During the 14th Annual American Black Film Festival in Miami Beach last weekend, films weren’t the only features of the festival that set tongues wagging.
On Saturday, June 26, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien and filmmaker Spike Lee had a chat at the Ritz-Carlton Miami Beach Hotel about Lee’s latest HBO documentary, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise. Lee’s latest documentary is the follow-up to his heart wrenching When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, which was released in 2006. In her introduction of Lee, O’Brien shared that Lee’s 2006 documentary won two Emmy Awards and a Peabody.
“I found that, five years later, people still thought a hurricane caused all of that devastation,” Lee, 53, said about the general public’s view of the disaster in New Orleans, Louisiana. “But, it was the breach of the levees.”
According to Lee, the 40 years that went into building and sustaining the levees that walled New Orleans were spent “cutting corners,” which is what led to the breach and subsequent flood of the city, especially the Lower Ninth Ward.
Lee began If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise by filming the 2010 Super Bowl in Miami, where the New Orleans Saints won the game. He felt that with that win, which was inspiring for the New Orleans people in Louisiana and abroad, he had the ending of his documentary.
He then moved on to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and spent four weeks interviewing for the film, providing ample footage for a two-hour documentary. However, after a British Petroleum (BP) rig blew up off of the Gulf Coast on April 20, killing 11 men and leaking millions of gallons of oil into the water, Lee decided to continue the filming of his documentary. This would become the second, two- hour block of the documentary.
“This is the biggest environmental disaster in the history of the United States. It all comes down to greed,” said an outraged Lee. “My mother always told me, ‘You cut corners and it’s going to bite you in the a** in the future.’”
Lee blames BP for “cutting corners” and causing this latest disaster for the Gulf Coast. The premise of the documentary is that the people of the Gulf are having to “pray to God for yet another disaster in four years.”
Lee is not only outraged about BP’s shady record for oil drilling, but upset that President Barack Obama “took too long to come into the game,” calling the president’s actions “questionable.”
The Academy Award-nominated filmmaker presented clips from both parts of his documentary. The first was a charged scene in which New Orleans native and HBO “Treme” regular Phyllis Montana LeBlanc gives a rousing poem about the state of the Cajun City, five years later.
The second clip begins with a public service announcement given by BP CEO Tony Hayward about the spill, then segueways into a white man holding an American flag.
This man rants for a few minutes, giving the variations of what BP should stand for, including “Butt Plugs,” “Bull-s**t Propaganda,” “Backroom Pay-outs” and ended with “B**ch Please.” Both clips elicited gasps and laughs from the audience.
When asked by an audience member about making documentaries that are socially conscious, and advice for other filmmakers in general, Lee replied: “Everybody shouldn’t have a film like this. You have to do what’s best for you. For me, filmmaker means creating documentaries, feature films, commercials and shorts.”
When O’Brien asked if he would create a feature-length film based on the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Lee replied, “It would be fake. What actor could tell their story better than the people who lived it? My wish is to have people tell their story and their struggle.”
After 45 minutes of speaking about both disasters in the Gulf (Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill), Lee seemed more worried than angry. His major concerns are the predictions that the 2010 Hurricane Season would be a very active one. Lee’s hurricane concerns are amplified by his worry that a vicious storm in the Gulf region could blow the toxic oil back onto land and destroy not only the land itself, but also the fresh water.
While Lee is looking forward to the airing of his documentary on HBO in August, he is apprehensive that the people of New Orleans are still in need of many things they are not getting.
“It’s really sad,” the filmmaker said. “New Orleans has been hit twice by greed.”
Check your local listings for Lee’s If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise on Aug. 23, 24 and 29 on HBO.
Photo: Spike Lee