02-19-2017  6:08 pm      •     

NEW YORK (AP) -- Spike Lee's new HBO documentary starts on a high note: Super Bowl Sunday 2010, when the New Orleans Saints claim victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
Saints fans, many still reeling from Hurricane Katrina's aftershocks, are deliriously happy.
"It's a rebirth," says an overjoyed New Orleans native.
"It's divine intervention, man," says another local.
But cautionary words are voiced as well. The Saints are world champions, but in the real world there are bills to pay and neighborhoods to rebuild.
Then, only 17 minutes into "If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise," the BP oil spill enters the narrative.
"We sold our soul for the Super Bowl," says Dean Blanchard, fearful that he might lose his seafood business.
The party is over.
Lee, the gifted director and documentarian, had long planned a return to the Gulf Coast for a five-year follow-up to his acclaimed "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts."
He began shooting Feb. 7, when the Super Bowl was played. The triumph by the Saints seemed a glorious conclusion for his new film.
"We thought we had our ending on the first day," Lee said in a recent interview. "Little did we know."
By the time the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and releasing a gusher of oil, Lee had wrapped production and was well into the editing process.
"But I knew we had to make that a part of the piece," he said.
He does, dwelling on the BP disaster for roughly 40 minutes of the four-hour, two-part "If God Is Willing," which premieres Monday and Tuesday on HBO (9 p.m. EDT).
But there is much more on his mind and in his film.
The stage is set with painful, all-too-familiar images of Katrina's immediate wrath in 2005.
Then, as the film goes on, the government's failure to protect New Orleans from the storm surge is compounded by seemingly endless failures to aid the recovery. Former residents who want to come home remain displaced. Public education continues to struggle. Health care needs are still unmet. The police department is in shambles. And on and on.
The five years didn't pass without successes, and the film covers those as well. They include a legal victory against the Army Corps of Engineers for shoddy maintenance of a navigation channel that resulted in some of the worst flooding. And there are nonprofit reconstruction efforts such as Make It Right, led by actor Brad Pitt, that have built affordable, storm-resistant homes in the Lower 9th Ward.
But then, just months after the Super Bowl win, the BP disaster struck.
"The story was changing every day," Lee recalled. "We had to keep adapting, to stay on top of it as best as possible."
Scores of people share their stories on-camera, including ordinary, often overlooked local figures. There are also experts and advocates, plus familiar faces such as former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, as well as Pitt and fellow celebrity activist Sean Penn.
To his credit, former FEMA Director Michael Brown is among those who participate.
Like other interview subjects who, when it counted, fell short, Brown points fingers. He says former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff "didn't know what he was doing. Let's be frank."
He also offers context for the widely derided tribute _ "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job" _ laid on him by President George W. Bush.
"If you look at that video clip closely, you'll see me wince," says Brown, and, replayed in the documentary, it bears out his claim.
The date was Sept. 2, 2005, in Mobile, Ala., and, prior to the live TV appearance, "I had been describing to the president how bad things were. Telling him what I needed. Why things weren't working. ... And then we walk out and he makes that comment, and I'm like, `What the hell!"'
Neither Bush nor Chertoff made themselves available to Lee, nor _ flashing ahead to the oil spill _ does Tony Hayward, then CEO of BP. Still, Hayward is well represented by the infamous clip where he expresses his longing to get "my life back," as well as in the soothingly scripted commercial where he states his regret for the oil spill, promises to make it right and adds his thanks "for the strong support of the government."
But it goes beyond "strong support," said Lee, who believes BP has been allowed to call the shots in its own interest, and often counter to the public good.
"What has been puzzling people, and I include myself, is how much BP has had control of the situation," he said, echoing a sentiment heard from many in his film.
Heartbreaking but defiant, "If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise" picks up where "Levees" left off, as a catalog of plagues that largely could have been averted.
Why they weren't is not so puzzling, said Lee. "It's greed."


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  • WASHINGTON (AP) — One month after the inauguration, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of Donald Trump's White House still is a hard-hat zone. Skeletal remains of the inaugural reviewing stands poke skyward. Random piles of plywood and cables are heaped on the ground inside crooked lines of metal fencing. The disarray outside the president's front door, though not his fault, serves as a metaphor for the tumult still unfolding inside. Four weeks in, the man who says he inherited "a mess" at home and abroad is presiding over a White House that is widely described as itself being a mess. At a stunning pace, Trump has riled world leaders and frustrated allies. He was dealt a bruising legal blow on one of his signature policies. He lost his national security adviser and his pick for labor secretary to scandal. He's seen forces within his government push back against his policies and leak confidential information. All of this has played out amid a steady drip of revelations about an FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Trump says his administration is running like a "fine-tuned machine." He points to the rising stock market and the devotion of his still-loyal supporters as evidence that all is well, although his job approval rating is much lower than that for prior presidents in their first weeks in office. Stung by the unrelenting criticism coming his way, Trump dismisses much of it as "fake news" delivered by "the enemy of the people" — aka the press. Daily denunciations of the media are just one of the new White House fixtures Americans are adjusting to. Most days start (and end) with presidential tweets riffing off of whatever's on TV talk shows or teasing coming events or hurling insults at the media. At some point in the day, count on Trump to cast back to the marvels of his upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election and quite possibly overstate his margins of support. Expect more denunciations of the "dishonest" press and its "fake news." From there, things can veer in unexpected directions as Trump offers up policy pronouncements or offhand remarks that leave even White House aides struggling to interpret them. The long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Trump this past week offered this cryptic pronouncement: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next day insisted, "We absolutely support a two-state solution." Trump's days are busy. Outside groups troop in for "listening sessions." Foreign leaders call or come to visit. (Or, in the case of Mexico's president, cancel out in pique over Trump's talk about the planned border wall.) After the president signed two dozen executive actions, the White House was awaiting a rush order of more of the gold-plated Cross pens that Trump prefers to the chrome-plated ones used by his predecessor. Trump hands them out as souvenirs at the signing ceremonies that he points to as evidence of his ambitious pace. "This last month has represented an unprecedented degree of action on behalf of the great citizens of our country," Trump said at a Thursday news conference. "Again, I say it. There has never been a presidency that's done so much in such a short period of time." That's all music to the ears of his followers, who sent him to Washington to upend the established order and play the role of disrupter. "I can't believe there's actually a politician doing what he says he would do," says an approving Scott Hiltgen, a 66-year-old office furniture sales broker from River Falls, Wisconsin. "That never happens." Disrupt Trump has. But there may be more sound and fury than substance to many of his early actions. Trump did select Judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, a nomination that has drawn strong reviews from conservatives. But the president is regrouping on immigration after federal judges blocked his order to suspend the United States' refugee program and ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, which had caused chaos for travelers around the globe. Some other orders on issues such as the U.S.-Mexico border wall and former President Barack Obama's health care law are of limited effect. Trump says his early actions show he means to deliver on the promises he made during the campaign. "A lot of people say, 'Oh, oh, Trump was only kidding with the wall,'" the president told a group of police chiefs recently. "I wasn't kidding. I don't kid." But the Republican-led Congress is still waiting to see specifics on how Trump wants to proceed legislatively on top initiatives such as replacing the health care law, enacting tax cuts and revising trade deals. The messy rollout of the travel ban and tumult over the ouster of national security adviser Michael Flynn for misrepresenting his contacts with Russia are part of a broader state of disarray as different figures in Trump's White House jockey for power and leaks reveal internal discord in the machinations of the presidency. "I thought by now you'd at least hear the outlines of domestic legislation like tax cuts," says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer. "But a lot of that has slowed. Trump shouldn't mistake the fact that some of his supporters like his style with the fact that a lot of Republicans just want the policies he promised them. He has to deliver that." Put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the camp of those more interested in substance than style. "I'm not a great fan of daily tweets," McConnell said Friday, referring to the "extra discussion" that Trump likes to engage in. But McConnell was quick to add: "What I am a fan of is what he's been actually doing." He credits Trump with assembling a conservative Cabinet and taking steps to reduce government regulation, and promised: "We like his positions and we're going to pursue them as vigorously as we can." The challenge may be to tease out exactly what Trump wants in the way of a health care plan, tax changes and trade policy. At his long and defiant news conference on Thursday, Trump tried to dispel the impression of a White House in crisis, squarely blaming the press for keeping him from moving forward more decisively on his agenda. Pointing to his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, Trump said, "You take a look at Reince, he's working so hard just putting out fires that are fake fires. I mean, they're fake. They're not true. And isn't that a shame because he'd rather be working on health care, he'd rather be working on tax reform." For all the frustrations of his early days as president, Trump still seems tickled by the trappings of his office. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie visited the White House last week to discuss the national opioid epidemic over lunch, the governor said Trump informed him: "Chris, you and I are going to have the meatloaf.'" Trump added: "I'm telling you, the meatloaf is fabulous." ___Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nbenac
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