Spike Lee Returns to New Orleans on HBO

The director’s latest, “If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise,” examines the roller-coaster ride the city is on now.

08.19.10 6:50 AM ET

Director Spike Lee knew that when he finished his Emmy- and Peabody-winning 2006 documentary “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” the story wasn’t complete. “We’d always planned to go back,” he says. Early this year, after the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s rampage through the city of New Orleans, Lee and his crew did return to catch up with a city, a people and a rising tide of hope.

“Our first day of shooting was during the Superbowl,” says Lee. “Everybody needs joy in their lives, and this was a textbook example of how a sports team can elevate a region. And right in the middle of Mardi Gras, too! That’s like heaven.”

His new documentary, “If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise,” opens with the highs of the New Orleans Saints’ Superbowl win, and then tracks New Orleans residents, past and present, who are dealing with the aftermath of Katrina. “The people make the culture that makes New Orleans arguably the most unique city in the United States,” says Lee, who conducted all the interviews in the film himself. “There are great characters there.”

With a new mayor, a Superbowl win and a November 2009 federal district court ruling that the Army Corps of Engineers was culpably negligent for poor maintenance of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (which paved the way for some financial restitution), New Orleans residents saw signs of light in early 2010. “Da Creek” notes those victories, but the film also taps into a current of mistrust from city residents. “Rents have quadrupled,” says Lee. “And they knocked down public housing. They had a plan to displace people in the projects, and when Katrina happened there was a mandatory evacuation. Voila! It fell into their laps. People left, and when they came back, the projects they were living in were boarded up, fenced in with barbed wire. They can’t go back home.”

Lack of affordable housing is one of the huge ongoing problems faced by the city’s poor, and some private efforts—like Brad Pitt’s Make It Right, which builds affordable, green, storm-resistant homes in the Lower Ninth Ward—are stepping up to the plate. Many private citizens, like the elderly mother of Grammy-winning musician Terence Blanchard, have rebuilt their own homes similar to the way they were before the storm. But there are still more New Orleans residents who have yet to return to the city. “Thirty-seven percent of the African-American population is still in exile,” says Lee. “Some have moved to Houston, San Antonio, Atlanta, and they’ve found better-paying jobs and better public education for their children. But other people want to come home and they don’t have a place to live—they’re stuck.”

While Lee and his crew knew they’d be following up on issues like housing and schools and hospitals and city politics, the April 20th BP oil rig explosion came as a shock to everyone. “We had finished shooting,” says Lee. “Then we had to reconfigure, rethink and shoot a new ending.”

Lee and his crew filmed into July, working to cover daily breaking news on the catastrophe in the Gulf. “The montage of day one, day two, day three… all the way up to day 86 of the oil spill is one of the most powerful scenes in the film,” says Lee, who has little faith in reports that 75% of the oil is gone. “I don’t think the American people are that gullible,” he says. “This thing is twenty times bigger than what happened in Alaska with Exxon Valdez, and they’re still cleaning that up today. How in the world can this be the biggest oil disaster in the history of the planet and now presto-change-o, the oil’s gone?”

Another question the film raises: What’s the effect of the dispersants that BP spread to get rid of the oil? “I don’t even think the EPA [Environmental Detection Agency] knows how many millions of gallons of dispersant was dumped into the Gulf of Mexico,” says Lee. “We might one day find out that it’s more lethal than the oil.”

One strong, echoing thought that rings through the last hour of “Da Creek”: Just how powerful is BP? “If BP can tell the FAA who can fly over, that’s power,” says Lee. “If BP can dictate to the coast guard who’s allowed in the area, that’s power. If BP can tell the EPA, basically, ‘F&*% you, we’ll use what we want to use’ [when questioned about the toxicity of their chosen dispersant], that’s power. And it’s not the way things are supposed to be.”

Another of Lee’s favorite parts of the film is when Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar says that the government will “keep our boot on [BP’s] neck until the job gets done.” Then the film cuts to President Obama saying, “There’s no need for that type of language.” Lee laughs. “Excuse me, but I’m from Brooklyn, New York,” says Lee. “Boot on the neck is kinda mild—that is very light. Are we afraid of hurting BP’s feelings? Why so much reverence for BP?”

“Da Creek” paints a picture of a post-Katrina, mid-oil-disaster New Orleans—the film makes us ask questions and consider these issues of power. How does Lee think it will end? “It remains to be seen,” he says. “It’s going to the courts, and BP is donating millions of dollars to scientists, universities—they’re trying to rig the game again.”

As for Lee, though, his film keeps the pressure (or the boot) on.

“If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise” debuts in two parts on Monday August 23 (9pm EST) and Tuesday, August 24 (9pm EST) exclusively on HBO.