British Petroleum doesn’t have many friends in the U.S., but strictly from a storytelling standpoint, Spike Lee ought to send the company a nice fruit basket. That’s because the environmental disaster of the gulf oil spill provides a potent finishing kick to Lee’s two-part documentary “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise,” a follow-up to the director’s Hurricane Katrina four-act requiem “When the Levees Broke.” Lee’s passion is evident throughout the film, but despite the understandable anger of New Orleans residents who feel abandoned, much of this would sound like a reairing of past grievances were it not for the fresh tragedy.
HBO has devoted more time to the often-neglected issue of rebuilding New Orleans than practically any other media venue, except for the inevitable onslaught of five-years-later examinations of Katrina’s aftermath — reflecting TV’s penchant for turning every anniversary (up next: Sept. 11) into a programming event.
Like “Treme,” the pay channel’s drama devoted to New Orleans, “If God Is Willing” employs bluesy music and a languid pace to establish the melancholy tone — and does so at a cost to its hold on the audience. In this respect, Lee seems to be thinking more like a feature director — whose audience is captive — than one for TV, where attention is more apt to drift in the midst of long montages set to a dirge.
As a documentarian, Lee also employs a kitchen-sink approach (as in throwing in everything but) that could be seen in some of his early films. He frames his story with the New Orleans Saints’ uplifting Super Bowl victory in February, then closes it by devoting most of the last hour to the devastation wrought by BP.
In between, there is plenty of moving, funny and sobering stuff, albeit presented in slightly disjointed fashion. Author-poet Phyllis Montana Leblanc once again stands out among the 300 interview subjects as a surrogate voice for residents, while the parade of luminaries runs the gamut from Brad Pitt, who has built dozens of energy-efficient homes in the area, to former FEMA director Michael Brown, who laments the enduring legacy of President Bush’s “heckuva job” line.
Lee would surely benefit from narrowing his focus, resisting the urge to tackle every part of the crisis and its aftermath.
Instead, there’s a detour to Haiti (and chat with Sean Penn); a segment on the battle over closing Charity Hospital; a look at the lack of mental-health resources, and rising rates of suicide and violence; an indictment of the local police; and the matter of overcrowded schools.
Perhaps most significantly, there’s also the politics, and the charge that Mississippi — with its well-connected Republican governor, Haley Barbour — received a disproportionate share of aid from the Bush administration, which shortchanged Louisiana and then-Democratic governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco.
It is, frankly, a lot to absorb — and would risk crumbling under the weight of Lee’s ambition were it not for the second gut punch to the region that BP’s horrifying blunder delivered.
In the final analysis, Lee’s return visit proves a worthy and necessary companion to “When the Levees Broke,” including evidence of the Army Corps of Engineers’ folly, with time-lapse video of water rushing into the city. Yet Lee also succumbs to a vice that has plagued more than one starry-eyed New Orleans visitor — namely, he’s overdone it.