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TV offers flurry of films about Katrina on fifth anniversary

It was supposed to end with a celebration.

That's the juiciest nugget director Spike Lee drops when talking about his powerful new documentary about the five years after Hurricane Katrina's near destruction of New Orleans.

With film crews stationed at the Super Bowl in Miami and in a neighborhood bar in New Orleans, Lee had no doubt the Saints would walk away with the Vince Lombardi trophy this year, providing a hopeful denouement to If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise, a documentary stuffed with sorrow over the city's rough road to rebuilding.

Then British Petroleum delivered the worst marine oil spill in history to the Louisiana coast. And everything changed.

"BP cut some corners, went around safety regulations, the thing blew up and 11 people died," said Lee, describing how an April explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico led to a gushing oil leak that lasted nearly three months. "It changed the whole outlook of (the film)."

Instead, Lee shifted the Super Bowl celebration to the film's start, kicking off his four-hour masterpiece with a brief end zone dance before plunging into a slog through the worst difficulties residents faced in rebuilding after a calamity that saw 80 percent of the city flooded.

The five-year anniversary of that awful day is next Sunday. But this week brings the first of many long-form TV shows looking back at Hurricane Katrina's aftermath for the Crescent City and for the entire region.

Seen back to back, they form a sobering array of stories, outlining incredible loss, surprising resilience and breathtaking dysfunction.

"This is not going to be like sitting down and watching Entourage," said NBC News anchor Brian Williams, who offers an hourlong Dateline NBC special called Hurricane Katrina: The First Five Days at 7 tonight on WFLA-Ch. 8. "But especially in light of what's been asked of (Gulf Coast states) you ask: How much suffering can one region of the country bear? We've gotta go back and touch that third rail — remember how we felt about our government and about each other (back then)."

Five years ago, there were lots of promises made about the lessons Katrina would deliver: instruction about the impact of poverty in disaster, the need for better talk across race, the importance of safeguarding the Gulf Coast from future natural disasters and the need to ensure government-developed disaster plans are effective before disaster strikes.

Williams acknowledged he offered similar thoughts then, trying in the years since to keep his top-rated evening newscast focused on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. He was inspired by his status as the only network news anchor to ride out Katrina and the subsequent flooding in the city's Superdome with thousands of other area residents.

"Once I got back from Katrina, I was still very raw, and I said, 'If we have not had a national discussion about race and class and poverty and petroleum, we in the news media will have failed,'?" Williams said, noting he forgot one thing: how tough it is to engage audiences with such bleak material, especially over many years.

"We lament this all the time. How do we get people to pay attention?" he added. "It's even harder when all I can promise is, for brief parts of this documentary, I'm going to make you sad and I'm going to make you angry. But hopefully, I'm also going to make you think."

Here are reviews of several Katrina-related documentaries available at press time.

If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise

9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, HBO

Like a Band-Aid ripped from a still-tender wound, Spike Lee's documentary about the five years after Katrina's impact outlines every way in which the attempt to recover from the hurricane's damage went wrong. From harsh assessments of former Mayor Ray Nagin (one interview subject called him the worst mayor in the city's nearly 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 a mournful score by jazz master and N'awlins native Terence Blanchard.

Starting with the Saints' Cinderella story of a Super Bowl win, Lee's four-hour opus quickly segues into stories about how high rents, lack of school facilities and the demolition of undamaged public housing have left nearly 40 percent of New Orleans' black population still in exile.

Lee has become the Ken Burns of Katrina, piecing together dense films that 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 that is among the most diverse in the nation, too many issues boil down to differences in color and income.

More 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.

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.

In America: New Orleans Rising

8 tonight, CNN

Correspondent Soledad O'Brien broadens the documentary series that began as her Black in America project, 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 Pontchartrain Park by themselves after Katrina's flooding.

Turns out, this area is a legendary breeding ground for accomplished people of color, from musician Blanchard to 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 in hopes of building 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 a hardworking mail carrier who signed a pledge to buy a new house, though his wife can't bring herself to return from Baton Rouge.

The story takes a couple of detours — did we need to see the claims guy from the BP commercials watching his boyhood home knocked down? — and Pierce didn'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

9 p.m. Monday, 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.

So National Geographic pulled 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 20-somethings having a hurricane party in Bay St. Louis, with one well-lubricated partier predicting cluelessly that the storm is overhyped. The next, we're watching an anxious man trying to drive out of the city hours before Katrina hits, only to be forced to take refuge at the Superdome.

Much of the drama comes from the devastation we know is coming. 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 already knew well, which may be the greatest feat of all during the deluge of coverage centered around this historic anniversary.

Eric Deggans can be reached at or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at


If God Is Willing and Da Creek
Don't Rise

9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on HBO

In America: New Orleans Rising

8 tonight on CNN

Witness Katrina

9 p.m. Monday on National Geographic Channel

TV offers flurry of films about Katrina on fifth anniversary 08/20/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 20, 2010 7:30pm]
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