Monday, August 23, 2010

I haven't seen this second installment of Spike Lee's documentary on New Orleans and Katrina. I did watch "When the Levees Broke" and found it to be very powerful.

Here's my tip for anyone who really wants to gain insights into what happened (or didn't) with regard to the rebuilding of New Orleans in the wake of Hurrican Katrina: read Kristina Ford's "The Trouble With City Planning: What New Orleans Can Teach Us". Ms. Ford argues that very few people (including elected officials and city residents) really don't understand what the concept of city planning is all about, how it works and especially how planners determine what citizens want. Her critique of the post-Katrina New Orleans planning processes (there were many) provides valuable insights and suggestions that are applicable to citizens, professional planners and city officials anywhere in America. (GW)

Spike Lee’s New Orleans, Take 2

Released just a year after Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” was a thrilling achievement: both intimate and magisterial, angry and eloquent, an indictment and a testament, it represented a high point in the career of its director, Spike Lee.

Now Mr. Lee is back on HBO with another four-hour documentary about the aftermath of Katrina, “If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise,” playing in two parts on Monday and Tuesday nights. It was created under different circumstances and it is, perhaps inevitably, a less powerful work than “When the Levees Broke,” more diffuse in its storytelling and more uncertain in its point of view.

As the fifth anniversary of the hurricane approaches, the issues surrounding the rebuilding and repopulating of New Orleans have grown thornier, and Mr. Lee and his documentary crew tiptoe around some of them in “Creek.” Arguments regarding the future of the school system and the demolition of public housing projects are presented neutrally, at least by Mr. Lee’s usually polemical standard.

The shifting sands of the city’s politics are captured in a scene in which a city councilwoman, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, who appeared in “Levees” as a voice of populist anger at the federal government, hunches over a microphone at a public hearing and takes an unpopular, pro-development stand in favor of tearing down the historic St. Bernard Projects.

The structure and the wavering tone of “Creek” have also been affected by the random but momentous events that have buffeted New Orleans more recently, and that Mr. Lee incorporates into his film at some length. “Creek” opens with the celebrations surrounding the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl victory this year, scenes of joy that are eventually undercut when the activist M. Endesha Juakali, invoking the team’s minstrel-show slogan, says: “I was going to have to get up and figure out how I was going to eat the next day, how I was going to pay my bills, how I was going to be able to survive. I’m not a Who Dat. I’m a Who Is Dat.”

(Mr. Lee’s mischievous side comes out in a brief clip of Condoleezza Rice, who was pilloried in “Levees” for vacationing in New York while New Orleans coped with the hurricane; in “Creek” she’s seen on the sideline at a Saints game uncomfortably delivering a “Who dat?”)

Near the end of “Creek” Mr. Lee turns his attention to the oil spill in the gulf for nearly an hour, a segment that feels lightweight and under-reported compared with the rest of his work here and in “Levees.” In another, shorter section he goes further afield to compare the response to Katrina with the response to the January earthquake in Haiti.

“Creek” can feel disjointed as it jumps among these many strands of the New Orleans story, which also include the damage to the health care system and the prosecutions of police officers in post-hurricane shootings. (It can also feel a bit secondhand, as the number of excerpts from “Levees” mounts.)

But there is a somber theme that runs through most of them: the question, if there’s any doubt, of whether developers and their friends in government are taking advantage of the destruction wrought by the hurricane to build a wealthier, whiter city — one without the affordable housing or public services needed by the 100,000 or so former residents who still have not returned.

For those who have seen “When the Levees Broke,” much of the pleasure and the pain of “If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise” will come from catching up with the earlier film’s characters; it’s like the post-traumatic stress version of a Michael Apted “Up” movie. Some have died, at least one of them violently. Several have noticeably aged or weakened over the four years. Darnell Herrington, shot by a white vigilante after the hurricane, has been shot again, this time by a black carjacker.

Sean Penn reappears, but has been replaced as actor-hero by Brad Pitt, who is spearheading the building of houses in the Lower Ninth Ward reserved for returning residents. The trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s mother, Wilhelmina, seen sobbing in the ruins of her house in “Levees,” moves into a new house on the same spot — and complains that the washing machine isn’t where it used to be.

Best of all are the alpha and omega of “Levees”: Russel L. Honoré, the lieutenant general, now retired, who finally restored order in downtown New Orleans, and Michael D. Brown, the much ridiculed Brownie of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Both agreed to be interviewed for “Creek” and have interesting things to say about the public roles they played in 2005. Mr. Lee helpfully replays a famous Katrina moment so that we can decide whether we believe Mr. Brown’s claim that he winced when President George W. Bush said, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”


HBO, Monday and Tuesday nights at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.

Produced by HBO Documentary Films and 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. Directed by Spike Lee; Sam Pollard and Mr. Lee, producers; Butch Robinson, line producer; Mr. Pollard, supervising editor; Cliff Charles, director of photography; Terence Blanchard, music; Geeta Gandbhir, editor. For HBO: Jacqueline Glover, supervising producer; Sheila Nevins, executive producer.


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