Dir. Spike Lee
(2010, Not Rated, 255 min)
★ ★ ★ ★

Spike Lee’s If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise doesn’t have quite the impact of its predecessor, 2006’s When the Levees Broke, which is not only a masterpiece but an essential document of modern American history, but it’s just as important, or perhaps more so. Where Levees showed an urgent crisis in progress, God is Willing addresses more complex problems – bureaucratic, institutional, social, and economic challenges, some of them caused by Hurricane Katrina and the breach of the levees and others merely exacerbated by the catastrophe. Five years after the fact, the Gulf Coast region is still struggling, and Lee reinvests in the community with undiminished passion. He is a poet of moral outrage.

He opens his sweeping, four-hour examination with a celebration: the 2010 Super Bowl victory of the New Orleans Saints. But quickly thereafter he delivers a wake-up call: the city, symbolically reborn with the Saints’ victory, is still mired in dysfunction. He tackles the education system, a hotbed of corruption gutted by Katrina and rebuilt with charter schools whose effectiveness is hotly debated. He explores the health care system, including the controversial closing of Charity Hospital. Shocking police corruption is detailed, and devastating crime statistics are cited; an interview subject from the previous film, we learn, was senselessly murdered by a fifteen-year-old-boy.

What BP really stands for

Throughout, Lee’s approach is angry but measured; Levees provided clear villains (Bush, Cheney, FEMA director Michael Brown, the Army Corps of Engineers), but for the most part in this film there seems to be no one side to any story; even Brown makes an appearance, defending his performance by arguing that the real failures occurred farther up in the chain of command. I buy that. The Bush administration made a habit of pass-the-buck scapegoating. Though Brown himself seems eager to pass the buck (to former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff) his decision to be interviewed by a tough, critical filmmaker like Lee is a credit to him.

I think Lee’s approach is a good one. The challenges of public education, health, crime, and poverty are too deeply ingrained and widespread to be reduced simply to good guys and bad guys. The state takeover of New Orleans schools under superintendent Paul Vallas is a success or failure depending on whom you ask, and while some believe former mayor Ray Nagin did the best he could, others believe he was the worst mayor in the city’s history. But the director doesn’t sit on the fence when it comes to the city’s poor blacks, a great many of who are still unable to return, and the ones who have returned are at risk from political and economic interests that threaten to gentrify all the color and culture right out of the community. Rents have skyrocketed; low-income housing projects were demolished even though they were still usable. Lee advocates fiercely for these people.

And then came the BP oil spill. The film premiered on HBO in August 2010, mere weeks after the gushing oil well was said to be sealed, so it’s impressive how much depth and detail Lee captures on the subject. Two of the most evocative segments are among the simplest: in one, a New Orleans man (pictured) suggests colorful new monikers for BP, and in another Lee shows us footage from the live feed of the spill, day-by-day, nearly three months worth. “I want my life back,” whined BP’s then-CEO Tony Hayward in a TV-news appearance, showing not the slightest bit of perspective about the lives his company devastated. Millions are still struggling to get their lives back. Some never will. Less than a year later, we hardly hear anymore about the BP disaster or its expected long-term effects. Maybe Spike Lee has another movie left in him.