Man, Spike Lee just can’t win.
Oh, don’t get me wrong: he’s a successful, independent filmmaker, three words you don’t see strung together very often. So long as he’s making Serious (Fictional) Drama’s about Serious (Fictional) Black People suffering from Seriously Fictional Problems your average movie critic’s content to churn out a gutless, wishy-washy write-up. “Oh,” they’ll say, “it’s alight, I guess…but its so serious and ambivalent and there’s all these black people in it…I don’t know. The man’s no Oliver Stone.”
Mainstream reviews of Lee’s New Orleans documentaries are shot through with this same lack of critical balls, exposing the brain damaged character of those self-important tossers who get to watch all the movies before the rest of us. Why make up fake quotes when I’ve got a New Yorker review of Lee’s latest, written by Nancy Franklin, sitting right in my lap?
There are now too many different threads and themes for the documentary to make a grand statement, but there is value in the particulars and in the set pieces of If God Is Willing.
As anyone who actually paid attention to If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise can tell you, this is some ol’ bullshit, calculated to quiet the guilty consciences of a nation that allowed itself to quickly and quietly forget New Orleans once the flood waters receded. A nation that gave itself over to the same idiotic, bullshit distractions that rise every time the dominant culture decides we must “move forward,” past the new day’s Horrific Tragedy, and get back to our so-called “lives.”
Had Nancy paid attention, she might’ve caught the message of If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise in it’s two opening montage sequences. One sets the stage with a heart-wrenching lowlights reel from the immediate aftermath of the flooding in 2005. Dramatic foreshadowing (in the form of future interview subjects, filmed in arty, sepia-toned, head-shot-o-vision) brackets shots of rubble-strewn neighborhoods, concrete pads devoid of houses, the crowded mad house outside the Superdome, and the writing on graffitied walls.
The second montage is a highlights reel from February 7, 2010, when the Saints won the Superbowl. Under the last bars of an interminably jazzy remix of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and over footage of celebrating New Orleanians, Jacques Morial of the Louisiana Justice Institute vocalizes most of my thoughts on the subject: “But at the end of the day we’ve gotta realize, it’s a football game. And a football team. And if we wanna make something more of it we’ve gotta be really determined. We gotta be determined that we’re gonna use this to come together around something bigger. More lasting, more substantial. More sustainable. Something that makes a difference in our lives.”
Jacques, evidently, still believes in the human race. Poor boy. Mainstream reviewers of If God is Willing… make the even-more-dunderheaded mistake of having faith in America’s other favorite false gods, the so-called “free” market and the so-called “democratic” system of governance. Because of this, they are incapable of seeing Lee’s film as anything other than an incoherent screed. Whether accidentally or on purpose, they fail to understand what Lee is trying to say, and what many of his subjects say straight out.
On the demolition of New Orleans’ public housing projects: “All of [our] advocacy meant nothing to the council. They were interested in the dollars. The dollars to contractors, the dollars to developers. That has been the way in which…post-Katrina decisions have been moved in that direction. How can you make this easier to developers…?” You wont see that quoted in some anemic New Yorker review.
Or how about the assessment of Chief Deputy Coroner Dr. Jeffrey Rouse: “We don’t exactly know the number of persons that have died after hurricane Katrina…for that number continues to grow, and continues to be here. We have not seen the end of this. This only continues.”
How about FEMA trailers “built with substandard materials materials containing formaldehyde”? How about LSU and the VA’s plan to abandon the landmark Charity hospital, immanent-domain seventy acres of people out of their homes, bulldoze it all, and build a brand-spanking new “public-private venture” on the ruins? How about the myriad of ways community organizers, from Brad Pitt on down to the most anonymous toiler in on the streets, are systematically stymied at every turn by a political class that took one look at New Orleans’ rotting corpse and saw nothing but dollar signs?
The people who get paid to tell us what to think about our art wouldn’t dare touch these subjects. Doing so might force them to admit they know perfectly well what “grand statement” Lee’s going for: that we can no longer rely on any of the powerful, societal structures that dominate our lives to actually do anything worthwhile for any of us. Unless we’re already rich. If not, then when the chips are down and the shit’s floating down the street (along with snakes, dead bodies, and “heard of” alligators) don’t look to politics or business to spontaneously grow a conscience. The “help” they’ll offer you is a cake that does not exist, because they know they’re playing a rigged game, set up by and for the rich assholes who’ve ruled this country since its inception. The name of the game is “Enrich Yourselves at the Expense of Everyone Else,” and the first rule of this game is, “You do not talk about this.” As in any good abusive relationship, the second rule is, “You do not talk about this.” and the third rule is, “Those first two rules do not exist.”
For most, as for Nancy Franklin, “What’s most rewarding about the documentary is getting updates on the people we saw in Levees.” Because documentaries should reward the viewer for the viewer’s “precious” time…time that could be spent on more important things than finding out how badly the people of New Orleans have been, and are currently being, fucked up the ass. Time spent impotently bitching about upper-middle-class tax rates, exploring the wide world of internet porn, figuring out which pair of shoes goes with which overpriced, yuppie uniform, or doing daily devotion to America’s unofficial state religion, shopping.
Forget the fact that our governmental system is a shell game designed to transfer public funds into the hands of private interests. Forget that these private interests don’t give a hoot in hell for anyone or anything other than themselves. Forget that politician’s livelihoods are dependent upon good relations with these private interests, and that they would throw their own grandmothers under a bus if the right person, representing the right industry, told them it was the right thing to do. Forget that complaining too loudly about all this will net you a quick introduction to the ruling classes’ new best friends, Mr. Pepper Spray and Mr. Stun Gun.
Just shut up and write reviews filled with back-handed compliments, like this,
Lee wisely takes a look at some of New Orleans’s chronic problems–not that a filmmaker could do anything else at this point, so well acquainted are we, since Katrina, with the city’s racial and economic injustices and its crime and corruption, not to mention the inadequacy of its levee system.
you could almost say that David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s new Orleans-based drama Treme (also on HBO), whose characters are recover from Katrina, has made [Lee’s original plan to return to the Big Uneasy, the way Michael Apted keeps going back to his Up kids] unnecessary…[.]
Yes, one could almost say that, Nancy. Except you just did, demonstrating the myopia of The New Yorker‘s grotesquely upper-middle class staff. We’ll, this huffy aside says, now that David Simon’s done what every creative type should do and turned this tragedy into a vaguely-exploitative TV show, why should anyone pay attention to the real problems facing all these annoyingly real people? I’ve spent all my energy caring about the fictional people on the TV. I’m tired…all this really real-life horror’s given me the “creative” professonals ennui. And the only cure for that is a pair of $200, pre-ripped jeans.
I never like writing this, but Kanye West was right: “George Bush don’t care about black people.” Neither do the bourgeois bohemians the New Yorker continually placates. (I swear to the God that doesn’t exist: one more 10,000 word, agonizingly detailed examination of the Brooklyn Bobo’s shopping habits and all bets are off.) Neither do the rich, self-important fucks who run the New Yorker, and are themselves run by Conde Nast Publications, a division of Advance Publications, which is itself wholly owned by Donald and Samuel Irving Newhouse Jr. Weighing in at a net “worth” of $4 billion each, the brothers Newhouse seem to be vying for the title of 132nd Richest Man In the World. I say, they should settle this like we used to back in the day: pistols at ten paces, at dawn, with the winner able to chose his own weapon in the next-round face off against Rupert “I own Fox so fuck you” Murdoch.
At least Spike, in the face of all this, has decided to put his talent to some use, hoping that his unflinching examinations of America’s financial, moral, intellectual and spiritual poverty will wake someone up. It’s a vain hope, considering the weighty amount of evidence stacked against the idea that any film can bring about social change…but at least he’s trying, damnit. If the rest of our media committed even a fraction of the time and effort Lee’s put into these films, New Orleans might still be the crime- and corruption-ridden farce it is today…but at least the rest of America would know about it, intimately, the same way they seem to know everything about Tiger Woods’ penis, the Saints’ starting line-up, or Sarah Barracuda Palin’s current geographic location.
But American’s don’t. And what’s more, they don’t seem to care to. Facing the fact that New Orleans has been abandoned to a pack of flesh-eating monsters (otherwise known as “development corporations”) with venal politicians in their pockets just might interfere with the “average” American’s ability to wedge their heads up their asses. Or up Glenn Beck’s.
Never mind the main thrust, the “grand statement” of this work which Nancy Franklin worked so hard to ignore: we are all New Orleanians. We’ve seen the future, and it looks like a city destroyed by unnatural disasters and unnaturally-evil people who choose to profit from them. What happened there can, and probably will, happen to any city in this country, or this world. And there seems to be nothing we can do to stop it.
Unless of course we take a lesson from the residents of New Orleans and organize, organize, organize. And agitate, agitate, agitate for real Honest-to-Non-existent-God changes in the way things are, the way “business” is done in this benighted, decaying, hallow farce of a nation. Stop looking for saviors, secular or ecclesiastical, to come in glory from the clouds and start doing the hard work of making change happen ourselves. Otherwise, they’ve already won. Might as well bury our heads back in sand if we can find a patch uncontaminated by BP oil.
Maybe, instead of…oh, I don’t know…actually doing hard work…we could sit back, relax, and watch some “rewarding” films. Instead of powerful, coherent, explicitly-sad portraits of the way things are for millions of our fellow humans. And the way they will be for millions more besides. God isn’t willing, and da creek is already up to our necks. Time to sink our swim. Which will you choose? You could certainly do worse than choose to fill four hours of your time with If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise. Because if you don’t, New Orleans will cry.