By Arturo R. García
The best, most brutal thing about Spike Lee’s If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise is how it flows, showing us not just how the various residents and systems in New Orleans are connected, but how the breakdown of help for it and the state of Louisiana in the wake of both Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill has infected the community on a variety of levels.
To do this, Lee brings back many of the residents viewers met in his last foray to the Crescent City, When The Levees Broke; Phyllis Montana-Leblanc (who also appears in Treme) opens the film with the eponymous poem seen above. From there, Lee veers into what might have been used as a “happy ending” for another film: a look at the local celebration of the New Orlean Saints’ Super Bowl win. From there, the bloom off the rose starts falling, and the reality of the situation is brought home by local activist M. Endesha Jukali: “After the Superbowl on that Sunday,” he tells us. “I was gonna have to get up and figure out how I was gonna eat the next morning, how I was gonna pay my bills, how I was gonna be able to survive. I’m not a who dat. I’m a who is that?”
The episode journeys not just back to the neighborhoods Lee covered in Levees but to Houston, where thousands of exiles from the hurricane started over; to Haiti, for a look not just at that country’s own disaster, but at the historical relationship between it and Louisiana; to Mississippi, which suffered about 50 percent less damage from Katrina but got just as much federal aid, according to numerous officials, because of Governor Haley Barbour’s cozy relationship with then-President George W. Bush’s administration.
In a particularly damning moment, these allegations are mixed in with footage of Barbour’s speech where he praises his state’s recovery effort by saying, “Our people aren’t whining or moping around, they’re not into victimhood.” There’s also a section featuring one of the popular scapegoats of the Katrina story, then FEMA-head Michael Brown; as the infamous “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” clip is revisited, Brown says, “If you’ll look closely at that clip,” he says, “you’ll see me wince,” as tries to recast himself as another victim of the bureaucratic incompetency that only exacerbated the situation.
But, though Lee reaches wide to make these far-flung connections, his primary focus always returns back to the devastated heart of the city and the interlocking problems: Jukali gives us a walking tour through the gentrified neighborhood-to-be being built where the St. Bernard Parish once stood, likening it to a supermodel (“it’s anorexic, and probably full of drugs”) and noting the use of cheaper immigrant labor for the project instead of hiring local workers.
And with the new housing come higher rental prices, and economic opportunism: we see footage of the contentious New Orleans City Council meeting where some residents were locked out and others got into skirmishes with police as the council unanimously votes to demolish the city’s public housing. And with the lack of housing came the FEMA trailers that were revealed to be toxic to residents.
And these health problems dovetail with the lack of adequate medical facilities, and the fight to save Charity Hospital from being turned from a dedicated public-service hospital with a track record of addressing victims of mental trauma to a “private-public venture” which would require the destruction of longtime residences to even be built. The series’ first installment closes with a chilling story to underscore the damage done by the lack of resources for the city’s mentally ill: the killing of police officer Nicola Cotton by a former Charity patient who, after it was closed, was shuffled around different facilities without an effective treatment plan. When the credits hit and images of the Saints’ celebration return to the screen, the juxtaposition is as unnerving as it is effective.