For the HBO documentary, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, filmmaker Spike Lee returned to New Orleans five years after Hurricane Katrina to see how the ambitious plans to reinvent the city were playing out. In the follow-up to 2006’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, he documents the successes and failures in the on-going efforts to restore housing, healthcare, education, economic growth, and law and order to the battered but resilient community.
While making the film, the BP oil disaster occurred, leading Spike Lee to return to include it’s affects on the people of New Orleans. At the Television Critics Association Press Tour to talk about the upcoming August 23rd and 24th premiere, Spike Lee showed just how passionate he was about this matter and how telling this story has affected his life. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: How did you decide where and when to start filming for this documentary?
Spike: We did not really know when we should return because, even though we had finished Levees, the story was still evolving in New Orleans and the Gulf, but for whatever reason, we decided that five years should be it. Our first day of shooting, we were in Miami shooting the Super Bowl. I got in the crew for NFL Films. My other people were shooting in New Orleans, to shoot people watching the game at a bar called Sweet Lorraine’s, as well as the celebration that was going to happen in the French Quarter because we knew the Saints were going to win.
There are very few times in sports when that happens, but the Saints weren’t trying to win a game. They had a cause. No matter what Peyton Manning was going to do, it was not going to help. The Saints were going to win that game. We knew it. The Saints knew it. Coach Peyton knew it. So, we thought we’d film the ending, the first day of shooting. But, BP cut some corners and went around safety regulations, and the thing blew up and 11 people died. That changed the whole outlook of If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise.
You get a lot of emotion in the argument over tearing down the projects and what will be in place of it. It seems like such a tangled issue because there are well-meaning people tearing down the projects, but nobody can seem to figure out what to do to not displace all of the people. What kind of emotion did you come out with, after seeing all of that?
Spike: Well, the fact is that those projects were not damaged by Hurricane Katrina and the breach in the levees. I think the plan was to get these poor black people out of the city from the get-go, so when this thing dropped into their lap, it was a great opportunity. It was a mandatory evacuation of the city. All the projects were boarded up and sealed tight. People came back and could not get back into their homes, and then they were consequently knocked down.
Do you think there were some people who really thought that the projects don’t work and were truly just trying to help?
Spike: People are still in exile who want to come back and who can’t come back because they have no place to live.
How close were you to being finished with this film when the BP spill happened, and how did that change things?
Spike: We were done shooting, and then the thing blew up, so we had to re-think, re-configure and make another seven trips down to New Orleans. We were just there shooting, as late as three weeks ago, because of the Danziger Bridge indictments. They finally indicted the guy that shot Donnell Herrington. Donnell was in the first documentary, and the capping of the well. So, we had to re-think everything, but we’re done now.
Did you do it as an add-on at the end, or did you intersperse it throughout?
Spike: There’s a little bit about it in the beginning, but the last hour is really just on BP, as a whole.
Can you expand on what will be included in the documentary?
Spike: Hours two and three deal with the NOPD and the various people they allegedly murdered in the aftermath of Katrina, the whole revamping of the education system with Paul Vallas and the housing. There is an alarming rate of young black men killing young black men. Right now, New Orleans is on a pace of having 203 murders for this year, which will make them the murder capital of the world.
We go to Haiti to see Sean Penn, who has moved Port-au-Prince. There’s a direct historical correlation between New Orleans and Port-au-Prince, Haiti. What brought about the whole Louisiana Purchase was Toussaint L’Ouverture kicking Napoleon in the butt, prompting him to sell Louisiana. So, we wanted to make the whole correlation with the earthquake. We followed Sean Penn when he came to New Orleans three days after the breach in the levees, and he was in Haiti two days after the earthquake.
We also deal with the great thing that Brad Pitt is doing with his Make It Right Foundation and building houses for the African-American homeowners in the Lower 9th Ward. He’s doing stuff that neither the local, state or federal government is doing. He’s building green houses, solar panels and everything. The people in the community love those houses.
We went to Mississippi, to Gulfport, and dealt with the effects of Katrina. We were not given the love we should have had in When the Levees Broke, so we deal with Mississippi a lot in this one, too.
The title of this film, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise is a message of hope. Is that why you chose it?
Spike: There’s hope, but there’s cross your fingers, too. I really got it from my grandmother. My grandmother lived to be 100 years old. Her grandmother was a slave, yet she was a college graduate in the Spellman class of 1917. She taught art for 50 years and she saved her Social Security checks for her children’s education. Since I was the oldest, I had first dibs, so my grandmother put me through Morehouse College in Atlanta and NYU graduate film school. She also gave me money for She’s Gotta Have It, all from her Social Security checks. And, in her later years, when I would speak to her from Brooklyn while she was in Atlanta, I would say, “I’ll call you. Mama, I’ll speak to you tomorrow night.” And, she’d say, “Spikey, if God is willing and da creek don’t rise.” So, this title is a tribute to my grandmother, but it’s also apropos for all the things that you will see in this four-hour documentary.
Do you have any hope that they’ll ever get anything right in New Orleans?
Spike: It’s not like they’re not trying to get things right. Some of the stuff, they had no hand in. If you connect Levees with this, the big connective tissue is greed. It was the greed of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, who cut corners in the construction of the levee system, consequently leading New Orleans to be 80% underwater. It was greed again that reared its ugly head with BP, who did not want to buy this blowout protector, which only cost half a million dollars. They were behind schedule.
We’ve had enough instances where, any time you try to cut corners, it ends up biting you in the butt, later on. What gets lost is that 11 people are dead because of the negligence of BP because they threw safety precautions out the window. MMS (Mineral Management Service) was not doing their job. They had been corrupted by Super Bowl tickets, sex orgies and whatever, and they weren’t doing their job regulating stuff. And, we have people who get appointed to positions, who are elected, who lay down and pray at the altar of the all-mighty dollar. They’ll put their mother on the corner, if they had to for a dollar, with no regard to what’s right, wrong or moral. All they think about is the money. And, if people have to end up dying and being hurt, they don’t give a fuck, excuse my language. It’s as simple as that.
Right now, all these scientists are coming out of the woodwork saying that we just had the biggest oil disaster in the history of the world, but all of a sudden, abracadabra, presto change-o, 75% of this oil has disappeared? Where the fuck did it go to? I don’t care how many scientists BP buys, that oil did not disappear. We are still cleaning up from Exxon Valdez, 20 years ago, so how, all of a sudden, is everything all right now? You shouldn’t buy that. It’s a lie. BP has been lying from the get-go. At first, Tony Hayward said there was negligible damage. Then, it was only 1,000 barrels. Then, it was only 5,000 barrels. Then, the court made him make everything public. A blind person can see that there was more than 5,000 barrels coming out of that thing. Now, we want to believe that no damage has been done to the wetlands, no damage has been done to the Gulf of Mexico, and 75% of this oil has disappeared? I don’t believe it.
Then, do you not have any hope that things will ever change?
Spike: I’m not going to have any hope if we allow people to get away with murder and people lying to our faces, and we say, “Okay.” In Part 4, there are many people who say General Honoré should have been the one heading this thing. BP told the United States government, “We don’t want Honoré. We want Thad Allen,” because they were chummy.
You’ll see in Part 4 that there’s way in the world BP should be able to tell the FAA who can fly where. There is no way in the world that BP should be able to tell the Coast Guard who can come into the waters. Honoré wouldn’t have gone for that. He said, “Don’t get it confused. Don’t get it twisted. Just because you’re paying for stuff, we’re running this shit.” But, it’s been the other way around. BP has been dictating what’s going on, and that shows you the power of this company. There is no industry in the world that makes as much money as the oil and gas industries.
Did you have any access issues when you went down to shoot Part 4? Were you able to get into the marsh and shoot as much as you wanted?
Spike: Yeah, we shot in the marshes. There were certain areas that we couldn’t go in, by decree of the Coast Guard and Thad Allen.
Did you have any specific confrontations with BP over shooting?
Spike: It wasn’t confrontations. There are just places where you can’t go. I’m not going to go up against the Coast Guard. We just shot where we could shoot. I thought it was more important to interview people who say, “We tried to fly over here,” or “We tried to bring our boat here.” It just amazed me. The power that BP has was really eye-opening, as far as how this whole thing went down. They were running the show.
Why was it so important for you to show what Sean Penn is doing in Haiti?
Spike: Sean Penn doesn’t live in the United States anymore. He lives in Port-au-Prince. His life now is trying to get that country back on its feet, and I’ve got to commend him for that. He’s left everything here and just moved to Haiti, and he’s not living in a palace. He’s living in a tent. I slept three nights there. It’s not like he’s living high on the hog. I respect his opinion because he’s been down there. He’s not Haitian, but for me, Sean Penn has put in his dues. A lot of people talk about stuff from afar, but he’s been down there from the get-go. He was there three days afterwards.
Do high-profile people help, or do they somehow divert from a crisis?
Spike: It depends who you’re talking about. For me, I don’t see any negativity with what Brad Pitt is doing with his Make It Right Foundation, or what Sean Penn is trying to do in Haiti. When we went to Haiti, the bodies had been cleared, but the rubble hasn’t been. There has been no removal of rubble. I want to commend President Clinton because he’s really been in it, too. There is no more attention on Haiti, but people are still there struggling, so I felt it was important that we include Haiti in this piece.
Among the people in New Orleans, what was the reaction to When the Levees Broke? Have these people come to trust you to tell their truth?
Spike: I’m not the go-to guy. Everybody is trying to tell their story and have different ways of telling it. I’ve been very fortunate that Sheila Nevins at HBO has given me the money, along with Richard Plepler, to do this. I was at the Venice Film Festival when Katrina hit. Venice is one of the greatest cities on the Earth. You don’t want to be holed up in your hotel room when you’re in Venice, Italy. But, I was glued to the television, watching those images on CNN International and BBC, of Americans holding up signs on top of their homes surrounded by water, saying “Help me.” When I got back to the States, my partner/co-producer/editor, Sam Pollard, went to Sheila and HBO, and said, “We want to do a documentary on this,” and they gave their blessing. At first, it was only going to be two hours. Then, we went back to Sheila and said, “We need two more hours and some more money,” and we got it.
They say that everything you do in life changes you, in some way. How have you changed from doing these documentaries?
Spike: That’s a hard question. Well, number one, I have friends for life now that I wouldn’t have had if it wasn’t for doing these two documentaries. It has really exposed me to the culture of that region, and the great resiliency of these people who, time after time, get knocked down, but they put one hand on the rope and pull themselves off the canvas. They’re only human beings. Every night, I pray to God because, right now, we’re in the heart of the hurricane season and it is said that this is supposed to be a very active hurricane season, as active as 2005 was. The doomsday scenario is this BP oil and the hurricanes. That’s what everybody is thinking about.
The HBO documentary IF GOD IS WILLING AND DA CREEK DON’T RISE premieres on August 23rd and 24th