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REVIEW | Checking In: Spike Lee’s Return to New Orleans Uneven But Still Essential

REVIEW | Checking In: Spike Lee's Return to New Orleans Uneven But Still Essential

In 2006, Spike Lee’s sprawling HBO documentary “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” delivered the definitive look at the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina on the lower class residents of New Orleans. While other investigative reports on the disaster have come and gone, Lee’s portrait remains singularly potent, perhaps because the scale of the production allowed him to tell the miserable tale with unparalleled comprehensiveness.

“When the Levees Broke”‘s cultural influence persists. CNN tapped “Levees” composer Terrence Blanchard for its own special on the disaster, and impassioned survivor Phyllis Montana-Leblanc landed a role on HBO’s post-Katrina series, “Treme.” But even a seasoned storyteller like Lee couldn’t find a clear-cut finale to an open-ended drama (“Four hours seems like a down payment,” wrote The Times-Picayune critic Dave Walker), and a follow-up seemed inevitable. Just in time for the inclusion of the BP oil spill, the sequel has arrived.

“If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise,” Lee’s four-hour update on New Orleans’s recovery — which debuts on HBO in two parts August 23 and 24 — mostly coasts along on the momentum established in the earlier work. While not offering the same inspired blend of journalism and poetic anguish that “Levees” did, the new installment covers enough fresh ground for a thorough, occasionally enlightening survey. His concluding chapter on the BP spill is genius.

The first two hours engage with an unfocused mess of topics, ranging from the symbolism of the New Orleans Saints’ 2010 Super Bowl triumph to the city’s ongoing housing crisis. Whereas “Levees” tracked the events of Katrina in a linear fashion, “Creek” is chronologically scattershot. Despite the meandering structure, however, the assemblage of talking heads amounts to an eloquent collage of local voices.

As a documentarian Lee is unparalleled in his capacity to coach his subjects into letting their guards down. Montana-Leblanc performs a fierce monologue in the documentary’s opening segment, providing the title (“We all know there’s blood in that BP oil/If god is willing and da creek don’t rise”). “Levees” stars ranging from Blanchard to Sean Penn, Douglas Brinkley, and various lesser known characters return to chat about the fallout. We’ve been here before, but it’s not like they’ve lost their capacity to discuss the issues at hand.

Yet at times, “Creek” becomes too reliant on the legacy of the first entry, repeatedly sampling excerpts from “Levees” and getting bogged down by the need to provide updates on stories introduced before. It begins with a lengthy montage of Katrina imagery, retreading familiar turf before spreading out in newer directions. Brad Pitt takes Lee on a tour of his extensive remodeling of the Ninth Ward. Disgraced former FEMA director Michael Brown reappears to reflect on the events, looking much looser than he did during the initial stages of his declining reputation. An even looser Ray Nagin, whose mayorship expired earlier this year, lets loose about his own mistakes and tears into the city’s continuing problems, including the police force’s notorious racism. Lee takes a detour to Haiti and draws a provocative contrast between FEMA’s response in 2005 and the U.S.’s comparatively speedy reaction to the quake. As the setting keeps changing, Lee’s emphasis is all over the place. The result feels more like a collection of mini-specials on New Orleans’s state of affairs than any sort of cogent analysis.

Finally, in the second half of the program, Lee hits a coherent groove. Beginning with President Barack Obama’s visit to a renovated New Orleans high school, the director neatly transitions into a study of the conflicting reactions to superintendent Paul Vallas. From there Lee moves to street crime, suggesting that the militant post-Katrina crackdown on looting may have actually encouraged would-be outlaws. “Katrina exposed the problems that were already there,” one resident explains. The rage builds up, and carries through to the next segments. A significant amount of time gets spent on police corruption before Lee shifts to the people in charge, comparing Nagin’s tainted legacy with his replacement, Mitch Landrieu — New Orlean’s first white mayor since Landrieu’s father. The current mayor has yet to prove his worth, but at least he’s willing to sound forthcoming for Lee’s camera. “Being the mayor of this city,” Landrieu says, “is like being in an emergency room in the middle of a battlefield.”

Landrieu’s speech on the BP oil spill allows Lee to drift into the extremely topical last hour, which succeeds better than anything that came before it. By placing the spill in the context of its impact on the ecosystem of New Orleans’ once-thriving marshlands, he shows the potential for the residual oil to cause greater economic distress than even the flood itself.

As “Levees” did for Katrina, the final hour of “Creek” does for the BP spill. Lee may not speak with Tony Hayward — news clips do the job there — but he does reach scores of angry fishermen and others protesting the mediocre clean-up job. Blanchard’s now-famous “Levees” theme, when set to images of the oil rig explosion, extends Lee’s intentions from examining New Orleans’s post-Katrina era to lamenting its Job-like suffering in the wake of the spill.

After probing the harrowing prospects of a storm carrying contaminated water into the French Quarter, Lee returns to the lower class and otherwise marginalized New Orleans citizens whose fury defines the mood. A direct address to the camera by poet Shelton Shakespeare Alexander closes the second part on a somber note; the following curtain call, where each interviewee speaks his or her name to the camera, takes a page from the ending of “Levees.” A reminder that Lee has reapplied the same mold, it also implies that he could easily return again. Whether or not he does, the second half of “Creek” serves as an ideal chapter in Lee’s despair-ridden New Orleans opus.

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