[9 June 2011]
It was bound to happen. Any geographer or geologist expected it, and the city’s residents hardly required advanced degrees to predict the worst. New Orleans, The Big Easy, The Crescent City…whatever nom de plume you care to bestow on this historic, polycultural port city, is trapped within a bowl. Surrounded by Lake Ponchartrain, the treacherous Mississippi, and the occasionally turbulent Gulf of Mexico, it was only a matter of time before this bacchanalian metropolis was inundated.
Still, the world looked on with tragic awe as Hurricane Katrina – with less than a direct hit – carpeted 80 percent of NOLA, not to mention numerous smaller gulf side communities, with brackish waves, in North America’s most destructive flood event since the apocalyptic Galveston Hurricane of 1900.
The ever-feisty Spike Lee, never one to miss opportunities to rage at the powers that be, has already produced one documentary – under the auspices of HBO – about this catastrophic event that took over 1,600 lives and cost billions of dollars in damage, the four-hour When The Levees Broke. This initial project examined the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and which changes it wrought in the Gulf.
His follow-up, the even more biblical-sounding If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise aims a camera at the Mississippi Valley five years after the storm, with the region’s fishing industry reeling under British Petroleum’s devastating oil spill from the star-crossed Deepwater Horizon, contrasted with the raucous joy New Orleans residents expressed when their beloved Saints brought home a Super Bowl trophy.
“Da Creek” – yes, Spike has always dabbled in Ebonics-laced speech – opens with typical ferocity as Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc – unforgettable in “The Levees” and now a regular in David Simon’s “Treme” – delivers an enraged spoken-word diatribe, instantly reminiscent of the racist rants Lee placed in the mouths of assorted Brooklynites in his tense landmark Do The Right Thing, or for that matter, the opening sequence of the same film with Rosie Perez’s aggressive gyrations accompanied by Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”, and its bratty disses of two cherished American icons, John Wayne and Elvis “The King” Presley.
Lee quickly shifts gears with a montage of Life magazine-worthy images from the devastation wracked by Hurricane Katrina, some of these images already etched into our minds, others fresh, but all underlined by Terence Blanchard’s score. Used regularly by Lee, Blanchard crafts musical pieces which are simultaneously soothing and foreboding, and the composer excels at building subtle tension within a scene.
A lifelong sports buff, Lee soon focuses on the New Orleans Saints’ recent Super Bowl triumph, the team’s first in decades. It seems that locals, those who care about professional sports, were itching especially hard for this, and who can blame them? Residents were grasping for something, anything, that could lift spirits after all they had suffered. Even Condoleeza Rice, not a New Orleanian, weighed in with an ebullient proclamation about the team’s victory, but unfortunately, comes off like the hapless notables skewered in Michael Moore’s sharp, black-humored debut, Roger & Me. Maybe it’s unfair to expect her to only utter solemn pronouncements about repairing the Gulf, but her joy seems clueless and misplaced, and I suspect that’s what Lee intended.
The city wastes no time in cobbling together an impromptu Super Bowl Parade – parades in New Orleans? Why, I’ve never heard of such a thing! – although, tellingly, not everyone rides this celebratory bandwagon. Local activist Jacques Morial declares, “It’s [just] a football game”, while veteran journalist Douglas Brinkley, writer of The Great Deluge, decries the “knee-jerk boosterism” of many locals. He suggests that New Orleans is hobbled by a schizophrenic inferiority complex. Residents know the intractable problems that bedevil their city, but profess their love so vehemently to outsiders, one wonders if they’re trying to convince themselves. At any rate, it arguably serves as a distraction from solving complex civic issues, and keeps New Orleans prisoner to a sort of love-it-or-leave-it fatalism that keeps change, both positive and negative, at bay.
This is crystallized in an ongoing debate that Katrina’s devastation has stoked. Some of the city’s decades-old public housing – New Orleans was the first major American city to erect such accommodations—was ravaged the storm, and opinions on what to do with these structures vary widely, and predictably, along socio-economic class lines. Many local politicos endorse razing these dilapidated buildings, while long-time residents argue vociferously for them to remain standing. It reminds one of the urban renewal programs that flourished in major US cities during the postwar era, when municipal powers flattened so-called ‘slums’, decrying their squalid appearance, and relocating the occupants to soulless high-rise edifices, those that weren’t scattered to all points of the metropolis.
Former mayor C. Ray Nagin insists that the projects are structurally unsound, but some tenants ain’t havin’ it, as heard in some fierce tirades during a city council meeting. The fact that rents throughout town have skyrocketed since the storm has only exacerbated an already tense situation. It begs a question many have already posed: Did municipal leaders collude with developers to fashion a whiter, wealthier New Orleans? And have said developers imported undocumented Hispanic laborers in order to sidestep dealing with the ‘troublesome’ black population, many of whom go back multiple generations?
On a more uplifting note, Brad Pitt, whose charity organization, a makeshift, localized version of Habitat for Humanity, has constructed numerous eco-friendly Modernist houses in the city’s poorer enclaves, which not surprisingly, suffered the greatest devastation, especially the virtually school-less Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood now synonymous with urban blight. Ironically, the famously liberal-left Pitt’s home-building success evinces a stellar argument for private sector civic assistance, something his Republican foes trumpet incessantly.
A churlish person might sniff at the funky modernism of the styles, but green materials were used extensively, and the homes’ living quarters are safely perched well above ground – as some classic NOLA cottages are – in anticipation of future flooding. Pitt himself queries why government – read “FEMA”—was unable to accomplish the same, and others echo this sentiment. Tellingly, no one speaking about the star in the film has a negative word to say about him.
The same cannot be said for ex-FEMA director Michael Brown, a politicized appointee of President Bush, who had scant experience running a vast federal bureaucracy. CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien grills him on why his underlings could have remained so clueless about conditions in the city for days after the deluge. An unlikely defense comes from fast-talking black pundit Michael Eric Dyson, who claims that Bush’s apparent refusal to use the official terminology which would unleash government funds on the region prevented Michael Brown from doing much more.
We do know this much: the Crescent City’s levee system still needs shoring up, especially when you consider that they failed before the waves breached them. It would seem irresponsible and even criminal to invite the displaced – and many argue that they’re unwanted anyhow – to return when the specter of another cyclone, perhaps more powerful, looms. And what about the psychological after effects of the disaster? A Dr. Rouse describes Katrina as akin to “having a nuclear bomb go off in the psyche of New Orleans”. In its wake, the Big not so-Easy has captured the crown as America’s homicide capital.
Speaking of mortality, the film suggests that although the official death toll stands between 1,600 and 1,700 individuals, it’s impossible to quantify how many more died later from emotional stress which exacerbated pre-existing medical problems. Some of these problems were certainly created by the unique culinary stew (no pun intended) that is New Orleans. Along with its history, the city’s cuisine is a mélange of French, Spanish, African, Afro-Caribbean, and Southern influences, and has never been endorsed by Weight Watchers or New Age foodie activist John Robbins. I chuckle recalling a scene in HBO’s “Treme” in which a haughty British newscaster derides the city’s cooking as “provincial” and “fatty”, but long-time residents take it quite seriously, especially foodstuffs of the deep-fried variety.
Psychologists might suggest that hearty, artery-clogging meals are a salve for living in poverty, something too many New Orleanians suffer, but police misconduct is also an ever-present reality in the Crescent City, and Spike devotes a good deal of the documentary to this issue. In the extras section, the featurette “Pickin’ Up Da Pieces”, many interviewees discuss suspicious deaths which occurred following the storm at the hands of the New Orleans Police Department, and even Mayor Mitch Landrieu concedes that “some bad things” happened on the city’s streets in the storm’s wake.
Of course, New Orleans has always acquiesced to an unsettling culture of police brutality and corruption, as was detailed in a 60 Minutes broadcast more than a decade ago. Could it be that the city’s anything-goes bacchanalian ambience unwittingly encourages the local boys in blue to devolve into a rogue gang?
It’s probable, too, that other Gulf residents, both small-town Louisianans and Mississippians, have tired a bit of hearing only about the Big Easy’s troubles, and the Deepwater Horizon debacle, which poured untold gallons of Texas Tea into the harbors, brings this all home. The media tended to focus on New Orleans after Katrina, at the expense of nearby communities, but that was no longer possible after the nearly three month oil spill, as these seaside municipalities serve as the region’s breadbasket, or rather, seafood market.
Apparently, BP, labeled ‘Blood Petroleum’ by one hysterical activist failed to conduct proper testing before the Horizon exploded, and this set the stage for the biggest environmental disaster in American history. Images from the Haitian earthquake are also included, and one Gulf local describes the area as “a rich Haiti”, and that’s not in any way, shape, or form, a compliment.
In the politically timid artistic climate of contemporary Hollywood, it’s no surprise that Spike Lee, once derided and celebrated as the prototypical Angry Black Man, would be forced to mount projects such as this at HBO, a sort of de facto African-American studio, when one considers the number of black-themed programs they’ve aired in the past two decades. Lee has proven himself adept at juggling vast amounts of information and points of view in his two documentaries about Katrina’s wake in New Orleans and its Gulfside neighbors. Of course, a la Michael Moore, he slams the powers-that-be with a vengeance, but he also clearly gives voice to a wide stratum of opinion here, something even his fiercest critics would have to concede.
The Crescent City – and the Gulf region – will survive, but which changes, good or bad, will be wrought are anyone’s guess.