In the months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the levees that protected the city were breached, causing a disaster of epic proportions in one of America’s most famous cities, Oscar-nominated director Spike Lee documented the aftermath in his HBO film When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. In four powerful, mesmerizing hours of television, Lee presented the stories of survivors, who — in their own words — told of the death and devastation they had witnessed. There were tales of heroism and of heartbreak, from the everyday people who lent a hand when it seemed the federal government was unwilling to do so, to those forced to watch helplessly as loved ones drifted away forever in the floodwaters. Many directed their anger at local and federal government officials for failing to act quickly and effectively to aid recovery efforts, while others blamed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the insufficient protection provided by the levees. Ultimately, though, When the Levees Broke highlighted the strength, resiliency and pride of the people of New Orleans, providing hope for the future of the city.
It was always Lee’s intention to return to track the progress of the recovery efforts and the people we came to know and love in his previous film, and he does so this month in If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise. The four-hour film premieres on HBO over two nights, Aug. 23-24, with the film airing in its entirety Aug. 29 on the fifth anniversary of the day Katrina hit New Orleans. On his return trip, Lee visits with several of the same people interviewed in When the Levees Broke, many of whom he has remained in contact with since and now calls good friends. The title of the new project comes from something Lee’s grandmother used to tell him.
“She lived to be 100 years old,” Lee tells us in an interview. “I would call her almost every night and I would say, ‘I’ll call you tomorrow.’ And she would say, ‘If God is willing and the creek don’t rise.'”
The saying certainly applies to the citizens of New Orleans, who are once again at the mercy of Mother Nature in the midst of a hurricane season that meteorologists have predicted will be as active as the one of 2005, which included Katrina. After his return to the city, Lee says that their concerns have been compounded just when it appeared that things were finally getting better.
“Their spirits were definitely up — way up — more than since Hurricane Katrina breached the levees,” he reports. “[The Saints] had just won a Super Bowl. [Ray] Nagin was out; the new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, is in. Things were looking up. Then April 20 hit, and they’re back in hell.”
April 20 was, of course, the date of the infamous BP oil spill, which at presstime had resulted in 13 deaths and more injuries, and nearly 7 million barrels of oil polluting the Gulf of Mexico. Lee worries that the combined threat of that spill and another potential Katrina could provide a “knockout punch” to New Orleans.
“It’s not just a hurricane,” he says. “It’s a hurricane mixed with oil, which is a whole different animal — which contaminates everything it touches, so it’s a whole new level of disaster. That’s why people are getting on their knees and praying that doesn’t happen. … That’s the doomsday scenario.”
While it’s the people of New Orleans who stand to be most directly affected by the dangers of the oil spill, Lee wants people outside of Louisiana to realize that this is not a local issue — it’s a national one. He’s calling for Americans to get angry.
“One very important thing that I think the people of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast want the American public to understand is that those wetlands of the Gulf Coast — those are America’s wetlands, America’s Gulf Coast,” he says. “This is where our oil comes from, our gas, our seafood. We all have to be enraged with BP. It shouldn’t be, ‘Well, it’s not on my beach in Martha’s Vineyard.’ ‘It’s not on my beach in Cape Cod.’ ‘It’s not on my beach in Nantucket.’ ‘It’s not on my beach in, you know, Myrtle Beach.’ We have to feel like we have to take ownership. Our land is being violated.”
While the introduction of an environmental disaster on top of the threat of a natural disaster makes for gripping subject matter for his documentary, Lee had made the decision to make If God Is Willing long before the oil spill occurred. In fact, he had already finished filming the project — or, at least, he thought he had — and found that the events completely turned around the tone of the film.
“Once we get them winning their first Super Bowl ever and after we finished shooting — thinking that we completed our shooting — the BP rig blows up April 20, so now we have the greatest environmental disaster in the history of the United States of America,” he recalls. “So we had to restructure and go back. We had to make three trips after we thought we were done to cover this story, which is changing every single day. The last hour, really, is probably all about the BP Gulf spill.”
There’s no question that Lee would trade a great documentary for the safety of his friends in New Orleans in an instant. For that reason, he hopes he never has to follow up When the Levees Broke and If God Is Willing. “I hope not,” he laughs. “I hope this is the last one. I don’t think there’s going to be a trilogy.”