Spike Lee Produces a Vision of Katrina

Next week, HBO debuts a Spike-Lee produced documentary that chronicles Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Lee says the film, When the Levees Broke, is ultimately a plea to renew the city of New Orleans, where many black residents have not yet returned — and where there's still no concrete rebuilding plan.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On Monday, HBO debuts a two-part documentary that chronicles the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans one year later. The film produced by Spike Lee is entitled When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.

(Soundbite of film, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts)

Unidentified Man: You know, somebody needs to go to jail. Somebody needs to go to jail because those levees were never really maintained the way they should've been, and now it's too late.

Unidentified Woman #1: I'm 59 years old. My husband is 67 years old. We've worked hard, we're well educated. He's got a Masters from UCLA, undergrad from Berkeley. I have a law degree, a MBA, and I had nothing. I had nothing. I don't know how to make you understand the despair.

Unidentified Woman #2: And it costs the people. Not just New Orleans and the 9th Ward, but the whole frickin' southeast Louisiana. It costs the people their homes and their lives. Whoever's responsible, I hope that they can sleep at night. I hope they can sleep at night knowing that they're the ones who's responsible.

GORDON: Lee says the documentary is ultimately a plea to renew the City of New Orleans. But we started our conversation by talking about how Katrina affected him.

Mr. SPIKE LEE (Producer, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts): I was touched. I was sad. I was angry. And at the time I was not in the United States of America, I was in Venice, Italy for the Venice Film Festival. And so I was just holed up in my hotel room switching back and forth between the BBC and CNN. And every day I wondered when is the federal government going to show up.

And very early on, I recognized I was watching a historic moment in American history. And I quickly came to the decision I would like to - if given the chance, I would like to document that. I would like to have a - hopefully the definitive visual document on the fiasco that happened down in New Orleans.

GORDON: When you watch this, it really is just a grouping of stories. And when you meet the people and hear the stories, it really does tell this story in a different way than just watching the news accounts.

Mr. LEE: Well, news accounts. I mean they have a very limited time. At the most, you might get two minutes, the rest are soundbites. This is a concentrated Herculean effort to document this. We've been shooting - it'll be almost a little under a year, and it's epic. It's four hours.

GORDON: You call it When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. The idea of splitting it, quote, into four acts. You really tell different stories, different phases, different aspects of what happened down there.

Mr. LEE: I really have to give credit to Sheila Nevins. Sheila Nevins heads up the documentary department at HBO, and she came up with the idea of having this, the requiem. And we had over 500 hours of interviews I did, newsreel footage, archival footage. So we really needed that structure to work through all that footage.

GORDON: There's historical perspective in what you've done. You got some great historical footage of the floods that have happened before. You talk about the old big one. It's interesting to hear people talk about surviving Betsy in 1965, and how they felt like I can ride this one out. There is that mindset often that from people who live in this area. So the idea of putting historical perspective I suspect was important to you.

Mr. LEE: We wanted to give it context; and with the four hours, that would enable us to do this. Originally when we approached Mr. Sam Pollard - my co-producer and the supervisor of editing - we approached HBO, we only asked for two hours. But halfway in, I looked at Sam, he looked at me, and we said, yo, two hours is not going to get it. So we went back to HBO and we're very grateful that they gave us the okay to go to four.

GORDON: You opened with the principals, those who testified, heads of agencies; we heard from Condoleezza Rice. What was telling, most telling, about the first few minutes of the first segment is that there was a lot of finger-pointing going on and a lot of I'm not sure, I have to get back to you. A year later, do you think that that's still the case, that we haven't figured out exactly what happened here?

Mr. LEE: The way I think, when you look at this, it's very evident what happened. We have the teleconference where Dr. Max Mayfield, who runs the National Hurricane Center, told President Bush in a teleconference that there's a possibility that a Category 3 hurricane might topple the levee system in New Orleans, and he said thank you and didn't even answer any other questions.

And there have been numerous studies and reports that this was going to happen. So it's not like this just came out of nowhere. The Army Corps of Engineers have been messing around with this levee system for 40 years, and it's still not, after these billion dollars they spent this past year, they're still not safe.

GORDON: You really find the humanitarian aspect of people in crisis. You know, you talk to people who, during that time when they saw the government was not going to be able to - or not helping them, assisting them in a time of crisis, they talk about how their neighbors banded together and helped each other.

Mr. LEE: Well, that's not the best case scenario, but when your federal government takes five days to show up, you've got to go for what you know. And I think that many people down there have come to the stark realization that they can't rely on their government and they definitely can't rely on FEMA.

And I think that's a warning to all of us in this country. Because natural disasters, or if want to say terrorist attacks - and let's just - are just not the domain of the Gulf region. So I hope to God I never have to rely on FEMA for something.

GORDON: You touch on the looting aspect of it during this. You also touch on what has become, in some people's minds, urban legend, in other people's minds that big question mark, as to whether or not - and we saw it historically - and you talk about the, quote, bombing of the levees, the opening up of the waters to save other areas in the city and pouring it in on the 9th Ward, the poor section of New Orleans.

You felt this important because it was talked about constantly, particularly in the beginning, particularly among African-Americans.

Mr. LEE: Well, I feel it's very important for me as a filmmaker not to discount what people feel. I think that African-Americans in this country have to go to many historic things that happened in the past that this government has done to us. So this is - again, this stuff is not just coming out of thin air. There are 65 (unintelligible) reported that the levees were broken, going all the way back to - blowing up all the way back to 1927.

So there's something that I felt was my duty to let these citizens to speak their peace. And we also have people say, you know, that didn't happen, that they heard something else.

GORDON: Was this a conscious effort to really let the story tell itself and not finger point one or two people, i.e. the governor, the mayor, et cetera?

Mr. LEE: I didn't have to make the thing up. The federal government took five days to show up. President Bush took 12 days to show up. It took us two days to get to Sri Lanka.

In this film, we have an interview by Junior Rodriguez. He's the president of St. Bernard's Parish. He talked about how he would sit in this office trying to keep things together, in walked into his office a commander from the Royal Canadian Mounties. He said, where are you from? He said, we're from Canada? Where in Canada? They were from Vancouver.

How is it Dudley Do Right guys - I used to watch that cartoon growing up - how it is a company of Dudley Do Rights can make it to New Orleans from Vancouver, and they had horses too, how can they make it to New Orleans before the federal government? That's crazy.

GORDON: Spike, we've got coming up on 365 days of reflection in all of this. What's your thought at the end of making this as you look back at what has occurred with the historical perspective of a year gone by now?

Mr. LEE: What I'm just thinking about is really the people who are no longer here, but still the people who are struggling to make it day by day. I'm also thinking about the 75 percent population of New Orleans who no longer live there, who are spread out across these United States. I think about how a year later not that much has changed.

I've befriended many people that are in the film, and they all tell me, Spike, we're waiting for a plan. No one has come forward with the plan. How do we move forward?

GORDON: Well, it's easy to see in the times like we live that often with a year's perspective we forget about what happened, even though it wasn't that long ago. And this is a great reminder of what happened and what needs to continue to happen to right that situation.

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, the film by Spike Lee on HBO, starts August 21st and 22nd and then an encore presentation on the 29th. All four hours then. Spike, good to talk to you, man. Congratulations and good luck with this.

Mr. LEE: All right, man. See you later. Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Coming up, Latino outrage about an online ad at a Democratic Web site, and Jesse Jackson wants to lend his hand to help solve the Middle East crisis. We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable.

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