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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Spike Lee premieres new HBO documentary

Posted By on Wed, Aug 18, 2010 at 9:37 PM

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Spike Lee, Chris Paul, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Wendell Pierce, Terence Blanchard, Rep. Joseph Cao and Phyllis Montana LeBlanc (pictured) attended the premiere of Lee's second four-part documentary about post-Katrina New Orleans at the Mahalia Jackson Theater Tuesday night. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

The screening included the first and fourth hour of If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don't Rise. The first part begins on the day of the New Orleans Saints' victory in Super Bowl XLIV and dwells on it at length. Much of the rest is concerned with housing, displacement of citizens and the transition from Mayor Ray Nagin to Mitch Landrieu. The final segment is about the BP oil disaster, and it provides an excellent overview and hard hitting account of the saga, with a significant amount of commentary from Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser among others. It chronicles BP's serially deficient accounting of the scope of the problem and examines clean up efforts. It's critical of the failings of the federal government in allowing BP to control access to affected areas. Perhaps most stark is hearing historian Doug Brinkley describe global corporate giant BP's treatment of Louisiana and Alaska (where it also had a recent oil spill) as the way it would treat Nigeria (which is plagued with oil industry accidents), where oil companies get little resistance from government officials. He follows up and says that the federal government is not doing enough to hold BP accountable.

One of the things that's hard not to notice in the film is how many people refer to levee-failure flooding as a "natural disaster." Even Saints coach Sean Payton does so in the film. Approaching the fifth anniversary of the storm and flooding, it is disappointing that that simple (and meaningful) distinction — whether it's a repeated falsehood or misleading shorthand for the whole ordeal — persists.

Given the passage of time and and number of recent major issues competing for national attention and government remedy (TARP legislation, financial reform, the recession, ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq etc.), the rebuilding of New Orleans will not get as much exposure as it did in the years immediately following the disaster. Lee won an Emmy and a Peabody for his 2006 HBO documentary project When the Levees Broke, so this film should attract some attention. And it's well worth it, both for the overview he presents and the amazing people he is able to get to open up to his film crews. Phyllis Montana Leblanc (who went on to star in David Simon's Treme) was one such person from When the Levees Broke. She's back in this series, and there are other new citizens of south Louisiana who are a pleasure to meet. Some of them appear in the final segment about BP.

While watching how the distorted narrative of Katrina, the "natural disaster," has endured, it occurs that it's important not to allow the BP disaster to be similarly misunderstood or minimized (ie where's all the oil?).

Surprisingly, Russel L. Honore appears often in the final segment talking about the BP disaster, and he's quite insightful. He also has a commentary on CNN looking back at the Gulf Coast post-Katrina. It's one of many commentaries we can expect to hear in coming weeks regarding the 5th anniversary of Katrina. It will be interesting in to see how people account for the disaster and reponse.

Parts 1 & 2 of If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don't Rise runs at 8 p.m. Monday, August 23 on HBO. Parts 3 & 4 run at 8 p.m. Tuesday, August 24.

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