We love to see the underdog persevere. It makes us feel good, and like all monumental sports wins, it glosses over truth and makes it seem like progress is immediately possible. It’s telling that Spike Lee begins his Katrina documentary If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise with the Saint’s Superbowl win. There’s no better example of local pride then watching their team win it all. But when the fervor of winning is gone and the parades are over, post-Katrina New Orleans is still mostly the same. Some people came back, some people didn’t, some just won’t and others simply can’t. Either way, everyone is looking to rebuild, but as always, in their own image.
There’s a level of intensity in Creek and urgency to pack in as much detail and story as possible. It’s seen in the aforementioned Saints game; the BP oil spill; reliving the Bush administration’s response (or lack of); the tearing down of housing projects; the rebuilding of homes; the high levels of formaldehyde found in FEMA trailers; the lawsuit and eventual monetary victory over the Army Core of Engineers; the displacement; the class wars; the government response to the comparable natural disaster in Haiti (a response that I remember several people, including me, referencing as having come from a kind of “Katrina-guilt”).
As always, it’s the individual stories, the characters, that add texture and nuance to Creek as it did with its predecessor When the Levees Broke.
Some people came back, some people didn’t, some just won’t and others simply can’t:
There’s Phyllis Montana-Leblanc, who opens up the documentary with a booming spoken-word-like performance of the title, and has a recurring role in HBO’s fictional look at post-Katrina New Orleans, Treme. There’s Kimberly Polk, who lost her five-year-old daughter, and returns to New Orleans to pursue her education and care for family after promising never to return. Kathy Phillips, who in Levees, had been accepted into a Utah community, has moved back to New Orleans, but is still experiencing trauma.
Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Houses, in the lower ninth ward, is framed as the do-the-right-thing organization. He reached out to architects and asked them to contribute their designs pro bono. As stated in the documentary, no family will pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing; the affordable housing is created with a mix of form and function: high design, energy efficient and above flood level.
M. Endesha Juakali, former lawyer and community activist frames the “incorrect way” to rebuild Katrina, which included the tearing down of the Lafitte Housing Projects. Juakali describes the new cheaply built homes like a supermodel: “It look good on the outside, but it’s anorexic and bulimic and probably full of drugs on the inside.”
Mother and daughter team, Clovina Rita McCoy and Catherine Montana Gordon are stuck in Texas. They provide one of my favorite sound bites: “Dear Army Core of Engineers, I just wanted to let you know that you fucked my life up.” Gordon is in Texas because New Orleans does not, and apparently never really did, have the ability to adequately care for her autistic son. And McCoy remains because she simply can not afford the rent in New Orleans. The exodus of the poor has made it possible for economic redevelopment and with higher rents.
The section with Michael Brown, who was the head of FEMA at the time that Katrina hit, was particularly interesting mostly because the documentary’s portrayal of him was surprisingly sympathetic. He was a noted Bush administration scapegoat, and we learn that he allegedly found out from a Vanity Fair piece on Donald Rumsfeld, why it took the 82nd Airborne Division five days to get to the disaster area: supposedly Rumsfeld was reluctant to send people in.
On the other hand, the depictions of former mayor Ray Nagin and former governor Kathleen Blanco were less accusatory in Creek than in Levees. In the aftermath, the federal dollars flowed in what Blanco referred to as a “political response” as apposed to the “proportional response.” Lee juxtaposes Blanco’s apparent distress over the retelling of these events with footage of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s Bull Connor-esque claim that “our people are not into victim-hood” and “went to work helping themselves and helping their neighbors.”
Some critics have stated the follow-up is disjointed, which isn’t entirely incorrect; the first half of part one jumps around a bit and doesn’t seem to find its feet until the second half. The beat builds when Spike dives into the overall lack of adequate medical care and the state’s insistence on keeping Charity hospital, despite community efforts, closed.
There’s a lot I didn’t talk about here. Lee’s filming for instance, is consistent with Levees: the warm colors, the dramatic shots of empty lots, rotted stairs that used to lead to homes and entry ways. Now they lead to nothing. And New Orleans culture, the food, the music, the unabashed force for which people show their love to city that’s got a history of not always loving them back.