By Arturo R. García
The conclusion of If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise stays a little closer to home than Part 1 did, but, again, Spike Lee succeeds at telling this set of new stories through the connections not just in New Orleans, but throughout the Gulf region, before heading home for an uncompromising conclusion.
This time around, Lee starts his story with an examination of the New Orleans school system, where a look at the efforts to rebuild the Dr. King Jr. Charter School – now the only school in the Ninth Ward – segues into a discussion over the state of Louisiana’s take-over of New Orleans schools and the opening of the Recovery School District.
As the Dr. King School gets a visit from President Obama, and former Chicago school CEO Paul Vallas is brought in to serve as superintendent, we learn the recovery is far from easy: there’s mistrust of both Vallas’ approach and the teachers now working in the district; and allegations that the lingering traumas from Hurricane Katrina are still going untreated, leading to not only health issues but an increase in crime and violence: “The criminals are getting younger and younger.”
And to illustrate this case, we get maybe the saddest individual updates from When The Levees Broke: we learn that Dinerral Shavers, the Hot 8 Brass Band member and teacher we met in the first film, was shot and killed by a 15-year-old boy; and Donnell Herrington, the victim of a racially-motivated shooting chronicled in Levees, has been shot again, this time by a black man, costing him a leg.
The discussion soon turns toward the New Orlean Police Department’s reputation for corruption, and several post-Katrina high-profile cases of police brutality: like the murders of Kim Groves and Henry Glover, and the Danziger Bridge shootings give us vivid pictures of a city that, as Dr. Calvin Mackie says, “has embraced a culture of violence.”
But the man in charge when Katrina hit, divisive mayor C. Ray Nagin – how he’ll remembered, he says, “depends [on] who’s writing it” – is replaced by Mitch Landrieu, the region is already reeling from another disaster, setting up the film’s final section, a look at the BP oil spill, from the initial explosion with witness accounts of the April 20 oil-rig explosion that killed 11 people to visits with members of the fishing industry that will be devastated for who knows how long because of the spill.
The spill section actually includes the only appearances by members of the state’s Vietnamese-American community, which accounts for the state’s largest population of Asian descent and more than half of the region’s shrimping business, in a brief interview with a group of fishermen, and some remarks by Congressman Joseph Cao (R-LA), who is shown asking BP America President and Chairman Lamar McKay to commit “hara kiri” because “we do things differently in the Asian cultur.” In lieu of the variety of political figures that appear in If God Is Willing, the absence of the state’s Indian-American Gov. Bobby Jindal is particularly conspicuous; he appears twice in the background at press conferences, but not in a speaking role, perhaps because of his own record regarding oil-industry policy.
The oil spill section concludes in the quietest, most unsettling way possible: as an organ plays a funereal melody, we get a nearly day-by-day montage of the spill from Day 10 until it’s finally closed. And from there, another sobering montage: more of the dead of New Orleans, before we get a benediction of sorts from spoken-word artist Shelton Shakespear Alexander:
And here, again, Lee parts with storytelling conventions: another film would have followed Alexander’s poem with a final parade of “we’re on the way back” soundbytes. Instead, we get a callback to the opening of Part 1, as the people profiled – residents, victims, responders, survivors – dance their way out in full Saints swag before introducing themselves as they did in Levees. The stories here are far from over, of course, but the sense of resilience is still there.