If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise was presumably well into production at the time of the explosion on Deepwater Horizon, which sent an ultimately inestimable amount of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, devastating a fragile ecosystem and a local economy that was only beginning to gather up its pieces in the wake of Hurricane Katrina five years earlier. This garishly fortuitous event made Creek timelier than ever, but it also sets it off balance, giving the entire four-hour documentary an “and-then” quality, as if Lee was taking this film as an opportunity to complete thoughts that weren’t quite settled with When The Levees Broke. Creek is a timely and effective work, rich and effective in both detail and feeling, but it gives the impression of a piece produced while constantly in motion as if it needed to compete with local news for being up-to-date with information. This makes it more vital than it otherwise would have been, but it’s far from the last word on the rebuilding effort.
Creek opens with footage of the Saints winning the 2009-2010 Super Bowl, and then backtracking to show families returning to their homes following Katrina in 2005. The significance of the Super Bowl win is largely symbolic on a psychological level, and that is the playing field that Lee sets Creek on, and for the most part he sticks with it. Far from being a comprehensive chronicling of the period between those years, Lee drops in on different people (most of them in the poor and largely black) in an effort to estimate the full psychological impact of Katrina, even consulting psychologists who insist that the levels of alcoholism and drug abuse have gone up substantially since the flood. Along the way, numerous figures, from the relevant (FEMA director Michael Brown and Mayors Ray Nagin and Mitch Landrieu) to the peripheral (Sean Penn and Brad Pitt), stop in to give their opinions of both the rebuilding effort and of one another. Finally, of course, in comes the BP spill, which, in any non-documentary format would seem like an almost ludicrous third-act twist, but in the context of reality, becomes too awful to fully comprehend.
Even though he never indulges himself in a voice-over narration, Lee’s presence can be felt throughout the film. Creek opens with a spoken-word rap performance instantly evocative of Do The Right Thing’s similar spoken word moments (particularly the ‘right hand/left hand’ monologue), and goes on to focus on such signature Lee protagonists as activists and school teachers, fighting even more disctinct Lee antagonists such as police officers, bureacrats, and a larger white indifference to problems within the black community. Though Lee is smart enough to focus on efforts to come together and rebuild the community in a positive manner, the dominant emotion that comes through is anger. Anger at the people who took the evacuation as an opportunity to take over low-income housing and displace its residents, anger at the police officers who shot down people that plainly didn’t need to be shot down, and anger at the fact even though BP was criminally negligent in its behavior in the gulf, it still dictated what relief efforts were and were not allowed to do. Even though he channels that anger through the voice of the residents of Louisiana, those who know Lee’s work will recognize the anger as his, and will probably have a hard time separating his perspective from the facts that he sifted through to produce If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise.
The best (and most chilling) aspect of Creek is that it feels timely enough (it premiered in August of last year, four months after the Deepwater Horizon explosion) that you are never allowed to forget that all of the wheels presented here are still in motion and will be into the foreseeable future. Unlike more staid, “intellectual” documentaries that focus on tragedies after the fact, this comes with a more implicit obligation to react with something a little stronger than clicking your tongue and shaking your head at the immense destruction. But with speed, it sacrifices some reason, never taking the time necessary to provide a clearer overall picture of the overall effort, if only because it never allows us to think anything other than that the tragedy is still going on as we are watching this, rather than safely in the past where we can’t do anything about it. This only emerges as a problem when Lee’s subjects aim for historical context or profundity, some of which comes across as under-developed or one-sided (one describes the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 as the incepting event of the modern environmental movement, paying scant notice to Silent Spring). Other times, it comes across as disorderly and chaotic in the way that Lee’s films often do, but never to in a manner complete enough that you feel you have registered a complete portrait of the city (a lengthy comparison between New Orleans and Port-au-Prince, also struck by disaster recently, comes across as appropriate for a longer piece, but a little too much to address here). Creek may be more of a catalog of bureaucratic failures than a true crime scene investigation, but it's also sharp enough to let us know why that's probably more necessary.
Both parts (1 and 2) of the documentary have a commentary by Lee, and the second disc contains an additional hour-long documentary entitled Pickin’ Up da Pieces, continuing a look at the rebuilding effort.
"If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don't Rise" is on sale April 19, 2011 and is not rated. Documentary. Directed by Spike Lee. Starring Shelton Alexander, Terence Blanchard, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, Douglas Brinkley, Karen Carter, Bobby Jindal, Mitch Landrieu, Phyllis Montana Leblanc, Dr Calvin Mackie, Jacques Morial, Marc Morial, Ray Nagin, Anise Parker, Garland Robinette, Michael Brown.