Spike Lee’s return to New Orleans for the follow-up of his sprawling post-Hurricane Katrina documentary “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” is just as big and anything but easy.
In his Emmy Award-winning 2006 project, the producer-director vividly depicted the horrific tragedy and devastation of the hurricane, including numerous scenes of death, loss, economic upheaval and turmoil that plagued the residents of New Orleans. The four-hour, two-part HBO documentary also focused on the determination of residents to stay in their beloved city and restore it to its former glory.
With “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise,” the sequel to “When the Levees Broke,” Lee undertakes an exhaustive examination of the social, political and economic complexities that continue to cloud recovery efforts in New Orleans. But the new documentary takes on a ripped-from-the-headlines urgency as it pointedly tackles the BP oil spill that has further complicated life on the Gulf Coast.
“If God Is Willing” has an extensive scope, bookended by the 2010 Super Bowl victory of the New Orleans Saints and the BP spill. More than 300 interviews include low-income residents, politicians and celebrities such as Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. One of the most powerful montages shows the leak spewing what is estimated to be up to more than 60,000 gallons of oil per day.
Yet the huge canvas that Lee has created with these two documentaries cannot contain all the vast complexities of the still-unfolding Katrina saga.
“Even when we finished the first part with ‘Levees,’ we knew we were not done and we would have to return,” Lee said recently in Los Angeles, where he was publicizing the new film. “And even with this, even with eight hours, it’s not finished. There is too much stuff that keeps happening day to day.”
Lee had already wrapped up the new documentary and had a vision for its structure when the BP oil rig off the coast of Louisiana erupted April 20. He was planning to end the project with the jubilation over the Super Bowl win.
Said Lee: “We had to rethink everything. We had to deal with the biggest oil disaster of the world. And the fact that they didn’t want to speak about it made it even a bigger story.”
In the last few weeks, he was still filming and adding footage.
And though he approaches much of the subject matter like a journalist, gathering information from a variety of perspectives, he is far from being a detached observer. Lee makes no secret of the anger over the response to Hurricane Katrina that has distinguished his documentaries. One key point in “When the Levees Broke” is that disaster might have been prevented if the levees made to protect the city had not been so poorly designed by the Army Corps of Engineers.
“It’s about justice, it’s about right and wrong,” he said. “I love this country, and these people are just screwing it up over greed. It’s a disgrace. What we stress is that 11 people died on that oil rig over a company’s decision to cut corners.”
Private industry as well as local, state and federal governments all come in for criticism. One of the obvious villains of the documentary is former BP CEO Tony Hayward, who sparked an uproar with his insensitive public image and his infamous “I’d like my life back” comment. Lee requested interviews with several figures, including BP officials and President Obama, but was turned down.
Ironically, one of the biggest targets of “When the Levees Broke” — former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — is one of the first figures featured in the new documentary. In “Levees,” Lee spotlighted reports of Rice shopping for shoes in New York and attending a Broadway show while Katrina raged and residents were being swept out of their homes.
In “If God Is Willing,” Rice is shown displaying her support for the Saints and declaring that New Orleans had returned to prominence.
Lee said Rice, who was not interviewed for the original documentary, was cooperative with him when he approached her at the Super Bowl, and he did not confront her about her earlier actions.
“It was not the place to do that kind of interview,” he said. When asked if he was sure Rice saw his earlier film, Lee said with a smile, “Yeah, she saw it.”
Wendell Pierce, one of the stars of HBO’s “Treme,” a series set in post-Katrina New Orleans, called the Lee documentaries important historical records that need to be seen by all Americans.
“It is showing people telling their real stories instead of some kind of revisionist history,” he said. “There are many who would like to sweep all of this under the rug and deny what really happened. For the people of New Orleans, this was important because it allowed us to purge our souls for what is the most cathartic moment of our lives.”
Pierce, who lives in New Orleans and is featured in both documentaries, added that he appreciated how the films “show the resiliency of New Orleans. It’s showing to the world what we are, that we could have easily given up but we didn’t. This emboldens us and helps us to fight the fight.”
And Lee is determined to maintain his mission in recording the continuing aftermath: “The story does not end here.”