Spike Lee on Race, Politics and Broken Levees

Spike Lee filming New Orleans mayoral election. Getty Images/Chris Graythen i i

Spike Lee in New Orleans, filming events surrounding the April 22 mayoral election Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images
Spike Lee filming New Orleans mayoral election. Getty Images/Chris Graythen

Spike Lee in New Orleans, filming events surrounding the April 22 mayoral election

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Director Spike Lee examines the collision of race and politics in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in his provocative new HBO documentary, When the Levees Broke, which has a special showing on Aug. 16 at the New Orleans Arena.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Ten thousand people are expected to show up this week for the New Orleans premiere of Spike Lee's new documentary. Lee produced the film for HBO. It's a four hour look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, called When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. The film has no narrator. Instead, it weaves together personal testimony from hurricane survivors. Independent producer Reese Erlich met up with Spike Lee in New Orleans.

Mr. SPIKE LEE (Director): You know, let's do that one more time.

REESE EHRLICH reporting:

Spike Lee stands in a room full of jazz musicians slumped on coaches and eating po'boys in-between takes. They're recording the soundtrack for Lee's new documentary. The soundtrack is a mix of standards and original jazz composed by New Orleans native Terence Blanchard.

(Soundbite of music)

EHRLICH: The music underscores a powerful retelling of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Lee conducted interviews with nearly 100 people, ordinary residents, local politicians, federal officials, celebrities and reporters. The interviews are combined with striking images of the hurricane's destruction, the rescue efforts, and the devastating aftermath.

Mr. LEE: And it just got worse and worse and worse. I mean it was just incredible, the sound. It was like having a freight train in your ear for hours on end, just (makes sound)...

EHRLICH: Lee doesn't use narration, nor does he appear on camera, but during the recording session he expresses his opinion about where to place blame for the tragedy.

Mr. LEE: The residents of the Gulf Coast were not a priority for this administration. Actions speak louder than words, and two times this past - in the last years, with earthquakes and tsunamis the United States of America have gone more than halfway around the world and was there in two days. And it took the same government four days to reach New Orleans.

EHRLICH: Over and over in the film people tell of being trapped on roofs or stranded in the Superdome. In one news clip rescuers pass a life vest to a terrified woman unable to swim and trapped in eight feet of water in her own living room. The film also includes accusations of some in New Orleans that the government intentionally dynamited the levees in order to save rich white neighborhoods from flooding.

(Soundbite of film, When the Levees Broke)

Unidentified Man: We heard a big boom noise, boom and it was loud, loud, loud.

Unidentified Woman: Yes, I heard the explosion. We heard it first, the echo from here.

Unidentified Man #2: I think the levee cracked and then they help it the rest of the way. They had a bomb. They bomb that sucker.

EHRLICH: Sheila Nevin, who heads HBO's documentary division, supports Lee's decision to include these accounts.

Ms. SHEILA NEVIN (HBO): This may be Spike's film, but it's about their experiences. And you know, he's not reporting, he's not on camera, he doesn't have the responsibility to interpret for them. He only has the responsibility to present for them their disillusionment and maybe their slight inaccuracies.

EHRLICH: Ultimately Lee does give greater weight to community voices and experts who say there was no such intentional destruction. He interviews Tulane University engineering Professor Calvin Mackie, then local political leader Henry Rodriguez.

(Soundbite of Film, When the Levees Broke)

Professor CALVIN MACKIE (Tulane University): I don't believe that the levees were blown. I believe that my people heard explosions when the water gushed though a gaping hole. You know, you have a crack, that go from being a crack to a gaping hole, you're going to hear some type of sound. The levees gave.

Mr. HENRY RODRIGUEZ (New Orleans Political Leader): I don't think it was blown up, I'll be honest with you. I think what they heard was - it was a possibility they could have heard the snapping of the ropes that hold these barge - the - I almost have to believe they heard the barge hit that concrete wall.

EHRLICH: When the Levees Broke is Lee's third documentary for HBO, including the highly acclaimed 1997 film Four Little Girls, about the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama during the civil rights movement. When Lee first approached the cable network it was for a two-hour project with a reported one million dollar budget. HBO executive Sheila Nevin says that when the scope of the project became clear, HBO took the unprecedented step of allowing Lee to double the documentary's length and budget.

Ms. NEVIN: We're always willing to make a documentary as long as it has to be, but we've never made a four hour documentary before. And we've never doubled the time. It seemed like it needed to be longer and I guess I thought about the great documentaries of the past, like The Sorrow and the Pity, and I thought, you know, what the heck, this is Spike's Sorrow and the Pity and let's go for it.

EHRLICH: The Sorrow and the Pity, the classic 1972 chronicle of occupied France, uses personal stories to portray the larger picture, as does Lee in his documentary. In one of the documentary's most moving scenes, composer Terence Blanchard and his mother Wilhelmina returned to her home for the first time, three months after the hurricane. They enter her house, where floodwaters had reached all the way to the ceiling.

(Soundbite of film When the Levees Broke)

Ms. WILHELMINA BLANCHARD: (In film) Oh look, look - this thing is way over here.

Mr. TERENCE BLANCHARD (Composer): (In film) What is that?

Ms. BLANCHARD: (In film) That's the thing you had gave me, it was over here. What is that over there?

Mr. BLANCHARD: (In film) This look like your china closet.

Ms. BLANCHARD: (In film) The china closet don't have any business being over here in the den.

Mr. BLANCHARD: (In film) I know. You can rebuild this stuff though.

Ms. BLANCHARD: (In film) Yeah. That's easier said than done.

EHRLICH: Blanchard and director Spike Lee dedicate When the Levees Broke to the people devastated by Hurricane Katrina and their commitment to rebuild.

It's a stormy day nearly one year after Hurricane Katrina hit and the film is nearing completion. Blanchard is driving in his mother's old neighborhood. The devastation is still obvious, but some residents have moved back into their homes. A few stores have opened.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Look at this. This is not a seriously wealthy neighborhood at all, but it's cleaned up, which tells me that there's a desire for everybody here to come back home.

(Soundbite of music)

EHRLICH: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts airs on HBO beginning August 21st and 22nd. For NPR News, I'm Reese Ehrlich.

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A Conversation with Spike Lee

Spike Lee, wearing bright red glasses, photographed in March 2006. i i

Spike Lee, photographed in March at the New York premiere of his film. Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images
Spike Lee, wearing bright red glasses, photographed in March 2006.

Spike Lee, photographed in March at the New York premiere of his film.

Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images
Spike Lee with Clive Owen and Denzel Washington on the set of 'Inside Man.'

Spike Lee with Clive Owen and Denzel Washington on the set of 'Inside Man.' Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images

After making four films with Denzel Washington, director Spike Lee sums up their relationship this way:

"Not a lot of need for a whole lot of talk."

But Lee does talk at length with Scott Simon about Washington and their latest film Inside Man, which also features a star-studded supporting cast: Jodie Foster, Clive Owen, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Plummer and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

It's not the sort of Spike Lee film cinema observers have come to expect. First off, it's a thriller. And the $45 million budget shows just how far Lee has come since he produced She's Gotta Have It for $175,000 in 1985. That film made $8.5 million, and Lee has never looked back.

Lee has made a passle of powerful movies, from Do the Right Thing, Mo' Better Blues and Jungle Fever to Malcolm X and He Got Game. Most bristle with commentary on race and other social issues. Inside Man doesn't ignore those themes, but it's not really a chin-in-your-face work.

But never fear: Next up for Lee is a documentary on the disaster in New Orleans. The working title is When the Levees Broke. It's being done for HBO. It should premiere around the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, in late August.

Lee's past documentary work is some of his best. Get On the Bus captured the spirit of the Million Man March. Four Little Girls told the story of the church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that left four young women dead and helped galvanize the civil rights movement.

Expect a piercing look at response to the floods, which he feels presented "one of the most important moments in American history." Clearly, he feels the government was found wanting.

"What's happened down there is unprecedented," he says. "This country has forever been going to the far corners of the earth to help other people in need... When this occurred here on U.S. soil, this government turned its back on its own citizens."

Issues of race, and social commentary. Sounds like a Spike Lee film.

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