The filmmaker on location in New Orleans in 2005 for his epic documentary on the U.S. government's indifferent and wanting response to Hurricane Katrina.
"What healing are you talking about?" Spike Lee asked a reporter on the red carpet who had just asked him how his four-hour documentary had helped heal the residents of Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans.
The reporter had perhaps made the mistake of referencing the director's profound HBO documentary "When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts", which showed on the pay television channel last summer and fall in the United States and is now on DVD in North America, to gauge whether it had contributed to easing the pain of the people suffering on the Gulf Coast, and Mr. Lee was apparently none-too-pleased about it. "I get calls every day. They aren't healing. They need help. No healing."
Acts II and III of Mr. Lee's extraordinary documentary were shown at the Castro Theater tonight as part of the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival, and were alternatively met with howls of laughter, anger and disgust by the audience, 85% of whom had stayed behind to watch the middle two hours of the film following an hour of conversation with Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe as part of the Festival's "An Evening With Spike Lee." On more than one occasion tonight, Mr. Morris' interview skills were suspect and Mr. Lee, not one to mix his metaphors, let him know about some of his errors. For example, when Morris said that the director had "recently become a father," Mr. Lee interrupted, "but that's been for 12 years now. That's no newsflash," as the audience erupted in laughter.
Despite some moments when the prolific New York City filmmaker challenged both the interviewer and some audience questioners (many of whom asked questions far better and more articulately than Mr. Morris), Mr. Lee, who is being honored with the San Francisco Film Society Directing Award on Thursday, displayed humor aplenty and ardent passion and concern for the state of the Union with careful and deliberate speech, a trademark deadpan stare, pauses and an occasional despairing bow of the head. A look, a silence, or a one or two-word answer to some of Mr. Morris' inquiries merited laughter from the audience.
But there was no laughing matter when discussing the documentary on Hurricane Katrina and its devastating effects, coupled with governmental neglect of its own citizens.
"Make no mistake. Please do not leave this theater thinking everything is okay in New Orleans. It's not."
When asked about his career and his ability to make films almost annually, he said, "from the very beginning in film school I wanted to build up a body of work, and I've just been very fortunate that I've gotten the opportunity to go from film to film."
The San Francisco Film Society also went from film to film in Executive Director Graham Leggat's pre-introduction of the illustrious filmmaker, with clips of some Spike Lee's best-known films: "She's Gotta Have It", "Do The Right Thing", "Mo' Better Blues", "Jungle Fever", "Malcolm X", "Clockers", "4 Little Girls", "Summer Of Sam", "25th Hour" and "Inside Man".
Spike Lee arriving on the red carpet on Wednesday, May 2 at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore)
The director talked about Iraq and referencing the
fourth anniversary of May 1, 2003, of the moment president George W. Bush stood
beneath a prominent banner containing two words: mission accomplished.
Spike Lee had just one word in response. "Sheeeeeeeit!"
The audience again laughed, and Mr. Lee afforded himself a knowing smile. In using the phrase he used, he borrowed from the actor Isiah Whitlock, who has appeared in at least two of Mr. Lee's films playing a detective, including "25th Hour". But the seriousness of the actions and the resulting ongoing conflict in Iraq was brought sharply back into focus in an instant.
"You know, how many more Americans have to come back in body bags for this thing to end?"
Mr. Lee also was quick to note one of the candidates running for U.S. president next year. "Giuliani ain't the answer either. He'd be worse."
Everything connects to something, and while the evening was ostensibly about the director's remarkable resume of work over the past 21 years, Spike Lee did not hesitate to connect the events in Iraq to the events in New Orleans and cities across the still-ravaged Gulf Coast region of the U.S. "Halliburton, they've got contracts in the Gulf Region too -- no-bid contracts . . . the company that got the no-bid handout, worked on the levees -- turns out stuff doesn't work, millions and millions of dollars -- turns out that Jeb Bush is the co-owner of the company."
Some audience members groaned in anguish.
"They're all in cahoots," the director said, "and they're making money hand over fist."
Boston Globe film critic Wesley Morris striking a pose on the red carpet on May 2 outside the Castro Theater in San Francisco, where he interviewed Spike Lee.
(Photo: Omar P.L. Moore)
Mr. Lee revealed that his four-hour documentary "When The Levees Broke", which won three awards at last year's Venice International Film Festival, was "only supposed to be two hours", but as he and supervising editor Sam Pollard kept looking at what they shot during the course of their eight trips to New Orleans, they realized that two hours didn't begin to tell the story. They went back to HBO and asked for more money for two more hours of film. Even after that, the director observed, it was still insufficient. (Mr. Lee noted that there is an additional fifth hour on the DVD edition of the documentary.)
But obviously for the residents of the Gulf Coast, and for the director the story is far from complete. "We're gonna do a follow-up on 'When The Levees Broke'," Lee said, "and we're gonna stay with this 'till something happens, good or bad."
Throughout the night, Mr. Lee addressed numerous topics, including Don Imus' statement last month about the members of the Rutgers Womens' basketball team, about the impact of his 2000 film "Bamboozled", to which he answered one young lady who had said the film had deeply impacted her query with: "so have you stopped doing music videos?" The lady quickly responded that she never had and never would.
So much transpired tonight, and Mr. Lee in some ways was the grand architect of it all.
Next week: the complete transcript of the evening's event.
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The DVD cover of "When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts", the four-hour epic documentary directed by filmmaker Spike Lee.