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Spike Lee emerges as the Ken Burns of Katrina filmmaking with powerful HBO documentary



if-god-is.jpgAs the fifth anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina turned the Gulf Coast upside down approaches -- the actual day is next Sunday -- TV offers some amazing documentaries on the storm, its aftermath and its impact on us all.

Here's capsule reviews of the best, including Spike Lee's amazing return to New Orleans:

If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, airs at 9 tonight and 9 p.m. Tuesday, HBO: Like a band-aid ripped from a still-tender wound, Spike Lee’s four-hour documentary about the five years after Katrina’s impact pokes at every way in which the attempt to recover from the hurricane’s damage went wrong. From harsh assessments of former Mayor C. Ray Nagin (one on camera voice called him the worst mayor in the city’s near-300-year history), to allegations the police let a man die to cover a botched shooting, Lee’s unblinking cameras detail the awful struggle toward rebuilding, set to mournful score by jazz master and Nawlins native Terence Blanchard.

The piece starts hopefully enough, showing residents rejoicing in the Saints’ Cinderella story of a Super Bowl win. But before long, historian Douglas Brinkley is talking about the city’s historic inferiority complex – residents insist to everyone the place is the greatest spot on Earth, though they know deep down how screwed up everything is – seguing into stories about how high rents, lack of school facilities and the demolition of undamaged public housing has left nearly 40 percent of New Orleans’ black population still in exile.

Lee has become the Ken Burns of Katrina documentaries, piecing together dense films which explore most every element of the city’s decline and rebirth, beginning with 2006’s When the Levees Broke. Unlike his scripted films, race issues are less a bludgeon to get your attention than a constant, dreary backdrop – the weary reality that, in a city which is among the most diverse in the nation, too many issues boil down to differences in color and income.

if-god-is-willing-and-da-creek-dont-rise-1024.jpgMore than 300 people face the camera for Lee’s film, including Nagin, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Dr. John, Condoleezza Rice, former Louisiana Gov, Kathleen Blanco, former FEMA director Mike Brown and Phyllis Montana-Leblanc, the city native whose powerful appearance in When the Levees Broke landed her an acting role in HBO’s fictional series about New Orleans, Treme.

Lee even forges a compelling connection to the Haiti earthquake, highlighting New Orleans’ historic connection to the country (he says the early Haitians persuaded Napoleon to sell Louisiana to America) and outlining how the botched aid efforts there echoed the problems in Katrina’s aftermath.

Powerful, tough to watch and filled with detail, Lee’s film is likely the best television project you’ll see on Katrina this week; a master filmmaker letting the weight of history make his points while the camera rolls.

New Orleans Rising, airs at 8 tonight on CNN: Correspondent Soledad O’Brien takes a different tack with her post-Katrina documentary, outlining how Treme star and New Orleans native Wendell Pierce pulled together a group of longtime friends to try rebuilding the middle class, black neighborhood Ponchartrain Park by themselves.

Turns out, this area is a legendary breeding ground for accomplished people of color, from musician Blanchard to former New Orleans mayor Mark Morial and current EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. But the area had the second-slowest rate of return of any New Orleans neighborhood, leading Pierce and his buddies to form a development corporation hoping to build refurbished homes in the area.

O’Brien spent time with a number of families from that area, profiling a 70-something couple who gutted their home themselves and as hardworking mailman ho signed a pledge to buy a new house, though his wife can’t bring herself to return from Baton Rouge.

The story takes a few too many detours – did we need to see the claims guy from the BP commercials watching his boyhood home knocked down? – and Pierce doesn’t open his first model home until just this past May. But O’Brien’s tale stands as a simple tribute to the power of hard work, close friendships and serious tenacity.

Witness Katrina, airs at 9 tonight on National Geographic Channel: Hard as it is to imagine people hefting cameras during the worst natural disaster in recent history, it turns out lots of folks documented their Katrina nightmare on video.

But it took National Geographic to pull all those videos into a single, chilling film, outlining the 72 hours spanning Katrina’s approach, landfall and the subsequent flooding in a compelling pastiche of stories. One moment, we see young twentysomethings having a hurricane party in Bay St. Louis, Louisiana (one well lubricated partier predicts cluelessly that the storm is overhyped), the next, we’re watching an anxious man try to drive out of the city hours before Katrina hits, only to be forced to take refuge at the Superdome.

Much of the drama here comes from the audience already knowing what’s to come. As antsy homeowners cover their windows with plywood we wince, knowing the approaching disaster won’t be held back by a few screws and pieces of wood. Seeing a storm chaser from set up his equipment, we know the show he’s about to witness.

Told largely through the voices of those doing the taping, Witness Katrina provides an intimate, fresh look at a calamity many of us thought we’d already knew well – which may be the greatest feat of all during the deluge of coverage centered around this historic anniversary.

[Last modified: Monday, August 23, 2010 2:45pm]


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