IF GOD IS WILLING AND DA CREEK DON'T RISE continues the story of the rebirth of the Big Easy, begun in Lee's epic, Emmy ®- and Peabody-winning 2006 documentary "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts." Alongside the city's storied ability to celebrate life with unmatchable ebullience, Lee documents the successes and failures in the ongoing efforts to restore housing, healthcare, education, economic growth and law and order to a battered but unbowed community.
"We knew when we finished the first film that the story wasn't over," says Lee. "It was clear it would take a long time for the city to get back on its feet." Lee and his crew arrived in New Orleans in Feb. 2010 during a new wave of optimism, led by the Who Dat Nation, the community of passionate fans of the NFL champion New Orleans Saints football team. "The mood in New Orleans was great when we got there," Lee recalls. "They'd just won a Super Bowl. They had a new mayor and people's spirits were high."
New Orleanians were also encouraged by a series of legal victories that promised accountability for some of the devastating damage done to their homes by massive flooding during and after the storm. Notably, in Nov. 2009, a federal district court ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers was culpably negligent for poor maintenance of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MR-GO), a major navigation channel, which led to some of the worst flooding after Hurricane Katrina. The ruling paved the way for long-awaited financial restitution.
Amidst the ambitious plans to reinvent the city, Lee also uncovered a deep undercurrent of mistrust. Many residents say that recovery efforts mask an effort to transform the city famous for letting the good times roll into an "economic engine" that will benefit only an elite few.
A lack of affordable housing is one of several serious ongoing problems faced by the city's poor, especially the primarily African-American residents of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard's Parish. The four large public housing developments have been shuttered, and rents have soared, with the average fair-market value of an apartment rising from $578 in 2005 to $881 in 2009. Only 38 percent of the private homes destroyed in the hurricane have been rebuilt.
"Some parts of the city are rebuilt," Lee notes. "But a lot of houses in those areas are in the same condition they were five years ago."
In many cases, private efforts are stepping into the void. Significant advances are being made by nonprofit reconstruction efforts like Make It Right, spearheaded by actor Brad Pitt, who has committed to restoring homeowners by building affordable "green," storm-resistant new homes in the Lower Ninth Ward.
New Orleanians have rebuilt their own homes, as well. Grammy ®-winning musician Terence Blanchard, who was seen accompanying his elderly mother to her ruined residence in "When the Levees Broke," returns for a tour of the lovingly restored home, which his mother insisted be reconstructed exactly as it was.
The same indomitable spirit shines in the stories of New Orleanians who have reinvented their own lives after facing tremendous loss. Kimberley Polk, seen in the
previous film wracked with grief by the death of her young daughter, used that tragedy to propel herself through nursing school. Katherine Montana Gordon, who evacuated to Houston in 2005, remains in the city that welcomed so many after discovering an unexpected lifeline in the Houston school system, which provides specialized classes for her autistic son that were never available to him in New Orleans.
Some of the city's plans have yielded mixed blessings for those they are supposed to serve. Plans to replace Charity Hospital, a mainstay that served the community's poorest residents for 250 years, with a larger, more up-to-date facility, could eventually provide improved healthcare for the community. But the project is mired in red tape; in the meantime, residents face a critical shortage of primary care physicians and mental health services.
An uptick in violent crime after Katrina has begun to subside and ongoing efforts at police accountability are yielding results. The FBI's investigations into allegations of brutality and cover-ups in the New Orleans Police Department have resulted in indictments of current and former police officers in connection with a number of incidents, including the notorious unprovoked shooting on Danziger Bridge that killed an unarmed teenager and a severely mentally disabled man and wounded four others.
IF GOD IS WILLING AND DA CREEK DON'T RISE visits Houston, where an estimated 150,000 New Orleans evacuees remain. The film also looks at other areas along the Gulf, including Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., where rebuilding has progressed more quickly, at least partly due to what former La. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco says was an inequity in distribution of federal relief funds. She points out that Louisiana, which suffered 75 percent of the damage from the storm, received approximately the same number of federal dollars as Mississippi, which sustained only 23 percent of the damage.
Just as Lee believed filming was complete, tragedy struck the Gulf once more. On April 20, a deepwater offshore oil rig operated by British Petroleum exploded, unleashing torrents of oil into the Gulf, resulting in one of the biggest environmental disasters of all time. Lee and his crew immediately returned to assess the impact of this latest calamity and capture the reaction of area residents. "The people of the Gulf Coast feel they've been victimized by greed - again," says Lee. "The Army Corps cut corners and built the faulty levees. Oil companies and gas companies are jeopardizing the barrier islands and the wetlands. They too are trying to cut corners, and 11 people are dead because of it. The people want answers. They want their environment and their way of life to be saved."
But even in the face of this recent catastrophe, the resilient strength of New Orleans and Gulf Coast residents remains intact, observes the filmmaker. "The story is not over yet," Lee says. "I'm proud HBO has given me the opportunity to tell the stories of these great Americans and that people will see how strong their spirits are."
More than 300 people share their stories in IF GOD IS WILLING AND DA CREEK DON'T RISE, including former La. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, historian Douglas Brinkley, activist actors Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, Houston mayor Anisse Parker and community organizer Tanya Harris. In addition, longtime New Orleans residents such as Phyllis Montana-Leblanc, Kimberly Polk and Shelton "Shakespear" Alexander, whose compelling testimonies were a key part of "When the Levees Broke," provide updates on their lives.
IF GOD IS WILLING AND DA CREEK DON'T RISE is Spike Lee's fourth feature-length collaboration with HBO, following 2006's Emmy ®- and Peabody-winning "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," 1998's "4 Little Girls," Oscar ®-nominated in the Documentary Feature category, and 2002's "Jim Brown: All-American."
HBO Documentary Films and 40 Acres And A Mule Filmworks Present A Spike Lee Joint; producers, Sam Pollard and Spike Lee; director, Spike Lee; line producer, Butch Robinson; supervising editor, Sam Pollard; director of photography, Cliff Charles; music, Terence Blanchard; editor, Geeta Gandbhir. For HBO: supervising producer, Jacqueline Glover; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.