Rebuilding New Orleans

Nicholas Lemann reviews Spike Lee's documentary on the post-Katrina city:

The technique of If God Is Willing is roughly the HBO house style: no on-camera host, no voice-over, just filmed scenes and people being interviewed. It’s a method that does not require the filmmaker to draw any stated conclusions, and Lee makes an effort to represent a range of opinion in his selection of interview subjects. Still, from the aggregate of the voices he chooses to present and from the order in which he presents them, it’s easy to infer his own position in the battles over the fate of New Orleans after the storm. Because of the overlay of chaos and recrimination the categories were not perfectly neat, but, generally, there was a faction in New Orleans (which thought of itself as reformist) that wanted to use the storm as the occasion to remake the city in a more efficient and high-functioning form: close the housing projects and Charity Hospital, rebuild ruined homes zone by zone according to a plan, refuse to rebuild everywhere, replace the old public schools with charter schools.

This camp largely won (except on planned rebuilding), and its ideas are what Lee appears to be dead-set against. Most of the people to whom he gives the last word in his treatment of each of these issues believe that the black infrastructure of the citythe schools, the neighborhoods, the projects, Charityis being taken away because it’s inconvenient and threatening to the white business elite, and because Katrina offered an irresistible opportunity. Conversely, restoring (and improving) pre-Katrina black New Orleans in toto is the only morally acceptable approach now.