September 1, 2010
I’m talking about Lee’s new two, two-hour episodes that make up his new HBO documentary If God is willin and the creek don’t rise, shot five years after Katrina, which hit on August 29, 2005. Lee’s previous four-part HBO series When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, covered the trials and traumas of New Orleans during the storm and after and won a Peabody Award and three Emmys.
I say Lee Gives America its voice because he gives the still-ailing New Orleans the opportunity for its people to speak on the myriad issues that face them, which also face America. First on the BP oil disaster, on the destruction of the fishing industry, whose catch comprises 40% of America’s fish supply; on the oil-coated waters, whose offshore drilling comprises 20% of America’s natural gas and oil; and of course, on the dead sea life, the blighted marshlands, the soiled fowl, the scarred beaches; and on the lie that a well that is capped for one day can make 75% of the pollution gone the next; and on the voice that describes the explosion of the well-head like a bag of fire incinerating its victims, the voices of a one-armed survivor and a two-fisted reporter.
Lee’s cast of truly real people embrace the issues of poverty, poor health, a failing medical and psychological care system, a public school system being rapidly privatized, with an administration that doesn’t see its black students and their issues clearly. What with the trauma these kids bear, the ubiquitous violence they experience, the fact that New Orleans has become the US city with the most murders is almost no surprise. Lee’s documentary in fact is the antidote to Reality TV, America. Take it upon yourself to see this, to make a regimen for your own understanding of life and its possibilities, of the need to pay attention beyond the pure pursuit of your own pleasure.
Nor does the New Orleans Police Department fare much better in the face of this chaos, with visual stories of them killing a retarded man, carrying another dead man in his old car to burn his body and car behind a police station, then remove the skull bones to crack them into pieces and scatter the evidence. The Big Easy is in trouble from every angle, a microcosm of the macro of America. And one of the largest trials against law-enforcement in an American city has occurred to help set New Orleans PD on its feet again to protect people, not kill them.
This has been the case going back to Governor Kathleen Bianco claiming “We are going to restore law and order… These troops know how to shoot and kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary and I expect they will.” This was an open invitation to ethnic and racial cleansing. And it was reinforced by Police Chief Eddie Compass passing on fantastic rumors about babies being raped and helicopters being shot at. Of course, he admitted afterwards these claims were lies and said, “I guess I heightened people’s fears. I erred on the side of caution.” Caution here is just another word for the deep hatred of racism.
It goes back, as Wiki writes, to at least “The Haitian Revolution of 1804 [against Bonaparte’s army], which established it as the second republic in the Western Hemisphere and the first led by blacks. Haitian refugees, both white and free people of color…arrived in New Orleans, often bringing slaves with them. While Governor Claiborne and other officials wanted to keep out more free black men, French Creoles wanted to increase the French-speaking population. As more refugees were allowed in Louisiana, Haitian émigrés who had gone to Cuba also arrived. Nearly 90 percent of the new immigrants settled in New Orleans. The 1809 migration brought 2,731 whites; 3,102 free persons of African descent; and 3,226 enslaved refugees to the city, doubling its French-speaking population. In addition, a 1809-1810 migration brought thousands of white francophone refugees from St. Dominique (deported by officials in Cuba in response to Bonapartist schemes in Spain).”
Given this Haitian/French tradition, Lee cuts to scenes of Haiti today, cleaning up with bulldozers its dead amid the fallen frames of houses, chipped blocks of concrete and mist of plaster. These are images that contrast to similar scenes from New Orleans, five years ago and today, and suggest a historical continuity of racism in the US, whether under the racist George Bush or the fast-talking Obama, a sorry rep of black people, given his candy-ass approach to BP.
He is reminiscent, too, of former Mayor Ray Nagin, the light-skinned black Mayor hand-picked by the white power crowd that thrust him in office. He confesses only to postponing his warning to residents of the city to evacuate eight hours earlier. Only eight, Ray! So many larger issues are left to history’s undertakers.
As of 2010, we meet white Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu, following in his father’s political footsteps, seems committed to responsible management of the city. We’ll see. Certainly, he can look the camera in the eye without flinching like George Bush or squirming, “Brownie, you’re doing a great job,” which Lee runs on a loop, referencing Michael Brown, the former and scapegoated head of FEMA by Bush, Cheney, Chertoff, and Condoleezza Rice, who was shopping, and being booed at a Broadway Theater as Katrina ravaged New Orleans.
And then there’s the lost or damaged lives that suffered in FEMA trailers made on the cheap but that cost the US billions, exuding formaldehyde that poisoned the lungs, the eyes, the coronary system of its residents, at first happy for homes, at last made ill by them. The trailers became the cages for the suffering residents, white cages lined up like shanty towns under the merciless summer sun, the massive blunder of couldn’t-give-less-of-a-shit protectors.
- A d v e r t i s e m e n t
Thus the PTSD levels are astounding, with gathering storms of the hurricane season hovering about, the danger of sweeping up the oil fumes into the air on the speeding winds and carrying the poisons BP left behind, and the levees still untested when that water hits. This is life lived at its most challenging by blacks, whites, tan, and red men, women, and children. And it seems all they have left is the memory of loss, which resonates as Spike cuts from children weeping for a lost parent to a doctor talking about a bloated body that could have been saved, a teacher mourning a student shot by a fellow student.
But this is a black to white, spectrum of a ghetto that won’t fall, because it can still speak like it can make music, have a good time, a drink or two or more, and be nourished by the joys of Creole cooking. It can still take life by the short hairs one more time.
What amazed me most about the second two-hour episode was the litany of people telling their stories, and at the end, each in a different and beautiful frame, framing themselves, whether in rhyme, street talk, or the hard-edged syllables of the educated, the discerning, the historians, the doctors, the ex-mayor and governor, the new white mayor, all talking from the heart, as if they were a megaphone for America’s ills, for its lack of systemic order, for its corruption, its inalienable beauty, its sullied bounty, its life lived for family, friendship, goddamn, for love sweet love, for the sound of Terence Blanchard’s horn; TB, whose mom still lives there and complains about the improvements he had made on her battered house, and he laughs, and she laughs, knowing who they are, mother and son, love sweet love, his haunting horn and music bleeding from the sound track into the film like the cry of a new wound or the salve for a healed one. Hosanna, for the healing transcendence of music!
And then there is the poet with a litany of epitaphs that fit to B P (mine is bastards petroleum). But he had dozens raged out in rapid fire, in a literal, great leap of the imagination. And then there is the fisherman who wants to meet the CEO of BP who “wants his life back” and to fall on him and tell him of everyone there that wants their life back, what little or much they had, just give it back, I got to have it. And then there are the returnees, who were “rescued” from towns in Mississippi or Louisiana and brought back only to find nothing was better, more for worse, and some of whom expire from the sheer exhaustion of circumstance as we all can when life is just too much.
And then there’s a man from Coney Island (bravo!), with bushy eyebrows, a huge double-breasted, brown, pine-striped suit, who knows it’s gonna be okay, that New Orleans (read America) will pull through. Pull through the pallid indifference of a piqued George Bush, who would not turn up for Spike’s camera, though an effusive Michael Brown did, former head of FEMA, who got to tell his side, and how his boss, Michael Chertoff(?) did not and didn’t know his ass from a hole in the wall about security, disaster, or anything else. But Brown worked to vindicate himself, to show he was a survivor not just the goat Bush sired.
And then there was tall, gangly, two-star General Russel Honoré, LLC, with 37 years of US Army Service, that striking figure of command, who walked in the face of incoming tanks and US vehicles with their automatic rifles pointed at the populace, and told them one by one to put down their goddamn guns, and they did, as if the people were the enemy, and not the fat-cats who wanted to turn this town into Las Vegas with water, real-estate it into private profit if they could, if only to get rid of those goddamn poor people (read black), and get some rich touristas to come and snap some shots of the Superdome, what with its ripped off roof and memories of misery, smells of crap, pee, vomit and death, oh rue the day lord, rue the day.
And Mr. Bush, yawsuh, boss, kiss my ass, was the feeling. And there was that strong, egalitarian, articulate voice, with a southern or northern or mid-western voice, telling it like it is and how it had to be for New Orleans, for its mother America to make it through the 21st Century. A voice that rattled through the litany of faces and pulled no punches about a lost hospital that once was the grandest in the land, now a shadow, and spoke of torn-down projects from the Roosevelt days that still had life in them, of destroyed houses that still had bodies in them, dead as cows or dogs or cats. And that wanted life again, that wanted to live again and serve, bringing new life into this world. And there were the bold, the triumphant, and the defeated.
And then there’s the music, all you can imagine, funeral dirges, a boy with a snare drum sitting on the edge of the bridge, thinking of his gone daddy, jazz in the air, here, there, and everywhere, Dr. John, with his gravelly southern voice, music, in every form. And then there are the dancers, in their Indian costumes, their Mardi Gras best, their funereal suits, their gold suits. And then there are the angry, the people who will point to the crap and tell you what it is, polluted water, broken promises, lousy choices by government officials, never wavering, telling you what’s worth what and what’s worth squat. And this Spike gives to you, America, a New Orleans, un-prettified. And that he took the time, the money, the energy, the love, the honesty to give it to you, raspy, sobbing, screaming, laughing and beat unto dying, but there, in a frame, is a tribute to this depth of soul.
And that includes a long-bearded, big shaded, Brad Pitt, who took the time and money, to ask the country’s best architects to design humble dwellings but do it with beauty and utility and pro-bono. And they did it. And at one point, thinking of BP, he says, “I’ve always been against the death penalty, but now I’m ready to rethink it.” And there’s Sean Penn, right there in the middle of it all, doing whatever needs to be done, a face in the crowd making a difference. What a thing of American beauty. America, lifting its voice once again, like Huey Long did so many years ago, scaring the crap out of the rich, ushering in Roosevelt who picked up the ball and ran with it, braces and all. May his ghost resurrect and walk this land again.
For this is the place of the best and the worst, a bloated Mississippi Governor boasting how “his people” just picked themselves up by their bootstraps and got it all together. That is, with a little help from their Repuglican friends. And that’s how Mississippi got half of the money (not a quarter in keeping with its population) more than it deserved compared to Louisiana’s three-quarters of the population affected, for rebuilding, the good old boy racist piggies playing their usual games. So, see it all America. Hear it all. Live it all. If God is willin and the creek don’t rise is an American masterpiece, a rare blend of documentary journalism with unparalleled humanity, great-story telling without a discernible plot, and a flood of truth, like life. See it, if you dare. For in it you will see and feel yourself, time and time again.
Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer, life-long resident of New York City. His book “State Of Shock – Poems from 9/11 on” is available at www.jerrymazza.com, Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. He has also written hundreds of articles on American and world politics as an Associate Editor of Online Journal. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.