Spike Lee's Latest Katrina Doc Puts the "Real" Back in "Reality"

So how about mixing in some reality with all of your reality television?

Debuting tonight on HBO, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise is Spike Lee’s follow-up to his award-winning 2006 New Orleans documentary When the Levees Broke. The original work focused on the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and the new film returns to New Orleans five years after the storm and subsequent flood that killed at least 1,100 people in the city. And thanks to BP and it's massive oil spill, it also covers the latest tragedy to hit the region.

When the spill began in April, Lee had actually finished shooting for the film—but suddenly, his documentary was overtaken by a new reality. “We were done. And the thing blew up,” said Lee during his appearance at the Television Critics Association summer press tour earlier this month. “And so we had to rethink, reconfigure and make like another seven trips down to New Orleans. We were there as late as two weeks ago shooting.”

The last hour of If God Is Willing now focuses on the BP spill, said Lee, while the rest of the film looks at post-Katrina recovery efforts in New Orleans, the ongoing dislocation of large portions of the city’s population, and charges against city police officers for the deaths of civilians on the Danziger Bridge. Epic in scope like its predecessor, If God Is Willing covers everything from the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl victory to the earthquake recovery in Haiti and includes cameos by everyone from Sean Penn and Brad Pitt to Condoleezza Rice.

Although he was wearing a New York Yankees cap commemorating the team’s 27 World Series wins, Lee’s heart and soul were clearly in New Orleans as he spoke passionately about the documentary to a roomful of critcs. Here are some highlights:

On the origins of the documentary’s title and its meaning:
"It’s hope and cross your fingers too. I really got it from my grandmother. My grandmother lived to be 100 years old. Her grandma was a slave. Yet (my grandmother) was a college graduate. Spellman Class of 1917 I think… In her later years when I was speaking to her from Brooklyn and she’d be in Atlanta, I’d say, 'Mama, I’ll speak to you tomorrow night.' And she’d say, 'Spikey, If God is willin’ and the creek don’t rise.' So it was a tribute to my grandmother but also it's apropos for all of the things we’ll see in this four-hour documentary."

On the importance of the Saints’ Super Bowl victory:
"We knew the Saints were going to win. There are very few times in sports when this happens. But the Saints weren’t trying to win a game. They had a cause. No matter what Peyton Manning was going to do, it was not going to help. The Saints were going to win that game. We knew it, the Saints knew it, Coach (Sean) Payton knew it. And so we thought that we had filmed the ending the first day of shooting. But BP cut some corners, went around safety regulations, the thing blew up, 11 people died, and it changed the whole outlook of If God is Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise."

On the connections between Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill:
"The connective tissue is greed. It was the greed of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, who cut corners in the construction of the levee system… that led to the levees toppling and consequently to New Orleans being 80 percent under water. It was greed again that bridged to the head of BP, who did not want to buy this blowout protector, which only cost half a million dollars. But to them, they were behind schedule."

"It doesn’t make sense to me. We’ve had enough instances where any time we try to cut corners, it ends up biting you in the butt later on. And what gets lost in this is that 11 people are dead because of the negligence of BP… We have people who get appointed to positions, who are elected, who lay down and pray to the altar of the almighty dollar and they’ll put their mother on the corner if they had to for a dollar. With no regard to what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s moral. All they think about is the money."

On how his New Orleans films have changed him:
"Number one, I have friends for life now that I never would have had if it weren’t for doing these two documentaries. It has really exposed me to the culture of that region, exposed me to the great resiliency of these people who time after time get knocked down, get knocked down, get knocked down. But they put one hand on the rope and pull themselves off the canvas. But they’re only human beings."

Follow TV.com writer Matt Jaffe on Twitter: @MattAtTVDotCom

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