back, but the culture shock and sense of displacement is just too much to bear. So are the emotional horrors. Then there are those who have stayed and stood their ground, asking the hard questions and showing the stupidity of the entire government's response. Creek is not just an indictment of the Feds. It takes on the State (showing how a well connected Mississippi governor got much more aid than a confrontational Louisiana) and the local politicians, all of whom saw Katrina and the need to rebuild as a means of making their own narrow agenda front and center.
Then BP comes along and adds an environmental catastrophe to the already hampered economy. For an area almost solely reliant on the agriculture of the sea and the tourism that comes from its cuisine and food culture, this was a blow New Orleans didn't need. Lee uses the spill as a platform to continue his denouncement of Republican policies, of placing corporations over the concerns of people and their everyday problems. Sure, it's a standard screed, but when backed by a city still striving to make its way to something akin to normalcy, it works wonderfully. In fact, the best thing about Levees and Creek is the desire to let the cold hard facts speak for themselves. Faces and infamous talking heads can try and spin things all they want, but when Brad Pitt walks through the bleak bits of the 9th Ward, his Make It Right Foundation homes dotting the landscape, the truth of Katrina's continuing impact remains. No NFL win or petroleum promise will get New Orleans back to 100%. With films like When the Levees Broke and If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise, we can at least learn what we lost, and what we continue to lose without a concerted effort among all Americans.
Shot with cinematic care and created out of new as well as stock and archival elements, If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise looks amazing. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is colorful, crisp, and edited together with significant care. Lee uses still photos often, as well as optical effects to reinforce themes of memory and situational insanity. Again, if anyone wants to question his fictional films, so be it. When it comes to documentaries, something like this remains the most golden of gold standards.
On the sound side of things, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround doesn't do much for the interviews (just two people talking), but really takes off with Lee throws in his score from Inside Man as well as other memorable musical cues. Then, the speakers fill with a kind of clarity that emphasizes the scope of all things being considered. While there are limited opportunities outside the backdrop for the channels to be challenged, this is still a professionally shot title with terrific technical merits.
Along with an additional 60 minutes of interview footage (in the case of these amazing documentaries, always a good thing), we get Lee's full length audio commentary track. On the downside, the director lets his movie speak for itself more times than not. There are long gaps between insights, and when he does have something to say, it's usually to supplement something we already know. Still, he anchors the epic overview with the on-the-frontlines reality of the shoot. When someone pisses him off, however, get ready. The gloves do come off - and Lee is one tough critic.
Every American should own a copy of When the Levees Broke and If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise, especially those living along the vulnerable Gulf Coast and Atlantic seaboard - otherwise known as prime Hurricane territory. It's hard to imagine living through one of the worst disasters in the history of the region and then sitting back and watching as your government and its leaders bicker over the best way to throw you a half-rotten bone. The people of New Orleans deserved better, and these films acknowledge that it is their spirit and will that is making things better, not some name Hollywood helper. As this critic said of Levees, Creek is easily one of the best documentaries ever made, Lee's amazing effort earns the DVD Talk Collector's Series tag. Not just for the technical elements, mind you. No, something this important deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. We nearly lost New Orleans six years ago. Here's hoping that Spike Lee's motion picture masterpieces shames some people into finally trying to fix things - before it really is too late.