Sunday, August 29, 2010

Doing The Right Thing: New Orleans Five Years Later

Spike Lee evenhanded and upbeat? Yup. In If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise – a four-hour HBO documentary timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina – the famously feisty filmmaker refuses to go all Kanye West on us. Maybe George Bush doesn’t care about black people, as the hip-hop artist suggested during a subsequent televised benefit concert, but that theory is not espoused in this cinematic work. Instead, the narrative traces every major issue – disparities in education, health care, housing and employment, as well as neglect, police brutality and, of course, racism – with equanimity and a satirical perspective.

The storm hit the region on August 29, 2005; Mississippi got the brunt of wind and rain. But New Orleans and other Louisiana communities were decimated by the terrible failure of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, followed by an inept response from the government as a whole. Lee investigated the immediate aftermath of Katrina in When the Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts, his acclaimed 2006 doc. This time around, he has a bigger canvas.

Both segments of his new two-parter open with symphonic music that segues into jazz, accompanying images of the flood-ravaged terrain and its victims, both dead and alive. The montage includes quick glimpses of people who show up later in interviews, such as New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, historian Douglas Brinkley and trumpet player Terence Blanchard (a frequent Lee collaborator).

Several long minutes are spent on celebrations of February 2010’s Super Bowl victory by the New Orleans Saints. Although the game was played in Miami, the win also symbolized the recovery of their hometown stadium: the Superdome, which had sheltered about 10,000 hurricane evacuees in miserable conditions. (See David's blog re this from February 10, 2010.) Lee conveys the comeback spirit of a population that has suffered. Thousands of them repeatedly chant: “Who dat sayin’ they gonna beat dem Saints? Who dat? Who dat?” We see two nuns in the stands who vow the city is “going to the promised land;” Blanchard proclaims the football triumph was “divine intervention.” I feel queasy whenever anyone claims God – who may or may not be willing – is on their side, particularly when it comes to sports. Yet those scenes, with folks of every conceivable skin color gathered on the streets of the French Quarter, did get my tears flowing at the rare sight of human togetherness. But Brinkley warns against “knee-jerk boosterism.” And I read a film review that referred to the “Who dat?” catchphrase as sort of modern-day minstrel show. Now I don’t know what to think.

What can’t be questioned, however, is the passion for the Big Easy that lures the diaspora back despite all the challenges. An extreme example: When Blanchard’s elderly mother visits the new house he has built for her from the ruins, she complains that certain appliances aren’t in the same spot. Attachment to physical roots is a powerful draw. All the more reason to regret that, even though homelessness is now rampant, the Feds have insisted on demolishing the relatively unscathed low-income projects (with 4,500 apartments) dating back to the New Deal era. One woman tells Lee that this decision represents “ethnic cleansing.” In the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward, Brad Pitt has sponsored construction of raised buildings (safer in floods) with solar panels and access to roofs (people died in 2005, unable to hack through their attics).

Charity Hospital, always a safety net for the uninsured, is also destined for the wrecking ball. Louisiana State University, which owns the facility, plans to construct a megalithic teaching hospital. The funds have yet to be raised and it would not open for another decade. Meanwhile, New Orleans – now the murder capital of America, with a suicide rate that’s twice the national average – struggles to treat its most impoverished citizens.

Bush’s infamous “Brownie, you’re doing heck of a job!” moment is examined. Michael Brown, the Arabian horse trainer who was appointed to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), defends himself by contending he winced when the president made that remark. But no wince can be seen as the clip is looped several times in succession. Nonetheless, Lee gives the man his day in court, during which he reveals that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to send in the needed military assets.

On several late August shows broadcast from New Orleans, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow is more incisive than Lee in her analysis of what’s happening in the Crescent City today. She mentions that media outlets tend to go for the “noble” stories of how people persevere, rather than an objective scrutiny of the situation: inadequate services for poor (mostly black) residents. Community activists like Tracie Washington, president of the Louisiana Justice Institute, also appear in ...Creek Don’t Rise. Some seem more forceful on the Maddow program. In a piece about Brad Pitt’s efforts in the Lower Ninth, a happy new occupant calls him an angel. When the saints go marching in, he’ll no doubt be in their number.

Harry Shearer’s The Big Uneasy, an even angrier chronicle premiering in 160 theaters on August 30, notes that a prominent news anchor told him the network looks for “emotional stories” rather than grim facts. The actor (Derek Smalls in This is Spinal Tap and numerous characters he voices on The Simpsons) slams the Corps of Engineers for shoddy construction and minimal oversight of the levees. What transpired in New Orleans, where 80 percent of the city was under water, did not come as the result of a natural disaster; he talks with scientists who contend it was the biggest man-made catastrophe since the meltdown of Russia’s Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986.

And then came the BP offshore oil platform explosion. Lee scrambled to reedit his documentary to cover the latest nightmare for the Gulf Coast. Among other problems, the oil spill is further eroding the vulnerable wetlands. An estimated 100,000 acres of this vital resource have been lost since Katrina because a stretch the size of the Superdome disappears every 40 minutes, in large part thanks to other Army Corps endeavors over the years to bolster industry and shipping. As Dr. John – native New Orleans singer/songwriter and, since 2003, a member of the band Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars – says on camera, “Love of money is the root of all evil.”

Or, to borrow some Louisiana-karma lyrics from one of his seminal tunes, “I been in the right place but it must have been the wrong time....I been in the right world but it seems wrong wrong wrong wrong.”

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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