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Five years later. Facing another man-made disaster but still marching on.
A follow-up to Spike Lee's award-winning epic documentary When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise returns to New Orleans five years after Hurricane Katrina and finds a community still struggling to put itself back together.
Facts of the Case
Director Spike Lee returns to a still-recovering New Orleans, five years after his award-winning documentary When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. As the city struggles to rebuild itself after Hurricane Katrina, a new disaster looms on the horizon: a BP oil spill that devastates the still-recovering Gulf Coast. Through interviews with residents, both current and former, actors, politicians, and celebrities, Lee documents a city still celebrating life in the face of hardships.
Time may have numbed the sense of public outcry and desperation of the Hurricane Katrina fiasco, but it may just make If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise a more important film than When The Levees Broke for this very reason. The twenty-four-hour news channels may have long since moved onto juicer stories, but that doesn't mean that New Orleans has recovered from its horrible ordeal. Spike Lee wants audiences to be fully and painfully aware of this fact. We have all seen the reality, but few outside of the Crescent City see the recovery.
Director Spike Lee and his crew return to New Orleans in 2010 and find a city overrun by the Who Dat nation, basking in exuberance from its recent Super Bowl victory. Abandoned storefronts and wreckage in the streets have been replaced by singing, dancing, and public displays of drunken affection and heavy tourism. At first glance, one might think that New Orleans is back, restored magically to its former glory from the sheer force of will of thousands of football fans, but, alas, it is not the case. New Orleans is a city deeply divided by conflict, financial uncertainty, and gentrification in the wake of Katrina, reeling from a BP oil spill in the Gulf choking the lifeblood of the economy. Competing visions of how to rebuild the city, with debates raging from healthcare to real estate threaten to tear the community in two. Corruption permeates every level of public life, from the police on the street to the bureaucrats above.
Those individuals fortunate enough to flee New Orleans now find themselves priced right out of the city they left, now unable to afford the skyrocketing rental rates. Low-income housing developments are quickly demolished to pave way for upscale condominiums, attracting a new, wealthier demographic of denizens to the city. Crime and violence run rampant throughout the city. Schools have descended into nightmarish decline. The main city hospital tries to renovate itself to keep up with a growing increase in patients, but becomes mired in red tape, flooding the streets with hapless drug abusers and the mentally ill.
And yet there is hope, sprinkled like seeds on a farmer's field. Five years have not healed Katrina's wounds, but the film admires the sheer stubborn optimism of New Orleans, a city that never gives up. This time around, rage has given way to wary optimism, though Spike Lee still projects his natural suspicion of the cultural and social institutions that continue to fail African-Americans. (Hey, it wouldn't be a Spike Lee Joint any other way.) We see celebrities like Brad Pitt, volunteering money and time to rebuild modern, flood-resistant houses in the decimated Lower Ninth Ward. We meet New Orleans residents now living in Houston, a city now boasting a six-figure expatriate population of flood evacuees. Many of the same faces appear again in this second film previously featured in the first, giving audiences a uniquely complete tale of their struggles and triumphs. It is hard not to be fascinated by the people of New Orleans; the undeniable spirit and indelible pride of its residents, who doggedly defend their town even as it sinks into the ocean around their feet, because they still can't get the government to fix the levees that got them into trouble in the first place.
The highlight of the film? Hard to say, but I did quite enjoy the interview with ex-FEMA head Mike Brown (who will forever be doing a great job, Brownie). To his credit, the guy shows his mettle by stepping up to participate in a sequel that lambasted him thoroughly the first time around. Brown handles his humiliation with bemused aplomb; a linguistic contradiction you have to see to believe.
As with the previous film, HBO puts together a handsome package for the home viewer. The film is presented in two acts, each on its own DVD. Lee shoots the city and edits the film with care and affection, creating a kind of ethereal beauty amidst the wreckage. Assembled from interview footage, archival elements and still photographs, If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise looks fantastic on DVD. Colors are vibrant, flesh tones are well-balanced, and black levels are solid. Some grain is evident, but it never detracts. In an era of 1080p, the detail and fidelity of this SD presentation is top-grade.
Audio comes in a full 5.1 surround treatment, which sounds clean and crisp but fails to take advantage of the full sonic space. Rear channels go largely unutilized, and bass response is average at best. The detail and fidelity is superb, but even the musical cues and ambient noises fail to deliver the kind of presentation this film demands.
Extras include a full-length commentary track with director Spike Lee, who does his best to fill up the four-hour film with observations and commentary, but who cannot help but fall into silence now and again. A 60-minute featurette of additional material is also included, featuring never-before-seen material.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unlike the first film, which weathered its four-hour running time like a seasoned pro, If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise feels sludgy and burdensome by the third hour, which meanders about in a slightly disoriented fashion. Documentaries rarely have sequels, and one cannot escape from a "seen it" gut reaction here. It boggles the mind that we could somehow get desensitized to the tragedy of New Orleans is an unflattering notion, but I fear it may be true here.
Both sobering and inspirational in equal amounts, If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise is a worthy follow-up to Spike Lee's magnum opus documentary.
Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?
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