If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise (2010) - Can't Stop the Movies
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If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise (2010)

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Returning to New Orleans years after the levees broke, Spike Lee revisits familiar faces and introduces new facts as he focuses on the reconstruction efforts in If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise.

Still not helping usIt's not unusual for an artist to pick back up with their creations and see where they would be in their lives.  Directors do this too, usually to diminishing results.  I think of Godfather 3, a gorgeous if not altogether worthy sequel to the previous two installments, or of The Barbarian Invasions, which shared the structure and characters of The Decline of the American Empire if not necessarily the same spirit.  Rarely do the follow-up efforts match the originals, even Prometheus, which I feel is just as worth as Alien, will inspire intense debate on whether it is or isn't worthy.

Spike Lee's follow-up to When the Levees Broke, If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise, is not only a worthy follow-up, I think it was absolutely essential.  I wish he would be able to return to New Orleans every few years and catch up with the people he focused on in the first film, because the two movies combined have become an essential sociological and economic document of the United States.  More history is introduced which is crucial to understanding how the resident's of New Orleans were in the prime position to get screwed, and this history goes right back to the darker consequences of the progressive legislation of F.D.R.'s New Deal.  Spike even goes right up to criticizing Obama's cautious approach to domestic issues where race is a factor, with many of the talking heads discussing how his efforts and statements were certainly appreciated, but need to be stronger.

Now five years after and it's disappointingly clear Obama will not present that strength, and in this was If God Is Willing continues along the path of When the Levees Broke in how thoroughly the system fails its lower class people.  Part of what's so impressive as a follow-up is the way Spike continues to keep his approach balanced so they aren't "seen as whining".  I think of an ironic juxtaposition between the drum solo which sounded the arrival of a helpful General in When the Levees Broke being reused for the cowardly "I just want my life back" CEO of Tony Hayward.  I also like the symmetry of the celebration of life after the Saints won the Superbowl with their marches in this film and the citizens walking down the dead neighborhoods in the last.

Much like When the Levees Broke, I don't know if we'll be able to really scratch at everything If God Is Willing has to offer, but let's give it our level-best shot.‏Let's have some fun for onceThere's a line early on in If God Is Willing (following the awesome Phyllis LeBlanc performance from which the title is drawn) where one of the interviewees talks about the attempts following Hurricane Katrina to build “the new New Orleans.” He cuts to the contradiction inherent in this phrasing, pointing out that there can't be a “new” version of the city—that “a city's history is one solid through-line.” The desire to christen reconstruction efforts as a kind of rebirth by those in charge of urban development is a great example of how power structures utilize careful and manipulative rhetoric to enlist people in their own continued oppression.

Lee turns a lot of his attention to these reconstruction efforts as a way of showing the ongoing effects of Katrina. As with When the Levees Broke, Lee astutely points out that the major damage to the citizens of New Orleans' Ninth Ward, St. Bernard Parish, and other low-income areas came not from the hurricane itself, but from the consequences of the storm, particularly the government's response. Public-private business partnerships used reconstruction as an opportunity to rapidly gentrify certain areas and exclude previous residents, and some of the most painful scenes here involve people describing how and why they have never returned to the city.

I was going to compare If God Is Willing to Michael Apted's Up series, but that's not a good a comparison so much as an easy one. While that series wants to chart how individuals from different socioeconomic backgrounds change and evolve throughout their natural lives, here Lee is beginning to chart the extended effects of a particular tragedy on his subjects personal histories. It's an incredible document of how socioeconomic factors not only determine potential futures, but how these factors are manipulated and controlled.‏Education hearingNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThe comparison between Spike and Apted's respective efforts is important because it informs how different economic and social backgrounds affect what gets captured on film.  Spike's problems with his father, struggles with the government securing rights to film, and background in jazz keep If God Is Willing on a more sprawling path and includes the dirt poor.  The subjects of Apted's films, even though they started as a sociological study, aren't the dirt poor and Apted's approach is what I would expect from a middle-class director concerned with politics - that being a relatively safe and distanced look at the subject without probing tough paths.

There are many instances in If God Is Willing where those tough paths are probed by Spike directly, and others where they unfold in a natural path.  He calls back to When the Levees Broke directly in his style during two crucial moments - looping Hayward's "I just want my life back" three times, like when Bush told then-FEMA director Michael Branham he was doing a "heck of a job".  The other piece, the more crucial one, is when Spike reiterates the direct devastation of Katrina with an almost copy / pasted montage of bodies which closed the second chapter of When the Levees Broke, and showing a time-lapse footage of the oil spill which ravaged Louisiana later as it starts ticking off hours then goes into weeks.  The unspoken message in both instances of repetition is one of the oldest in life, that history will repeat itself if we let it.  If it's not rising waters breaking down unstable levees (in one of the most damning pieces of visual evidence these two films has brought to light) then its in the continued apathy from their leaders.

Time after time we get the sense that these leaders are exhausted not because they're trying to do the right thing, but because they keep getting bothered.  One of the worst pieces is the most subtle, when former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin complains he had to buy tickets to the Superbowl and that the seats weren't so good.  Later on, he says that if nothing else he may get a book out of all this.  It's those tiny glimpse into what his true motivations are, profit and self-advancement, which make documentaries spectacular compared to other cinematic forms.  The other moment, which infuriated me, came at the end when Branham said, with a sharp edge to his voice, that he now specializes in "Motivational speeches on what it's like to pick yourself up off the floor."  That, and similarly enraging comments from then-governor Haley Barbour, reinforce the images of struggling people and continued desolation by showing just how out of touch they are with the suffering of those who weren't born with their privileges.‏

Tiny Kyle CommentaryNagin's comments are especially damning in light of the convictions on corruption charges that would follow just a few years after the documentary. It's interesting how in revisiting certain key players in the initial response to Katrina, Lee brings out insights that were only gestured at in When the Levees Broke—from Michael Brown's now-entrenched preoccupation with his own share of blame to General Russel Honore's reflections on the military's role in responding to the tragedy.

One of the best moments of the earlier film was Honore's arrival in New Orleans, gruffly barking orders to soldiers to lower their guns, which were needlessly trained on crowds of those displaced by the storm. It's one of those moments that's conveniently cinematic all on its own—in everything from his look to his mannerisms, Honore embodies the no-nonsense general here to whip everybody into shape, and his arrival fit into the timeline of the response to position him as a kind of much-needed savior against the Bush administration's delays and neglect.

While certainly nothing is that simple or clear-cut in reality, it was a great moment in the earlier documentary, and here Spike gives Honore some screen time to reflect on his arrival in New Orleans. His statements about how dangerous the military's initial response was—fearful and totally devoid of empathy—underlines the incredible emotional burden the people trapped in the Superdome had to suffer. Having already lost their homes and loved ones, the U.S. military rolls in and treats them as threats.

Honore notes how incredibly easy it would have been for such an emotionally charged situation to turn violent, and how important it was to recognize and respect the collective emotional state of the Katrina survivors at that particular moment in time. Already under unimaginable stress, they're expected by the military (and the media) to suffer the burden of “remaining calm” until the system gets around to helping them—a system that's literally pointing guns in their face after they've lost everything and been herded like animals into the Superdome without enough food and water.

Had violence erupted, you can be sure it wouldn't have been reported in a way that emphasized any of these causal factors, and as Honore described the situation he arrived to, it was impossible for me not to think about the recent coverage of protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Lee doesn't draw our attention to it in an overt way, but in the context of a totally inept government response to the disaster, it really does seem like a small miracle that at least someone had the sense to respond with empathy instead of fear and disdain.‏Still spilling after all these weeksNewer Andrew cutout commentaryI'm glad you pointed that out, because if anything the leaders in those areas, and now McKinney, TX (even though that whole debacle was more or less swept under the rug) could watch both When the Levees Broke and If God Is Willing to get some hints on how to better treat their residents.  But as enlightening as the failed leaders are, I was tearing up at the humility on display.  You rightly point to General Honore' as one of the few heroes of Katrina, and there's little else to suggest in If God Is Willing that he didn't earn that status.  But I also love how some of the returning players get a shot at, if not redemption, then just a humble showing they're trying to put things right.  Eddie Compass, whose devotion to his job made things somewhat worse as Chief of Police, turned that same passion into helping kids as a Superintendent.  Whether things will be ultimately better or worse is one of the many points of debate in If God Is Willing, Compass still shows he learned some lessons with his slightly lowered head and reserved way of speaking.  He was trying hard to help people, unlike the Rumsfelds and Rices of the world, and still carries their pain with him.

It's that weight, the feeling which no matter how far they've gone they still have many leagues to go, which continually balances Spike's approach.  We open on the Superbowl celebration, then immediately balance that with the history lesson on how the projects formed and how they made the New Orleans residents easy targets.  Earlier moments of hope, such as the Utah mother who got a house, balance with paranoia and fear as she struggles to form the words to describe how her neighbors in her new neighborhood treat her and her family.  Spike never presents a clean victory without a downside, but the reverse is also true.  We're reminded of the mother who lost her 7-year old daughter in the waters, but we also learn of a couple who met during Katrina and married.

That couple shows how Spike, no matter how grave the situation, still wants to preserve the humor of those who can joke, since this story of how they met turns into a description of the man's foot fetish (coupled with shot of said feet).  There's another subtle positive visual reference all throughout If God Is Willing that shows that many have moved on for the better.  So many of the interviewees, those who return or those in their lives, moved on to become nurses or emergency medical personnel.  Spike doesn't bring this to our attention directly, but they show up in their scrubs, casually mention how they're in a nursing program, or talk about what they're setting up in New Orleans.  It reminds me of that other great American documentary, Hoop Dreams, where our focus is on these two basketball players and at the end one mother triumphantly announces she completing her nursing degree.  We're never told her story, but when she says this it brings to mind all the untold stories floating around any tragedy.  It's impossible to share them all, but Spike's continued efforts in If God Is Willing show he doesn't want to forget their selfless work and sacrifice.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryOne of the more complicated instances of Lee looking at a silver lining involves a woman and her autistic son who moved to Texas in the aftermath of the storm. She describes the decision to stay in Texas after she discovered there were special needs schools there that her son wouldn't have access to back in New Orleans. It's not just that New Orleans hadn't rebuilt any of these schools yet—its that she and her son never had access to them in the first place. She describes learning that her son could be enrolled in life skills classes for the first time—“Life skills class,” she says, “the name says it all.”

It's obviously good that her son now has access to the educational support he needs, but that they only found it through coincidence following a tragedy is just one of the many sadnesses If God is Willing contains. Lee demonstrates a humanistic, intuitive approach to history by looking here not only at the city of New Orleans but also the lives of some of those affected by Katrina who have since branched out (by choice or by default) to other areas. It's not hard to imagine this project continuing on every few years, or even once each decade, taking shape not just as a document about the far-reaching effects of Katrina but about how the complex relationships between politics, geography, capitalism, and social attitudes shape history.

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Next, Red Hook Summer.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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