Everyone has a favorite film, but does everyone have a favorite filmmaker? I do, and it's Spike Lee. Rather than make movies because he wants to make money, Lee makes movies because he believes the art form itself, and in many cases the message, theme or cause behind it, is what truly matters. I haven't met the Spike Lee joint I didn't like, and simultaneously, I've yet to see one that didn't make me think.
"If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" may not go down as Lee's most important, influential or best made film, but it could probably jockey for a role as his most pointed. Lee's own 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks backed this filterless documentary that spares no one from its critical perspective, and HBO distributed the film on DVD so those without access to its programming may watch a master demonstrate to all why he's so darn good at his craft.
Of course, if you asked Lee himself, he'd tell you "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" isn't about him. It's also not really about the tragic disasters that New Orleans has faced during the last six years (Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill), but instead how Louisiana and the South as a whole have changed over time since these awful events.
Decide for yourself whether or not "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" was too soon and whether or not five years post Katrina and less than a year post Deepwater Horizon isn't enough time to truly have perspective. Whatever your feeling, those interviewed throughout this 240 minute two-disc set were ready to spill their guts when someone, anyone, came along and was willing to listen. That someone just happened to be a filmmaker so unafraid of controversy he'll play a lead role in his own movie to illustrate his message.
This isn't Lee's first documentary about New Orleans. "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" was filmed just weeks after Katrina and debuted less than a year later. "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" serves as a check-in and follow up to what many consider the worst natural disaster in United States history, but like the documentary before it, Lee lets the people tell their stories, and it's those stories that propel the film.
I lost count at 35 interviewees during "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise," and many more than that are highlighted in the film itself or the special features (more on those in a moment). Understand, however, that this is Spike Lee we're dealing with, which means you'll hear the good, the bad and most often, the critical. Those without opinions and those with attitudes that suggest they're above all others aren't welcome here, and it's not because they lack value, but simply because, well, they're boring. By showing everyone from neighborhood organizers to local radio talk show hosts to fisherman to street rappers some screen time, Lee's essentially telling those who seek a quieter look at this region and its problems to read the Wikipedia.
Part 1 begins with triumph, joy and celebration as the New Orleans Saints defeat the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. So many native New Orleans residents still dealing with Katrina's aftermath find hope, excitement and plain old fun with this great success for their city and its extremely diverse communities. But their thrills fade fast when their reality creeps back in and many realize that something else long term will have to come along so they can latch onto it. Five years later, many residents are either still unable to return because their homes have been demolished or unwilling to move back due to poorly performing schools, unsustainable work environment or simple fear.
Lee's interviewees argue that Katrina gave local, state and federal governments an opportunity to act on various projects they couldn't have otherwise undertaken because so many people, namely poor Blacks, were now displaced. He also compares Katrina to Haiti's deadly and destructive 2010 earthquake, suggesting that international political motivations fueled a faster government response there than post Katrina. How the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) handled Katrina gets picked apart, as do issues related to healthcare, affordable housing and levee engineering.
Part 2 starts off by analyzing public education's reorganization post Katrina, including tossing the charter school ball up in the air for everyone to envy just like "Waiting for ‘Superman'." New Orleans's culture of violence and unending struggles with police misconduct take center stage before shifting gears to focus on what many Lee interviewees call the BP Oil Spill.
As "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" makes this transition, we continue to see the same faces interviewed and the same anger spill out endlessly. British Petroleum is their main target, but so is the Bush Administration and, to some degree, President Barack Obama. A few experts tie the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill into a larger issue surrounding American dependence on foreign oil resources, and things wrap up with an inspiring roll call by those who shared their stories, opened their hearts and aired their lives for all to see.
The most noticeable element during "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" is a racial one. Whether or not Lee intended (and I'd be totally shocked if he didn't), "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" directly states that both Katrina and Deepwater Horizon are racial issues just as much as, perhaps more so than, anything else. And given how many still images depict dead Blacks rotting in streets during the film, how many interviewees are people of color and how, in the segment about police misconduct, all victims are Black and all law enforcement aggressors are white, can we argue otherwise? All who lent their thoughts, feelings and emotions to "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" come forth to ask that we cut the garbage and talk about what's really taking place.
And just who are all those individuals Lee got to come forward? You'll probably recognize some from "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," and no doubt others will need no introduction. It's impressive how one man was able to weave interviews with former Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, current New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagan and actors/activists Brad Pitt and Sean Penn next to testimony from mechanical engineer Calvin Mackie, activist Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, historian Douglas Brinkley and musician Terence Blanchard. What might seem like a hodgepodge is in reality a well arranged and artfully flowing experience so well edited even those behind the Bond and Bourne films will be impressed.
In the end, "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" captures one community's indomitable spirit and ability to celebrate life. Is it sad, tragic and every single other negative adjective you can think of that, in order to really do so, it took a few completely horrible events that snatched lives, stole money and spared no one? You bet. Is it any surprise that after the controversy, anger, despair and madness, a Spike Lee joint was able to tell all? I think not. "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" is extraordinary and gripping with real elements that blend together because no one has to try that hard to make them flow. Reality has a funny way of doing that sometimes.
"If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" is sharp and clear. The image stays consistent in the interview scenes, and while it varies when Lee is borrowing footage from various news media outlets or from "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," nothing is drastic enough to take away from the 1.77:1 video transfer's ability to vividly connote emotion with its editing and imagery based focused. Coloration is strong and balanced throughout, with brights popping and darks rounding out their opposites.
Equally impressive for standard definition DVD is the documentary's English 5.1 Dolby Digital audio soundtrack. Every emotional chord "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" strikes has to do with how the film's interviewees speak their pieces, and many don't hold back with raw sentiment, be it good or bad. Lee relied on Terence Blanchard to do the music for "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise," (he also did it for "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts") and we're given a jazzy yet contemporary musical foundation from which the New Orleans sentiments around spirit and life abound. Every word, and there are plenty, can be heard loud and clear. A Spanish 2.0 Dolby Digital option is in place, and so are English, French and Spanish subtitles.
If you're dying to find out what Lee thinks about the disasters he's examining with his often-critical lens, check out the audio commentary the film's special features provide. Or instead, you can watch "Pickin' Up Da Pieces," a 60-minute featurette with never-before-seen interviews so similar yet so different from what made the final cut you'll want to see more.
A Final Word:
As I watched "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise," I tried to pick out the single quote or moment that summed it all up. There had to me something I could park in this review that would bring it all home. But because Lee's work here is so strong, I simply had too many options and left them all on the table. No doubt this film has its political positioning set up, but for a change, take a look from a purely artistic, cinematic perspective. You'll like what you see, without question.