Spike Lee is back, with more tales from the ravaged Gulf Coast.
His documentary “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts“ aired in 2006 on HBO and remains to this day one of the most thorough, personal, and powerful records of how Hurricane Katrina directly impacted the lives of the people of New Orleans. A 4-hour tour-de-force composed of interviews, disaster footage, and reportage of families who were dealing with loss, displacement, government ineptitude and apathy, and just plain shock, “Levees” unveiled stories and information that not even the US government was aware of. But most importantly, as Spike says when talking about the movie, it allowed the people of New Orleans to tell their stories to the world.
Spike vowed to do a follow-up to the story five years after the disaster, and true to his word, he and his crew have spent the last couple of months filming around the Gulf Coast, interviewing displaced New Orleanians as well as those who have returned home, following the Saints’ victory march to the Super Bowl and the resultant high that the city is still coasting on…He has also probed into the rise of the charter school movement in New Orleans and the state of the reconstruction efforts in the Lower Ninth Ward and elsewhere. The news is not all good, and I’m sure we can expect that Spike won’t pull any punches in his new film, but there is hope in the air here, and it’s impossible not to smell it. The new documentary, entitled If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise, will no doubt be equal parts hope, despair, frustration, and surprise.
As luck would have it, Fede and I were in the Lower Ninth having a peaceful-but-somber afternoon photographing abandoned houses on the day that Spike and Company were shooting their final wrap scene for the film. I have to give credit to Fede for sniffing out the lead, as I was content to be shooting far from the maddening crowd of Sunday tour buses coming to gawk at Brad Pitt’s space-age Make it Right houses and get the “Katrina Disaster Tour”…But she wanted to shoot the new houses as part of her own personal project, and as a shiny red Ferrari rolled past, she followed it to the heart of the action, up by the levee, where a film crew, members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, the Baby Dolls, local volunteers, and neighborhood residents, were all gathered for a parting shot from New Orleans. The Baby Boyz brass band was standing by the levee blasting out the Saints’ fight song, and a few of the Common Ground volunteers were sitting on top of the levee, along with two volunteers waving New Orleans flags. Folks were gathered in front of them, on the grassy slope that leads up to the levee, in preparation for a shot that would have them all dancing and waving their hands in the air and singing the “Who Dat” chant along with the Baby Boyz’ music.
We whipped out the press pass and started wandering around asking questions, photographing the action, and just generally being a part of it all. There were a lot of spectators and it was difficult on some level to tell who was who, as it was a very mixed crowd, with lots of Saints’ Jerseys, parasols, big cameras, and badges and credentials, as well as a lot of folks with pocket cameras trying to grab pics of Spike, or pics of the spectacularly sexy Baby Dolls decked out in their full glory. At some point, after getting the shot he had planned, Spike turned to the crowd of gawkers and said “Okay, everybody, get on in! Now’s your chance, come on and get in the picture!”
So, joining the somewhat confused but elated group of bystanders, we slipped right into the middle of the crowd and, on cue with the “dat, dat da-dat” of the Baby Boys, started waving our hands in the air, shouting, “Who Dat! Who Dat! Who Dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints!” I slid around the crowd snapping photos as I chanted along, and ended up at the opposite end from where I started, waving my left hand in the air holding my flash. If any of that footage ends up in the final cut, you may see my flash going off here and there. Sorry about that, Spike. Couldn’t help myself. Dem Baby Dolls was just too damn fine…
If God is Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise will air on HBO on August 28, 2010 (or thereabouts), on the 5th anniversary of Katrina. Mark your calendar. You’ll probably be surprised and somewhat shocked at how little progress has been made in terms of reconstruction and preparation for future disasters, and yet on the other hand, if Spike does it right, you’ll get a sense of the budding hope, optimism, and new ideas that have arisen from the disaster which will, with any luck–keep your fingers crossed–re-invigorate this most treasured and troubled city in America.