The American media tends to take a pit-bull approach to news. It grabs on, digs its teeth in, and then tosses the lifeless carcass to the wind when the sensation has run its course. Follow-through is not always the media's forte. Thank goodness, then, for documentary filmmakers who make sustained and methodical reportage their strong suit.
Brooklyn provocateur Spike Lee's bruised, heartfelt, and devastating When the Levees Broke (2006) was an exhaustive document of a horrific moment in American history: the vast and shameful failure of the American government to care for its own people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. When the Levees Broke featured interviews with politicians and rank-and-file Orleanians about the soul-crushing devastation Katrina brought, not just killing their loved ones and destroying their homes, but waking them up to the reality that their lives were often deemed valueless in the American government's scheme of things.
If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise is a four-hour, two-part HBO follow-up to Levees, a study of the storm's lingering impact five years after Katrina. In the wake of the disaster have come a medley of social ills: untreated mental illness, razed public housing, dramatic changes to the school system (for good and bad), increased racial divides, environmental contamination, diminished healthcare, and the displacement of poor New Orleanians as developers claim their slice of the city's pie. The documentary is again set to an indelibly haunting score by Terence Blanchard that gives a majesty and gravity to the issues Lee catalogs. The impact of the score is only magnified by the faces and voices of a broad spectrum of academics, politicians (including Michael Brown, Kathleen Blanco, and Ray Nagin) musicians (Blanchard and Dr. John), Brad Pitt, and ordinary people who call New Orleans home, many of whom were featured in When the Levees Broke.
It becomes apparent in If God is Willing that post-Katrina New Orleans is a touchstone for Lee, a symbol for all that is wrong and unequal in our country. The Bush administration's bungled handling of the disaster illustrated the government's disinterest in the plight of the poor and the powerless. And for the Obama administration, a similar crucible has arisen in the wake of the BP oil disaster; similar complaints are surfacing of a government going too easy on big business and perhaps neglecting the interests of the little guys.
Unlike the typical in-and-out media coverage, Lee's documentaries are committed to showing the ripple effect of how enormous tragedies play out in individuals' lives for years. To hear New Orleans residents describing their battles with drugs, depression, the loneliness of displacement in Texas or Utah — but also their fierce desire to carry on — is nothing short of extraordinary. We are not an especially reflective, but we can count ourselves lucky that Lee is on the case, pondering what can be learned about our country through the prism of New Orleans.
Lee is nothing if not ambitious, and amidst all of the heartbreak, anger, and illumination of If God is Willing is an undertow of information overload as Lee tackles not just Katrina and the BP spill, but Haiti, police corruption, crime, and the momentary joy and solidarity that the Saints' victory at the Super Bowl brought to the city. The documentary's second half tends to roam and its interests scatter as the sheer number of issues climbs. There was a fury and intensity to When the Levees Broke (missing from If God is Willing) in part due to the still-raw pang of Katrina and the rupture it opened up in the democratic American ideal for many of us. As big business and government continue to collude in eroding American values of fair play, Lee's film, with its spoken-word artists and magnificent score, testifies to the power of art to redeem us. It may not be perfect — it's prone to occasional bursts of melodrama and excessive wanderlust — but If God is Willing is as good an example of the transcendence art offers: for reflection, for mourning, and to combat all of the woes of the world.