Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee has been a trumpet blower for voice deprived communities since the day he swiped his credit card in 1985 to make his first feature film “She’s Gotta Have It.” From that moment, the Brooklyn, New York native has hammered his 40 Acres and a Mule stamp on social issues involving racism, race relations, poverty, drug abuse, corruption, stereotypes, violence, college life, media influence, and social injustices, just to name a few. With a long list of message-based films, the most recent film “If God Is Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise” may just be the documentary that will impact the most diverse crowd.
Spike started out focusing on the revival work and uplifted spirits of New Orleans, as well as the political corruption that took place within the last five years following Hurricane Katrina. After leaving New Orleans soon after the Saints secured the status of NFL Super Bowl Champions, a mechanical malfunction on the British Petroleum Oil (BP Oil)-leased, offshore drilling unit Deepwater Horizon in The Gulf of Mexico, exploded, killed 11 men, injured 17 men, burned for three days , sank, and began to erupt tens of thousands of barrels ( or about 2 million gallons) of oil per day. Needless to say, Spike packed his bags and was on his way back to the “Who Dat” state for what some called “causing trouble.”
“Nah Son,” I don’t react to that, ‘causing trouble’…I didn’t kill 11 people,” Spike explains to me as we sat side by side at a conference table in the HBO Towers of Lower Manhattan. “I didn’t bring about who knows what destruction to the wetlands of America; the fish and the fishermen who have been fishing and shrimping for many years. I’m not the one who did this. We offered BP the opportunity to interview but they didn’t want to do it. But it’s not a big thing. I didn’t lose any sleep over it. They would have told us some more lies anyway.”
Though speculations have kept the general public perplexed about the actual numbers and causes of the oil spill, Spike refuses to believe any of the information produced by BP as well as the United States Government. Christopher Haney, chief scientist for Defenders of Wildlife, called the government report’s conclusions misleading. Haney said, “Terms such as ‘dispersed,’ ‘dissolved’ and ‘residual’ do not mean gone. That’s comparable to saying the sugar dissolved in my coffee is no longer there because I can’t see it. By Director Lubchenco’s(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator Jane Lubchenco) own acknowledgment, the oil which is out of sight is not benign. Whether buried under beaches or settling on the ocean floor, residues from the spill will remain toxic for decades.” One of the biggest contradictions that have been placed in the scope of Spike is the supposed 75% percent of oil that government scientists claim the dispersant Corexit EC9500A and EC9527A has helped “disappear.”
“That’s a boldfaced lie,” Spike exclaims. “This BP thing is the largest oil disaster in the history of the world. And this (oil) just disappeared. Are they saying 75% on the surface has been recovered? You know what we say in Brooklyn my tiny United States friends… ‘Geeeeeeetttttt the fuck outta here!’ Who believes that? This is the world’s greatest oil spill EVER. What did Andre 3000 say? ‘Forever ever, forever ever.’ They’re still cleaning up the Exxon spill in Alaska from 20 years ago and now all of a sudden presto-chango, abracadabra into thin air. Here’s another Brooklyn saying, ‘Nah Son,’ or if you go down south ‘hell to the nah.’ What you have to realize is that BP has been in the process, since April 20th, of buying up all of the experts in the sciences that deal with this. So (the experts) will be on their payroll and testify on their behalf when all of this is resolved in courts. In a lot of ways, how they are trying to get around that, a lot of these scientists work at universities and they will get the donations that can go to the endowment and the science departments of their school. Again, it’s about money.”
But the money trail doesn’t stop at the Universities. It runs deep into our government. The oil and gas industries are the most profitable industries on this planet. The dispersants mentioned before are neither the least toxic, nor the most effective, according to the Environmental Protection Agency approved dispersants. The health risks and environmental precautions are so high that the products used are banned from use on oil spills in the United Kingdom (home of British Petroleum). Ironically, 12 other products received better toxicity and effectiveness ratings. Knowing this, EPA Director Lisa Jag gathered enough information and approached BP with a formal letter expressing her concerns of the use of Corexit and its long-term effect on the environment. To sum it up, BP wrote a letter back to the EPA stating that they were going to use it anyway.
“Basically, they said ‘Fuck you, we’re still using it,’” Spike says with a confused and shocked look on his face. “Something’s wrong. They should not be able to dictate to the United States government what the fuck we’re going to do. I’m perplexed why BP was allowed to run stuff. There’s a quote Ken Salazar is saying BP’s responsible and were going to keep our boot on their neck. Then you cut right to Obama saying ‘There’s no need for that type of language.’ I don’t know where everyone else is from, but I’m from Brooklyn. If you kill 11 people, a boot on the neck is mild. BP murdered 11 people. Whether you want to use manslaughter, negligence, the fact is that 11 families have been changed forever and if Ken Salazar saying we’re going to keep our boot on BP’s neck, that’s some light shit to me.”
As far as Spike is concerned, money is the root of all evil. A device that costs $500,000 was skipped because they were behind schedule and the rig that was being leased from Transocean was already running the multi-oil giant a million dollars a day (even after raking in over $246.1 billion of revenue in 2009). So the equivalent of a nickel to a person with $246.10 is the value of those rig worker’s lives. Even though it may cost a dime a day until it is safe to operate, BP skipped the precaution. The same is true about the failed levy system built by US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) which turned Hurricane Katrina into one of the deadliest hurricanes in United States history.
The difference between life and death for the residents of New Orleans was a simple change in engineering and budget; constructing the more expensive and engineer mandated “T-Wall” instead of the cheaply and non-approved “I-Wall.” The result, a quarter-mile length of levy wall was breached and 85 percent of New Orleans became a bowl filled with water.
“You have two of the world’s biggest disasters because their (company’s) profits and the bottom line weighed more than people lives,” Spike says passionately. “That’s the message that ties the two films together. If this continues, where people get positions whether they are appointed or voted in and it comes about for them trying to get as much money in the process as they can, it’s going to be the demise of the country. If people get hurt, harmed, or die in the process, they’re like fuck it.”
Spike has been able to tap into the pain, defeat, and abandonment of the Katrina victims first hand. Walking into what he described as feeling like a “set of a Steven Spielberg end of the world film that he has yet to make,” and Spike took his truth telling cameras into the heart of the 9th ward. A series of stone steps leading to where the house filled with love used to be, now lead to empty lots filled with weeds. It’s a visual sign of the emptiness these communities now have, since 35% of its residents remain displaced in other cities, regions, or states after the mandatory evacuation.
Granted, a percentage of the 35% of people have no intention of coming back. They moved to Houston, to San Antonio, Atlanta, and they’re fine now, making a lot more money and their kids have a better education in better schools, and they may have a better home. Their standard of living is higher. Conversely, you have people that want to go home. But rent has quadrupled, there are no jobs, and above all else, a lot of the people lived in the projects that were knocked down, so they can’t go home.
“This was a gangster move,” Spike says as he sits on the edge of his chair. “It was on the drawing boards. What are we going to do about the proliferation of poor black people living in these projects? But there’s no way you can drag people out of their houses. When they came back their shit was locked up. Here’s the thing you have to think about. There was legible damage. This is when they build stuff to last. Brick, mortar, you couldn’t bomb that stuff. People came back after the mandatory evacuation, their shit was locked up and there was barbed wire fence and you couldn’t get in. 2 years later, they knocked the muthafuckas down.”
The Gulf of Mexico states, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama run neck in neck, trying not to be the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to education, wealth, health, or any of the other categories that judge a state’s prosperity. Yet, year after year, they are 48, 49, and 50.Therefore, to the general public, the residents are poor, ignorant, can’t read or write, have no political power, and don’t know what they are doing. Being a resident, those kinds of stereotypes will give you a complex. With all of that already in your psyche, you’re hit with one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the country and within four years, followed up with the biggest oil spill in the history of the world. It draws a region to question their faith.
“Like people say in the film, “God damn, what do we do? God, what did we do to deserve this?” Spike recites. “I don’t blame them for drinking. Except that the stuff that Brad Pitt is doing with the Make it Right Foundation and Common Ground Lower Nina, not that much has been done. The biggest hospital in the city, Charity Hospital, got closed. So the only way that you can get treated for mental illness is to get arrested and go to jail. So the suicide rate there has doubled the rest of the country. People are still dealing with this trauma. The children are the ones that really got hit. They’re still dealing with this stress.”
It’s the end of our interview and I can’t help but look at Spike with a puzzled stare. I have a million questions running through my head. For instance, why do we as Americans, knowing what we know about BP, still support and patron their gas and their oil products? What are the effects of Corexit? Does this stuff eventually break down to being non-harmful? Where the hell is all of that oil that dropped below the surface and how are they going to get it, if they are going to get it? Why would the city of New Orleans tear down the biggest hospital in the city for no good reason, as well as destroy all of the projects? Why are the trailers from FEMA making the people living in them sick? One of the many things that Spike and I agree on is he is simply the messenger to deliver the information to the masses so that these very questions can be asked.
“I don’t have the answers I’m just a film-maker,” he says with a smile. “You didn’t get the memo? I didn’t have the answer for racism in ‘Do The Right Thing.’ That was 1989. Critics said ‘This movie is a failure. At the end of ‘Do the Right Thing’, Spike Lee didn’t give us the solution for racism.’ C’mon man. These are gangster moves. General Russel Honoré would not have allowed BP to dictate who goes where or who can fly where or dictate about Corexit. Like he said in the film, ‘don’t let it get confused with who’s paying and who’s running things.’ We’re all worried about how much oil is in the gulf. Nobody knows how much of that dispersant is put out there. We may find out 20 years from now, when we start having two-headed babies, that (Corexit) was more lethal and more damaging than the oil. And I’m not trying to be funny. It’s never been used in this amount…EVER. This stuff gets into the food chain and has ramifications for who knows how long. Then we hit the hurricane season. So there’s no telling where this stuff is at now. This can be catastrophic. But…the Saints won the Super Bowl!” Now WHO DAT.