[23 August 2010]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
We gotta be determined that we’re gonna use this to come together around something bigger, more substantial, more sustainable, something that makes a difference in our lives.
—Jacques Morial, Co-Director, Louisiana Justice Institute
It’s realer than a motherfucker.
—Gralen Banks, Safety Manager Aviation Resources Team
My stomach feels sick when I think of these crabs, and all the others along the Gulf Coast, that are filtering in sheen, oil and dispersants. We watch them move toward the water’s oily edge, and stop. Are they trying to enter the water, as is their nature, and can’t because it is too toxic?
—Dahr Jamail and Erika Blumenfeld, “How Has It Come to This?”
Spike Lee’s return to New Orleans begins with a tribute and a call to action. Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, the poet and performer whose story formed a center for When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. With a mural behind her and a Jeremy Shockey jersey on her back, Phyllis speaks: “No more political pushers who use our time to sell their lies, / No more sacrificing the American people leaving us with nothing but sighs,” she says. “No more total audacity, explosive fire is gone, bodies are nine plus two, / No more corporate oil wanting their lives back, indictment of criminal charges, the whole damn crew.”
Like Rosie Perez’s dance at the start of Do the Right Thing, Phyllis’ performance here is aggressive and acute. It also establishes what might be called a “tone” for If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise, which premieres 23 and 24 August on HBO. Alternately focused and wide-ranging, the film offers multiple perspectives as well as problems. Many of these are ongoing over the five years since Katrina and some, like the BP oil spill, are both new and daunting, yet also more of the same.
As righteously angry as Phyllis’ poem surely sounds, its salute to the spirit and resilience of New Orleans is unmistakable. As her appearance recalls the troubles she and her family faced in 2005—in particular, the toxic FEMA trailer, a story revisited here with more detail and legal actions—her football jersey sets up for this film’s point of departure, the Saints’ Superbowl win on 7 February 2010. A montage shows ecstatic fans chanting “Who dat?” There’s Sean Payton and Deuce McAllister, Bobby Jindal and Terence Blanchard (“We didn’t lose faith that the team could win!”). And yes, there’s Condi Rice, her smile as frozen as it ever was: “This is a terrific chance for New Orleans to really show that the city’s back.”
The question is, back to what?
If God Is Willing offers some answers. The happy celebrations montage ends on M. Endesha Jukali, an “activist and former resident of Saint Bernard Projects”—which no longer exist. “I got some pleasure out of the Saints winning,” he declares.
But I’m not a fan or fanatic about it, because I knew one thing. After the Superbowl on that Sunday, 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?”
Distrusting the hubbub, Jukali seeks accountability. In what follows, he serves as a guide through the government’s assault on the projects, the process by which residents were kept out and new plans were approved. Former mayor Ray Nagin sketches the problem: “I believe that prior to Katrina, public housing in New Orleans was atrocious. I believe it got worse after Katrina.” According to Jukali, Nagin should know, as his government favored commercial interests over residents (in public housing, that would be renters), clearing the way for demolitions and construction of housing for a “new” population.
Attorney Monique Harden recalls that during a 2007 City Council meeting, she and other protestors were literally locked out: footage shows the gates shut and crowds pushing. “Next thing you know,” she says, “there are policemen on the ground with jugs of pepper spray and they’re spraying us.” The camera swings over anxious and mad faces, the soundtrack adds spray noises (whish! whish!). Inside, Hardin goes on, with more footage illustrating, individuals protesting the locked gates are tasered. At the end of the day, 4500 structurally sound public housing units were destroyed. Council members were concerned with money, Harden explains. “It was easier for developers to re-plan with quote unquote new people: it constitutes ethnic cleansing.” The chilling coda for this sequence shows bulldozers in action, one shot focused from behind a small child who stands as witness.
In this instance, the film also shows an alternative. As of a year ago, some 75 percent of the city’s pre-storm population returned, though only about 20 percent of Lower Ninth Ward residents—mostly black and lower income—were back. So far, Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation and a few other non-government organizations have provided most of the housing here. Pitt appears here to explain basic concepts (the houses are green and allow easy access to rooftops, all designed by architects he “knows,” for free). As he walks through a neighborhood, he spots a resident and greets her by name. Deidre Taylor testifies to the wonderfulness of her house, but the reality has limits: so far, Pitt notes, only 50 are finished or planned. “There’s a frustration,” he says, “There are still tens of thousands of families trying to get back.”
If God is Willing goes on to identify a series of other frustrations. These include the collapse of public schools following the storm (the film offers counterpoints to Arne Duncan’s alarming assertion, “I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans is Hurricane Katrina,” from ongoing corruption inside the system to the inability of charters to serve enough students to students’ untreated stress), increases in violence and crime (Dinerral Shavers, a young musician featured in Levees, was murdered by a 15-year-old), police corruption (the abuses following the storm have been doggedly investigated by ProPublica’s A.C. Thompson), and an inadequate health care system (the primary example here being Charity Hospital, transitioning from a public facility with a mission to “take care of the indigent,” into “a public-private venture”).
As If God is Willing cuts from problem to problem over its four hours, the sheer number becomes daunting. The film underscores as well that many concerns are systemic and continuing, drawing connections not only between New Orleans’ past and present, but also between New Orleans and other places, such as sister city Port au Prince. Sean Penn points out the common point of departure for the devastations of the storm and the earthquake. “This problem is poverty,” he says, and “the similarity is race. There’s no way that if this was a white island that this type of incredible neglect by a superpower neighbor could happen.”
This observation leads to more analyses of how the levees broke, the fundamentally flawed work by the Army Corps of Engineers, compounded by the Bush administration’s subsequent errors (Nagin says here that he learned in Vanity Fair that Donald Rumsfeld “was having a debate” about resources that delayed help getting to the region). Here Michael Brown has a chance to explain himself, which looks a little like George Wallace’s appearance in Four Little Girls. Brown points out that the infamous “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” moment has been misunderstood. “If you look closely at that clip,” he submits, “You’ll see me wince.” Maybe, but still, Brown’s work was woeful. (Which doesn’t let Nagin off any hooks: Lee asks him how he thinks “history” will see him, and the former mayor says, “I don’t know, I think that’s something that will evolve over time. Depends on who’s writing it.”)
The “Brownie” clip has a formal counterpart in the new documentary, Tony Hayward’s “I want my life back.” Here again, the footage is replayed to underscore the offense and its enduring place in the history to be written. Again, the subject looks terrible, clueless and self-absorbed—and culpable. The BP oil disaster—which Brinkley calls “The biggest environmental disaster in American history”—is the result of grinding history of deregulation (especially during the Bush and Cheney years) and shortcuts premised on greed. Douglas Brinkley asserts, “BP looked at Alaska and the Gulf like a third world country… We became Nigeria and Ecuador.” Lisa Margonelli, Director of New America Foundation’s Energy Policy Initiative,” adds that famous oil spills in U.S. history (Santa Barbara in 1969, Exxon Valdez in 1989) are part of a global pattern that includes the perpetual spills in Nigeria, a function of BP’s “living above the law.”
The exploitation of resources, in particular oil, has shaped New Orleans’ current fragility. Fred Johnson, Executive Director of the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Foundation, sums up: “America is a capitalist society. All of it is about money.” In the Gulf, the deadly explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig is first, part of a pattern of BP’s systemic violations, and second, still being bungled (see: the use of toxic dispersants like Corexit) and obscured. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu underlines the systemic point: “I’m gonna say something that America’s not gonna like: if this would have happened at Cape Cod, in Nantucket…” Lee adds from off-screen, “Or the Hamptons.” And a cut to Anderson Cooper completes the contention: “There’d be a lot more action going on a lot quicker if this was washing ashore in East Hampton.”
The story of New Orleans goes on. Magnificent and convulsive, angry and affectionate, If God is Willing assembles the pieces of that story, told by survivors and witnesses, politicians and poets. Each reflects on the others, all are connected.