Television review: ‘If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise’ on HBO
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.)
Like its predecessor, the film, which premieres five years to the day that the hurricane formed, is four hours in length and has the somewhat overstuffed feel of a double album. It’s often been said of double albums — sometimes by the artists themselves — that less might have been more. And doubtless you could edit each of Lee’s New Orleans documentaries into the film equivalent of a single LP, one that would flow with greater elegance and perhaps make its case more persuasively. It’s difficult to process this much information, and conflicting opinion, about schools and hospitals, black-on-black crime and cop-on-citizen crime, redevelopment and relocation, and on and on.
Lee has sacrificed some clarity for inclusiveness; this is the document as monument, artful and rough by turns, and determined to be as big as its subject. But like the White Album or “London Calling,” its argument for greatness depends precisely on the kitchen sink being left in; he lets the poets proclaim and the rappers rap. HBO press materials say that “more than 300 people share their stories” in the film, and while, strictly speaking, that doesn’t seem right — it would amount to a new talking head nearly every minute — there is a great multiplicity of often opposing voices, great and small: doctors, activists, academics, teachers, journalists, musicians, actors, artists, poets, policemen and politicians, many of whom we first met in “Levees.” Some are doing well, some less well; all would agree that the story is far from over.
To extend the album metaphor, the logic of the film is essentially musical, sometimes modulating seamlessly between themes, sometimes moving suite-like through contrasting moods. It opens big, with brass-band beats marking the Saints’ victory at the 2010 Super Bowl but quickly moves to darker, more ambiguous tonalities, to show a city at odds with its citizens: the “New New Orleans,” a sanitized simulacrum of the place itself being remade without many of the people who call or called it home. “If you want to knock down projects and put up townhouses and bring a certain type of person to this city,” says one observer, “you’re not going to have this city anymore, because the culture of this city came from poor black people.”
Most of the last quarter of the film (the fourth side, if you will), is devoted to the BP spill, in which Lee is not inclined to see any complexity at all. But he follows it with a string-backed requiem for the dead — trumpeter Terence Blanchard wrote the elegiac score — illustrated with photos of corpses and skeletons, then returns to the opening parade rhythms, as all the previously seen talking heads reappear, alphabetically, each peering through an empty picture frame, to identify themselves and where they live, city or parish. I found this passage unexpectedly and increasingly moving, until tears were streaming down my face. I can’t say exactly why.