Toiling largely in the shadows of popular culture, Spike Lee is nonetheless doing some of his most important, insightful and yes, entertaining work in telling the story of New Orleans, as he first did with "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" and now with "If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise," coming to DVD on April 19.
Lee returns to the city five years after it was thoroughly savaged by Hurricane Katrina, framing his story with ecstasy and then agony, starting with the Saints' victory in the Super Bowl and wrapping things up (four hours later) with an examination of the BP oil spill. And, through interviews with people who have either stuck it out there, managed to return or simply moved on, he tries, in the early segments, to get at the psyche of the Crescent City. It is, as several people note, a city with both a serious inferiority complex and schizophrenia, where, as one woman states, it's a "blessing and a privilege" to live, even as the disasters keep coming.
As he does with his best works of fiction ("Bamboozled" and "Get on the Bus" in my book), Lee lays out the city's dilemma in words and images that are equally striking. It's hard to argue when you hear residents describe the shackling of housing projects as "ethnic cleansing" or later when the term "dispersants" is used for much more than something to spread out spilled oil. It's with images, however, that Lee makes his most penetrating points, as when he uses the stone steps that are often all that remain to introduce a segment about the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, but much less subtly or successfully as the bodies simply start to pile up at the end.
The meat of Lee's story this time out is pretty much the rebuilding of the city from the ground up, or in effect as one resident puts it, "nation building." As he examines the services we all take for granted - from policing to health care - there are at least as many failures as successes, from the still-closed Charity Hospital to the Dr. King Charter School of Excellence, which was reopened and reborn through the sheer will of the people who depend on it.
What makes this all go down a lot smoother is that it's peppered throughout with interviews with a wide variety of New Orleans residents whose lives are very engaging, along with both heroes and goats who have had an impact on the city. In the latter categories are retired Lt. Gen. Russell Honoré, who was sent to take charge in the wake of Katrina and has evolved into a local hero, and on the opposite end, former FEMA chief Mike Brown, who to his credit submits to an interview and even has the nerve to refer to himself now as an "emergency management consultant" with a straight face.
And it's humor like that in these dire circumstances that makes Lee's movie so watchable, even if he of course could have used an editor brave enough to question its length. The funniest point in Lee's second New Orleans documentary comes early as a man who's been dispersed to Houston explains, with his wife sitting beside him, how he was looking for "a churchgoing woman with a house," and since he admittedly has a foot fetish, how their coming together was a matter of "fate, and probably feet."
In the closing credits, the many personalities reintroduce themselves holding picture frames, which just reinforces what makes what is ultimately a four-hour civics lesson as entertaining and often riveting as it is important: The people. And they are what make Spike Lee's "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" worth checking out on DVD.