If you were around New Orleans for its spectacular February, in which it ceremoniously elected a new mayor, its NFL team won the Super Bowl and a record-dense Mardi Gras, you were sure to spot a certain award-winning filmmaker about town, taking it all in, camera crew in tow.
Ever since Spike Lee's critically acclaimed documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, aired on HBO on August 29, 2006, the first anniversary of Katrina, the director had vowed to return to the Crescent City for an update on its progress. His new documentary, If God Is Willing And The Creek Don't Rise—the product of all those Lee sightings—will premiere on HBO on the fifth anniversary of the hurricane.
We caught up with Lee at his temporary studio offices in the city's French Quarter, where he held court, decked out in a blue Nike suit, purple Jordans and his signature tortoise-shell glasses. In this first installment of Lee's exclusive interview with The Root, the director discusses the closing of city's Charity Hospital building, the significance of the Super Bowl win and his filmic forays into Mississippi and Texas, which were also both impacted by Katrina.
The Root: So what have you learned from your interviews this time around?
Spike Lee: People are ecstatic about the Saints, but people are still hurting. Everybody is talking about the closing of Charity Hospital. The other day, there was the whole Danziger Bridge thing, the knocking down of public housing. People are up in arms about education, about health care. People have no confidence in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
So, the Saints—you can't underestimate what the Saints did for the soul of the people in the Gulf region. And I'm happy for them. I wanted the Saints to beat the Colts. But that was coupled with Mardi Gras and every day that goes by is a day away from the Super Bowl win and Mardi Gras. So people are still floating, but every day the people's feet are coming back to the earth, and pretty soon both feet will be back on earth, and back on earth here in New Orleans. The ills and issues they faced pre-Super Bowl, pre-playoffs, pre-Mardi Gras are a stark reality.
Lee: I know that the whole Donnell Herrington shooting investigation was sparked by the first one. That was the young brother shot in Algiers. The FBI didn't even know about it until they saw the movie. But I don't really think that's the way to quantify impact. I think the impact is that the people of New Orleans were given the chance to tell the world about how they felt. People all over the world who watched these images of people drowning, and people on top of houses holding "Help" signs—When the Levees Broke gave those people the chance to tell the world what they were going through, what they were thinking.
TR: What was HBO's reaction when you first proposed the idea of doing a sequel?
Lee: It's always been in discussion; it was just a matter of when. We knew it wasn't going to be a one-and-done thing. The people care about what's happening here, so we wanted to follow it. We didn't want to do it too soon because you have to have some distance and let things get in place with the rebuilding. We thought it was natural that we should do it for the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the breaching of the levees.
TR: Was there any pushback from HBO?
Lee: Nah, they were 100 percent behind it. There was no pushback. They've been champions of this from the very beginning. From the inception, it was only supposed to be two hours and one of my co-producers said, "No way we can tell this story in two hours." We went back to HBO, and they gave us more money, so money wasn't even a problem. The problem was trying to fit it into the broadcast schedule. So they've been champions of this since the beginning, no pushback, no nothing. It's been nothing but love, and nothing but support.
TR: You said earlier that the people's feet were coming closer to the ground, but how do you feel about the task of the incoming government?
Lee: I know Mitch [Landrieu, mayor-elect] a little bit. I think he can do better than what Nagin has done. But he's going to need a whole lot of help. He's the mayor, but you have a governor who doesn't look favorably on New Orleans. The federal money has to go to the state first, and the state then disburses it. Just because Mitch is mayor doesn't mean presto change-o [snaps fingers] overnight. But it will be a welcome change for the people here, and I think that was reflected in the way the voting went.
TR: You went to Mississippi and Texas this time around. Tell us about what you discovered there.
Lee: We went … and talked to some of the displaced people. Actually, I don't know if you would call them displaced. A lot of them made the decision to stay in Houston. It's going on five years. They've found better jobs, better housing and better education for their children. We interviewed one lady whose son is autistic, and she can't move back to New Orleans because there are no schools open that deal with autistic children, which really is against federal law.
TR: It has been reported that there are schools in New Orleans that are not taking in their fair share of students with special needs, but I don't think it's accurate to say that no schools take these students.
Lee: Well, from what I've heard, it's not happening, and federal law states cities must provide a public education for students with special needs. And that's the reason why she can't move back to New Orleans because those services are not here, but they are available where she is in Texas. I can only go by what she told me. She is a single mother and has to care for an autistic child, so if she tells me she can't move back to New Orleans because there is no place, no school that can fulfill her child's needs, then I'm going to believe her. She doesn't want to live in Texas. Her family is here. But she's doing that for her child.
TR: The recovery here has meant different things to different people: For some, it's making government more open and transparent. For others, it means preserving culture. There are intersections between the two, but where do you fall in that?
Lee: I don't think it's an either-or thing. If New Orleans wants to be the great city it should be, it should work on government corruption, public housing, getting a great education system, stepping up health care—and really mental health care. The closing of Charity Hospital has put a strain on mental health care. They don't have the beds they had before. They have a lot of stuff to do. And Mitch, he's in a tough spot. There's so much he has to do, and a lot of the money has been spent already. It's going on five years and the bulk of that money is gone. Five years ago the U.S. was not—the world was not in the financial shape it's in. But budgets are being cut and historically people already looked at Louisiana like a bald-headed stepchild, and it will continue to be like that.
Read Part 2 of The Root's exclusive interview with Lee on Friday.