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TCA Press Tour: Spike Lee goes back to the bayou in HBO documentary

August 7, 2010 |  6:46 pm
Harmonicas are humming. Beer spills over the rims of mugs. Out in the streets, people are joyous and chanting “Who dat?” on the streets of Miami, about 900 miles southeast of New Orleans, as the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV. Hope is in the air.

Not for long.

In 2006, Spike Lee showed us the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in the Emmy-winning “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.” In anticipation of the fifth “anniversary” of the cataclysmic incident, Lee and his crew have traveled back to the Crescent City to see what’s happened since (hint: a lot).

The product is the four-hour, two-part oeuvre, “If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise,” which is slated to air on HBO on Aug. 23 and 24.  But the scope of the documentary would end up surpassing the ramifications of that destructive August day in southeast Louisiana.

“It transcends just Katrina,” said Richard Plepler, co-president of HBO. “It deals with Haiti, the BP [oil] disaster....It’s a larger commentary than just New Orleans.”

Ifgodiswilling02 Lee had wrapped filming the documentary when the BP oil spill hit, prompting an additional seven trips. The film crew was there as late as two weeks ago because of the indictments in relation to the deaths of civilians on New Orleans’ Danziger Bridge.

“We had to rethink everything,” Lee said.

Lee visits Houston, where an estimated 150,000 New Orleans evacuees remain. He looks at the FBI’s investigations into allegations of violence and coverups in the New Orleans Police Department. He captures the celebrations surrounding the Saints Super Bowl victory. And he assesses the impact of the torrents of oil unleashed into the gulf -- one thing that does perplex Lee is where all the BP oil went: "I don't care how many scientists BP buys, that oil did not disappear," Lee said.

While it’s noble for celebrities to get involved in humanitarian causes, Lee said there might be a limit to their effectiveness. While he praised Sean Penn’s efforts in Haiti, he was more skeptical about Wyclef Jean’s announcement to run for president there.

“I only know Wyclef as a musician....Whether he’s a politician or not is something else,” Lee said.

Maybe he’d give Penn his vote.

“He’s left everything here and just moved to Haiti,” Lee said. “He’s not living in a palace. He’s living in a tent; I know cause I slept three nights there. This is like tent, tent, tent.”

--Yvonne Villarreal

Photos: (Top) Phyllis Montana-Leblanc. (Bottom) Spike Lee. Credit: David Lee / HBO