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Flood and fury; Fueled with emotion, Lee looks at Big Easy post-Katrina

"If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" is Spike Lee's follow-up to "When the Levees Broke," his monumental 2006 HBO documentary about Hurricane Katrina.

If that film was about destruction on an unbelievable scale, this sequel is even more ambitious -- an attempt to examine the American malaise through the experiences of New Orleans, a town that somehow distills all our racial, political, economic and educational upheaval.

In four hours and two DVDs, "If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" ($24.95, HBO Home Entertainment) offers tons of information and plays mercilessly with our emotions, whipping us through hope, despair and righteous anger.

It begins on a positive note with the New Orleans Saints' 2010 Super Bowl win. For beleaguered Big Easy residents, it was an ecstatic moment. But a sports triumph can't compensate for bigger problems.

A recurring theme is the effort to use Katrina as a sort of urban renewal mandate from the Almighty. In this newly gentrified city, rents have more than doubled and almost 40 percent of the black population has yet to return.

Critics call it "ethnic cleansing" and say the recovery effort has been geared to benefiting developers, not residents.

Public housing and many public schools have been razed. The city no longer has a hospital for the mentally ill -- unfortunate since post-hurricane alcohol and drug abuse have soared and the suicide rate is twice the national average.

Lee examines the dispersal of homeless people to places like Houston, the scandal over formaldehyde-leaking FEMA trailers and corruption within the New Orleans Police Department (especially the notorious Danziger Bridge incident when cops fired on and killed unarmed civilians).

For all the fury, Lee tries to be fair. While some sources describe Ray Nagin as the worst mayor in the city's history, Lee gives Nagin plenty of opportunity to defend himself.

Perhaps the biggest head-spinner is provided by reviled former FEMA chief Michael Brown, who makes a good case that his relief efforts were stymied by ideological roadblocks within the Bush administration.

Watching the famous "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie" news clip, Brown notes that he visibly winces at George W.'s praise.

If Lee points out what's wrong with New Orleans, he also stresses what's right, including a new breed of social reformer. Among them is actor Brad Pitt, who has spearheaded an effort to revive one devastated neighborhood.

Superbly photographed and edited and fueled by Terence Blanchard's astonishingly beautiful musical score, "If God Is Willing" is an epic that merits repeated watching.

"Brilliant" isn't too strong a word to describe it.

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