Thursday, August 26, 2010

Five Years After, Part I

After viewing Spike Lee’s two-part follow-up to his justifiably acclaimed documentary When the Levees Broke, we must conclude that Lee is a very talented filmmaker. How else to explain the fact that we were again moved, on several different levels (including, yeah, intellectually) by Lee’s handiwork, despite the cartoonish lack of subtlety in his politics –– similar to what the filmmaker would doubtless impute to Tea Partiers –– and the occasional teeth-grinding bzzzzzz of his polemics. Not that Lee makes any pretense to two-sides-to-the-story objectivity (Correction: Apparently he does!). He’s a storyteller, not a reporter. Still, the first season of David Simon’s Treme, a fictional account of post-Katrina New Orleans, demonstrated a greater journalistic scrupulousness than Lee’s non-fictional If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, even though Simon surely shares Lee’s somewhat unfocused and widely diffused anger ––and, hey, we must be angry, all goddamn day long ––- at what happened to New Orleans.

Houston, we should note, comes off pretty good in Lee’s latest, although the segment on the city launches off in unpromising fashion with pictures of the rodeo parade and a sign for the annual big gun show at the Brown center. The music and hue of the film both darken at that point –– to suggest, we guess, that “These peckerwoods are liable to string me and any other person of color up in the middle of the night,” but we suspect, hope, that Lee, who’s got a pretty good sense of humor, offered up these rodeo week vignettes as sly juxtaposition to what follows (if not, then he’s a big dummy).* A couple of pastors –– a black preacher who relocated from New Orleans and now leads a church in South Houston, a white guy (not Ed Young) from Second Baptist –– recall those hectic post-Katrina weeks when Houston took in who-knows-how-many hurricane refugees and, in what was surely one of this nation’s recent great moments of charity and forbearance, worked like hell to get them settled. Our alcaldesa appears in an interview on the steps of City Hall, looking like a spunky cowgirl in her Go Texan Day attire (is her name, we idly wondered, hand-tooled on the back of that belt with the gigantic buckle?) and, or so it seemed to us, slightly inflating her role in the resettlement effort (she does mention that she was called into action by the then “present mayor” or “mayor at the time,” something like that, although Bill White remains anonymous and unseen throughout the short Houston segment of Lee’s film). The mayor notes that while many New Orleanians have returned home from Houston, plenty of them, who knows how many, decided to drop anchor and have blended into the city. Lee interviews three of them in what, to us, was the most arresting part of the film’s first installment, as their comments neatly illustrated the differences between the two cities, for better or worse. One of the evacuees, a Calvin Green, or Greene, formerly of Treme, tells Lee that once he landed in Houston he decided to find him a wife, the first prerequisite being that she own a house. Next to him is home-owning now-wife, a nurse he first ran into at the Reliant Center in the days after Katrina and later re-hooked-up with, somehow. Green says his second criterion for a suitable mate was that she have good feet –– “I have a foot fetish,” he helpfully explains –– and Lee obligingly gives us a brief shot of Mrs. Green’s nicely pedicured and painted toes. I’m sorry, but Houston needs more people like Calvin Green, or Greene.

Listing more toward deeply ambivalent are Colvina “Rita” McCoy and Catherine Montana Gordon, mother and sister, respectively, of Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, who was such an engaging presence in When the Levees Broke, later landed a prominent role in Simon’s Treme (nobody, not even that “Susie” character from Curb Your Enthusiasm, does cuss-fueled spousal anger like Mrs. LeBlanc,), and opens Creek Don’t Rise stridently declaiming some Bad Poetry while wearing a Saints‘ jersey. Mses. McCoy and Gordon are living in what appears to be a very nice and comfortable brick home in Humble, and Ms. Gordon goes on at length extolling the virtues of the local school district, where, apparently for the first time, her special-needs son was able to access widely available services that apparently were not provided in New Orleans. (“Life Skills,” she says, enunciating the name of the routinely available class for special-education students. “I had never heard of Life Skills!”) Still, Ms. Gordon wishes aloud that “we could take what we have here and move it all [to NOLA],” while her moms, in a moment sure to endear her to the local chamber of commerce, avows, “I hate Humble.” This sounds churlish and ungrateful, and probably is, but we forgive:** Humble isn’t New Orleans (Humble isn’t even Houston), and Houston’s not New Orleans, and what Houston obviously lacks in NOLA’s je ne sais qoui and joie de vive*** and [insert overworked French phrase of your choice here] it makes up for in an ability to put people to work and make the trains run on time, or at least in offering Life Skills classes.

*We personally don't care about how the media "portray" Houston, but we know that many locals do, so let us note the obvious: What Spike Lee says about Houston is exponentially more influential than, say, what the Greater Houston Partnership says about Houston.
**Actually, we wouldn't want to live in Humble, either, unless somebody gave us a free house there (even then ....).
***That, at least, is the outside perception, but not, as we long-timers know, the reality. We believe it was the late philosopher manque Juke Boy Bonner (Christian name: "Weldon") who proclaimed that
Houston Is an Action Town ("We got womenfolk in the street flagging the menfolk down" ... and, as Mr. Bonner might have added, we got menfolk flagging menfolk down, etc.). As we've often noted in the past, recent and distant, you can find just about anything you want here, if you look hard enough.

We wrote it down so we wouldn’t forget: Past postings on Katrina.

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