HBO Television has a reputation of putting out some wonderful documentary films. I like most of them. I am also a fan of a recent contributor to the form, Spike Lee. With some anticipation, I was looking forward to the new documentary by HBO Documentary Films, a Spike Lee Joint; titled If God is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise. The Documentary looks at recent tragedies in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast area since Hurricane Katrina, up to and including, the BP Oil Spill. I had expectations from Spike Lee but I was also expecting, like his other works, some surprises that would leave me thinking and contemplating. I got what I expected, but I had many unanswered questions. I was left wondering where this film took a left turn and lost its vision.
Spike Lee is normally a wonderful story teller and a respected filmmaker. While this effort has all of the ingredients that Lee seems to excel at, camera angles, a good use of music, and interesting characters, it lacks a compelling thought provoking story. Unfortunately, Lee seems to lose some of his directorial skills. The story jumps from one place to another and the editing is somewhat lacking and interrupts the flow of the material making it difficult to watch, and frankly boring.
One of the things If God Is Willing, does is to focus on the humanity and tragedy of New Orleans. We see in many of the scenes, the destruction of the Gulf Coast. There is tragic footage that keeps the viewer anticipating the next scene, even though the commentary and flow creates boredom. When Lee is on, he is on, but there are scenes in this documentary that seems to be a blame game catering to certain political positions. There even seems to be an attempt to bring about disdain between states which have differing political parties in charge. While there are glimpses where it appears as if Lee is presenting a fact finding, fair representation, it soon ends as we see blame largely placed on Bush for Katrina. We see blame placed on the delayed actions, and at the same time, refuses to address in the same manner what many consider the slow response of Obama in the BP issue. There is likely much deserved blame to go around, but the obvious favoritism is evident in the criticism. To Spike Lee’s credit, there are moments of fairness but they are few. There just doesn’t seem to be a cohesive purpose to the story with the exception of how New Orleans and the people of Louisiana have been dumped on not just the political system, but many of the people of America.
Throughout If God is Willing…, Lee incorporates some positive things in the way people have responded to these disasters. We see actors Sean Penn and Brad Pitt along with the people of the region making a difference. Both of the actors come off in a positive light, especially Brad Pitt. Both are involved in not just trying to identify blame, but in doing something about the tragedies. The community that seems to be seen in the most positive light though is the Faith Community. There is the recognition, that in tragedy, sometimes all people have to turn to is their faith. We see the faith community drive much of recovery taking place. It was refreshing to see people come to the aid of their fellow man. It was also disheartening to see the government not been efficient in helping, or listening to the people. It is here that Spike Lee shines. When coming together, despite political differences, to serve others in need, we see hope. We also see what happens when one serves self as opposed to their community and fellow humans.
There are segments of this documentary that shine. When Lee is interacting or interviewing people who have been impacted by the tragedies, one can’t help but feel touched. The images of dead bodies are horrific as Lee uses these images to impact the emotion of the viewer. Unfortunately, the story never seems to have a point, or a solution. I felt more negatively about the experience than I did positive. I wanted more, I expected more, but I got less. I also expecting more from the special features of the DVD, especially since it is wonderfully packaged. Outside of commentary and a feature titled Pickin’ Up Da Pieces, I was disappointed as there was never really anything special about the ‘special features’.
It is here I find myself giving a cautious recommendation. While the documentary, despite its flaws is worth watching, I can’t recommend its purchase. I watched it once; I doubt I will watch it again. I do see the possibility of some good discussion topics especially in regards to the responsibilities of Government, and the need to address the question, ‘Why do bad things happen to good people’. As a documentary movie, I believe Spike Lee could have done better. I was rooting for this one; unfortunately I’ll have to look elsewhere for a compelling story and rendering of the events in the Gulf Coast. I will say this, I still respect Spike Lee enough, that if he were to do a feature film on the subject, I would be there opening day to see it. But this isn’t a feature, and it isn’t a film I can recommend outside of a rental and even then, most will likely be disappointed.
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