In 2004, I had the dubious honour of witnessing the horrendous destructive power of a hurricane first hand when Hurricane Juan steamed up the Atlantic coast and slammed into my hometown of Halifax. Barely a Category Two when it made landfall, Juan still had enough fury to cause the deaths of four people, wreak millions worth of damage and render much of Nova Scotia powerless for a week or longer. Falling trees and flying debris caused extensive damage to homes, including my own, and left most roads impassible. Life in the city ground to a halt as citizens, emergency services and even military personal chipped in to clear debris clogged streets and storm ravaged coastline. It was a stunning and unforgettable display of nature's unrelenting power and how feeble our supposed mastery of the elements truly is. But Halifax got off lucky, the Gulf Coast did not. A year later Hurricane Katrina, a Category Five monster of a storm with winds twice as powerful as Juan's, savaged the region. It killed 1,836, caused over eighty billion in damages and scattered thousands of Gulf Coast residents throughout the United States. Lives were ruined and many who were exiled by the storm have been unable to return. New Orleans, a city bellow sea level at the head waters of the mighty Mississippi, was battered by Katrina's storm surge. It's crumbling levees faltered and flooded eighty percent of the city for weeks.
A two part follow-up to Spike Lee's epic four part HBO documentary When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts, which chronicled the events preceding, during and immediately after the storm, If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don't Rise is the story of what those deadly waters left behind when they receded. A nearly post apocalyptic landscape. A citizenry which struggles everyday with the enormity of their loss. There were also the opportunists, eager to redevelop the poorer neighbourhoods into “mixed income” communities. Not to mention the four separate governments who struggled against the aftermath of the crisis. As well as their own incompetence. An epic, multifaceted tragedy played out for Spike Lee's expertly placed camera. Spike Lee has a reputation for being a polemic filmmaker and no question this film is heavily biased in favour of the poorer residents of New Orleans. Most of whom are African-American. But in all honesty it's hard not to. Spike Lee does the smartest thing a filmmaker could in a situation as sensitive as this. He steps out of the way and lets everyone speak for themselves. No clumsy narration or director insertion. Merely the people who were or are still involved.
To Lee's credit he is actually fairly even handed in his interview subjects. Several of the most reviled figures involved in post Katrina controversies, like FEMA head-honcho Michael “Brownie” Brown, get a chance to defend themselves. Brown in particular comes across as fairly sympathetic when you hear his side of the story. But it's no secret to where the director's sympathies lie. Though not without good reason, as the documentary points out in painstaking detail. The lower income residents of New Orleans, many of whom were forced out by the storm, got royally shafted at every turn. Rents were hiked up astronomically. Their schools were left to rot while the city pushes for the privatization of education. Likewise the only hospital providing affordable and reliable healthcare to these communities are shuttered. As are their former homes. All the while people are breaking down at random because they can't escape their despair. It got so bad that the NOPD were forced to create a special unit to respond to mental health related incidents. Police therapists talking despondent survivors out of shooting themselves. It is truly heartbreaking.
Then it gets unimaginably worse. Just as the Gulf Coast is pulling itself slowly together and is celebrating a New Orleans Saints Superbowl victory, the Deepwater Horizon explodes and the BP oil spill unleashes one of the worst environmental catastrophes in history. Spike Lee fluidly transitions between the two disasters all the while cleverly linking them. This feat is made possible by the running time. Which is lengthy at 255 minutes. However Lee's masterfully edited B-Roll and the stunning diversity of interview subjects makes the documentary consistently compelling. You simply don't feel the length. The expertly chosen soundtrack also played a big part in giving If God Is Willing a sense of atmosphere. Blending the sounds of New Orleans with smooth, sorrowful Jazz.
Lee is so convincing in his presentation that if you don't feel something for the people of this city, then you're quite possibly a robot. Lee also makes a convincing argument against the various redevelopment plans attempting to gentrify much of New Orleans' traditionally working class communities . Expertly making his point through a combination of undeniable facts and subtle emotional manipulation. Exactly the qualities which make an excellent documentary.
Final Verdict: An engaging, enraging and gut-wrenching documentary epic.
5 out of 5