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A Movie a Day, Day 100: If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise

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A Movie a Day, Day 100: If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise

Whew. When I started doing this Movie a Day thing, one of my sisters said it was like I’d given myself my ideal job, only without pay. She’s right, but doing anything every day for 100 days can to be a grind sometimes, even if it’s something you love. I’ll tell you more about that in a minute, but first for that 100th movie.

If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise, a two-part documentary that premiered yesterday and the day before on HBO, is Spike Lee’s follow-up to When the Levees Broke, his excellent two-part documentary on the causes and effects of Hurricane Katrina. In If God is Willing, he goes back to New Orleans—with side trips to Houston and Mississippi—to see how the people who fled or got trapped by the flood are doing four or five years later. Spike and crew initially had a pretty upbeat movie in the can, capped off by joyful footage of the city’s miraculous Super Bowl win this year. Then the BP well started gushing crude and they went back to shoot more, revamping the movie to create a jeremiad about corporate and governmental greed and duplicity crossed with a tribute to the resilience and smarts of the people of New Orleans.

Spike’s determination to convey a message can gum up his movies, which are sometimes too stilted (She’s Gotta Have It), too doctrinaire (Miracle at St. Anna, School Daze), or both (Bamboozled). But when he’s good, he’s very, very good. Documentaries seem to bring out the best in him, letting him say something important about who we are and how we live while honoring the sometimes contradictory complexity of his subjects (as he did in Do the Right Thing). In this one as in his other documentaries, he rounds up a broad range of knowledgeable and opinionated talking, singing and rapping heads, often returning to people he talked to in the first film to see how they’re faring now.

Spike’s subjects aren’t just the usual suspects. He talks to plenty of public figures: among others, former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin and former governor Kathleen Blanco revisit their attempts to help the city recover from Katrina, former FEMA head Michael Brown contends he was scapegoated for the sins of his bosses, and Brad Pitt shows off the inventively designed, energy-efficient and floodproof houses he’s building in the Ninth Ward. But mostly, Spike talks to people you’ll never see on the news. Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc, the actress who plays Antoine’s girlfriend on Treme, Spike’s musical collaborator Terence Blanchard, several community organizers, an EMT, a coroner, a civil rights lawyer, a spoken word artist, a caustic spokesman for the Vietnamese-American fishermen whose businesses were ruined by the BP gusher, and a pastor in Houston, who says his world view changed when he saw “white, upper class, Republican people reach out to lower-class, impoverished people” as New Orleans natives flooded his city after the storm, are just a few of the dozens he interviews. I was particularly moved by Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, the now-retired army officer who we see in archival footage from September 3, 2005, shouting at his soldiers to put down their weapons as they ride into New Orleans, spooked by alarmist news reports about the people they’re supposed to be helping. Talking to Spike about the incident, Honoré describes his shame at seeing residents of his hometown stranded days after the hurricane, and his righteous anger at the soldiers who point their weapons at the patient crowd is a welcome antidote to the corruption and indifference this film documents so well. “That was not something they needed to see, the U.S. army coming in with weapons drawn when all they were doing was waiting for a ride,” Honoré says.

Spike must be a good interviewer, because the people he talks to almost always seem relaxed and articulate, as frank and funny as if they were talking to a friend. Spike is never seen and rarely heard, but when his voice emerges from behind the camera it’s either empathetic or amused, like when he breaks in on a Katrina refugee who’s now settled in Houston as he says he married the woman he’s sitting next to because he needed a church-going woman who had a house. “Hold up, hold up,” Spike laughs. “Who has a house? Was that your first question or your second question?” The film also captures the city’s voices by panning over dozens of bitterly funny signs, like a doghouse labeled FEMA or a hand-lettered poster at a protest of the BP spill that reads “Teach a man to fish and he’s fucked.”

Spike ranges all over the city to find out what’s still stalled out and what has improved in New Orleans since Katrina. In addition to small but significant steps like Pitt’s high-class, low-income housing, he explores bigger changes like an overhaul of the public school system that allows the city to bypass notoriously corrupt school boards. Sounds good—until several community members complain that the outsiders who now run the schools don’t know and love the kids well enough to be effective in one of the debates that surface periodically, showing how differently things are often seen by the mostly white elites and the mostly black underclass. Spike generally refrains from stacking the deck in favor of one side or the other, presenting the evidence and the analysis and letting us make up our own minds.

That’s not to say that this doleful, outraged, and counter-intuitively energetic and life-affirming documentary doesn’t have a point of view. Spike gets his message across without voiceover and almost without title cards by letting his subjects do the talking. His transitions are all done in the editing, as conversations flow seamlessly from one topic to the next.

Many of the outrages he covers predate BP or even Katrina. Time and again, government officials or businesses choose profits over humanitarian concerns or use the storm as an excuse to engage in what one woman characterizes as “ethnic cleansing.” The movie details some of the killings and near-killings of innocent civilians by corrupt cops in the chaotic days after the storm, and it explains how rents have soared in a city of renters post-Katrina, putting housing out of reach of most of its former residents. Meanwhile, housing projects have been razed and replaced with middle- and upper-middle-class housing and people are living in formaldehyde-laced FEMA trailers that make their owners sick.

The film also touches on the rise in crime and mental illness in New Orleans post-Katrina and the countless people who continue to die due to “the stress and the pain and the difficulty in receiving medical care after Katrina,” as the coroner puts it. Adding to the damage already done by Katrina, official neglect, and unchecked greed, the BP oil coating Louisiana’s wetlands and wildlife and choking off its fishing industries feels like the latest in a series of bibilical plagues. Several people get in good digs about BP’s high-handed treatment of American land and lives. “All my life I grew up in this country thinking if we were going to get killed by someone it was going to be the Chinese or the Russians,” says one Cajun shrimper. “I never thought the British would kill us.”

“Katrina, that was a thunderstorm compared to what we have now…a crime scene in the gulf,” says one of Spike’s subjects. Anderson Cooper laughs at the thought of such a thing being allowed to happen in Cape Cod or the Hamptons. “There would be hell to pay. There would be outrage,” he says.

Now about this MAD series…

I’ll be glad to have my weekends more or less free again, and to be able to visit friends and family for more than just a few hours. But I loved having an excuse to spend my days watching or writing about movies, and I love being caught up on almost all the new movies that I want to see. I’ll miss the constant writing, too, the hardest but often most rewarding part of the day.

One of the surprises of doing this was learning how many other people are doing pretty much the same thing – and how strong a sense of kinship I feel with them, though we’ve never met. Andrés Daly, an architect and film lover in Santiago, Chile, got hold of me through Twitter to say he was doing an Una película al día series for an entire year, watching only movies he hasn’t yet seen. When I responded with something about our “movie a day exercise,” he replied: “’Exercise truly defines it. Sometimes it feels like keeping in mental shape.” He expanded on that later in an email, saying: “Sometimes this exercise in daily viewing and writing, which is done often after a grueling day of work, when all you want is to eat, sleep and turn off the computer you’ve watched all day, is tough. But boy, it is very rewarding to lift that weight, to understand and appreciate more in cinema, to see how the words flow more precisely and better after each review, how the ideas stir from movie to movie and like a web, each one seems to connect to other, sometimes in the strangest of ways.” You said it, brother.

Leo Lo, a screenwriter and research librarian in Manhattan, Kansas, also got in touch to let me know he’s seeing a movie a day for a year and writing about it on his website. Leo didn’t start for any “big reason,” though he says: “I suppose living in a small town, without a lot of fun distraction, does make one want to do projects like this.” But he’s come to realize that watching 365 films in a year is helping him to “really get a sense of film narrative.” He’s particularly interested in film adaptation, so he also intends to read a screenplay a week this year, plus two books a month that have been adapted as movies. He doesn’t have any rules about what he will or won’t watch, though he’s partial to adaptations. But “sad to say, the length of movies tend to be an important issue,” he writes. “I have a hard time making myself watch movies that are over two hours.”

I also learned about a couple of other people who completed Movie a Day series within the last year or so. Someone who writes for Ain’t It Cool under the name of Quint did a movie a day series for seven months in 2009, and a Fandango editor named Chuck Walton saw a movie a day for 100 days as he traveled around the country, always in a movie theater.

It was never a hardship for me to watch that many movies—or even much of a switch, since I was averaging nearly a movie a day even before I started this. I just didn’t always want to have to write about what I’d seen. But now that I have, I’m glad to have the series. For one thing, it’s an easy way to demonstrate something I’m always saying when people say there aren’t any good movies these days. The people who say that are generally in their forties or older and aren’t used to watching movies on their computers, so I always urge them to look beyond the local theater, especially if they live in a town with just a handful of screens and no art house. Because if you have an internet connection and a DVD player, you can choose from thousands of movies at any moment these days—and pretty soon you won’t even need the DVD player.

Everyone’s tastes are different, of course, so you can’t necessarily stock your Netflix queue based on my reviews. (That said, the first thing most people ask when I say I review movies is what I’ve seen lately that I’d recommend, so here’s my current list in case you’re interested.) Think of this series more as a real-time demonstration of how easy it is for movie lovers with a little spare time and disposable income to find movies that interest them these days.

Before I go, I have to thank Keith Uhlich and Ed Gonzalez and Sal Cinquemani, who posted and sometimes cleaned up my reviews every day for 100 days. I’m eternally grateful to Ilene Dube, Anthony Stoeckert, and Megan Sullivan at TimeOFF, who actually pay me to write once a week about movies. And thanks to all of you who read them, especially those who left comments. (David Ehrenstein, I love the Frank O’Hara poem you left on Swing Time.) I feel connected to all of you too, loosely but surely, strung together by our shared love of movies.

Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.