Spike Lee: Katrina Revisited

The levees in New Orleans may have been repaired, but the scars beneath them from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina will remain forever. In documenting the tragic loss and rebuild of an entire city, Spike Lee created the four-hour HBO feature When the Levees Broke. Both informational and emotional, the documentary tells the stories of individuals who have survived the wreck and who continue to suffer.

As the documentary neared its release to DVD, HBO hosted a roundtable discussion with Spike Lee on revisiting the people of New Orleans and the additional features on the DVD [“Act Five”]. He shared some of his opinions involving race and Hip-Hop, as well as the apathy of Americans a year following Katrina. In doing so, Mr. Lee’s message was clear – that much more can be done to make a difference for the people still struggling to mend their lives in New Orleans.

[Note: Thank you to the press associates at the roundtable discussion who participated in this interview. Questions asked specifically by AllHipHop.com Alternatives are noted by AHHA.]

Q: With all of the extra footage that you talked about [having], how did you go about choosing what to put on the extra features?

Spike Lee: Well, it’s the same thinking that applies to the first four acts – taking the best material and give it a shape to tell a story. The release of the DVD – it’s three discs – one of the extra features is “Act Five,” which is an additional hour and 45 minutes with footage that was not in the original four acts.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about what was in “Act Five”?

Spike Lee: Good stuff. The only reason why it wasn’t included was because we couldn’t get enough time from HBO – we only had two to four hours, so that was the limit. They never allocated that much for documenting in their schedule.

Q: Are the contents of “Act Five” more in-depth as to what actually took place [in New Orleans], because that was already very clear in the first four acts.

Spike Lee: No I think it covers other aspects of it. You’ve got the reasons why I think in the first four hours.

Q: Are there any plans to do a follow up on what happened to some of the people that you covered in “Act Five”?

Spike Lee: Yes, there’s six hours of footage from “Act Five” that’s still incomplete, so we wanna stay with it.

Q: Has anything changed in New Orleans since the filming of the documentary?

Spike Lee: Nope. Nothing.

Q: Do you want to continue with the documentary and maybe make an “Act Six”?

Spike Lee: Well, the film is incomplete because what’s happened down there is incomplete. I would like to stay with this and maybe come back in another year or so and do another look at it – two or three years, and how much has changed or has not changed.

Q: The documentary presented such great new material, was there anything that personally stood out for you – like politically a personal story that was totally revelatory? There was so much that was revelatory, but did anything stand out?

Spike Lee: It was all like that. One thing that surprises me is that going in I didn’t think there would be that much humor in it. We were just successful in capturing the spirit of the people. It was one of those things where you’ve gotta laugh to keep from crying. They were still crying despite the laughter.

Q: Do you have any plans beyond art to do anything like a march where like minds come together and are committed to helping [the victims] of Katrina?

Spike Lee: Um, no, I have not planned any marches. [laughs] Hopefully it mobilizes people to want to do that, but I’m not leading the march.

Q: You’re leading by doing your films. They can take it from there.

Spike Lee: We’ll see.

AHHA: You mentioned before on HBO that Americans have a very short attention span. Do you feel that you have to keep pushing the message because people tend to forget about what happened?

Spike Lee: Definitely. People have forgotten what happened, and the other group thinks that much progress has been done because they bought into the photo ops of Bush when he was down for the [Katrina] Anniversary; the reopening of the Superdome and the Saints are winning. They see a bunch of people in the French Quarter and think everything is back to business. That’s not the case.

Q: A lot of journalists have been commenting that the elections recently were affected by Iraq and sold Katrina short.

Spike Lee: I made that same observation about people coming out with statements that they totally left Katrina out of it. I think it was the double whammy of Katrina and Iraq that turned the tides.

Q: If you were the mayor of New Orleans when the hurricane hit, what would you have done differently?

Spike Lee: Well, this whole thing about how a category five [hurricane] hit New Orleans was…there have been many studies as you saw in the film of what would happen. I guess not that many people paid heed to it. In reality, Katrina missed New Orleans; it was only category three. So it was the breach of the levees that brought about the destruction. Anybody, the mayor, should work on the levee system because people knew throughout that it was faulty. Even today, it’s still faulty. Thank God hurricane season is about to end in a couple of weeks, so they got through. It’s like rolling dice, thinking they gonna dodge a bullet.

AHHA: Following Kanye West’s infamous statement on television, the Hip-Hop community spoke some on the subject of Katrina, but it eventually faded. Do you feel with Hip-Hop in particular, that not enough action was taken?

Spike Lee: Well some benefit concerts were held and stuff like that. I know Jay-Z has a song on his album about how the United States deserted the citizens of the Gulf region. But there were very few people who stood up. They talk about their platinum chains all the time, but…It was disappointing that more people didn’t stand up.

Q: What gives you the courage to stand up?

Spike Lee: Maybe I’m stupid and I don’t know any better. [laughs]

Q: Do you think your standing up will make a difference and that’s why you stand?

Spike Lee: I don’t think it was a big risk doing a film like that. People can have their opinion, and I don’t really see any risk involved. Never thought about it.

Q: What was the toughest thing structurally with doing the film?

Spike Lee: Well we didn’t have a script so we had to find the structure. We had a great editor and great co-producer Sam Pollack, who went through hundreds of hours of footage and interviews I conducted, the archival footage, the news reel footage, the footage we got from citizens that shot with their own cameras.

Q: The individuals who were highlighted in the film…have they been given any proceeds from any money that was raised from the film?

Spike Lee: Well, they’re waiting for the DVD, and HBO is going to do something for the people, period.

Q: How bittersweet was it to go through the Mardi Gras, where they were trying to lift themselves back up in spirit?

Spike Lee: It wasn’t bittersweet at all. It was fun. Everybody was having fun. People understood that the world was gonna change the next day when they woke up, but that moment they were having fun. A lot of people who were evacuated came back at Homecoming and were able to see a lot of friends and family who were living elsewhere.

Q: Making documentaries…does this energize you to make features or change features? Or are they just two parallel things you do?

Spike Lee: I don’t try to put any distinctions or parameters [on them]. Someone asked me if I wear different hats for documentaries or films and the answer is no.

Q: Do you feel over the years you have changed as a filmmaker? It seems in the press they are re-discovering you with Inside Man and When the Levees Broke.

Spike Lee: I don’t really worry about that stuff. If I worried about that stuff, we’d never have been able to develop the body of work we have done. We’ve done 20 films in 20 years. We’re too busy to worry about that stuff.

Q: But have you changed?

Spike Lee: I hope so.

AHHA: How do you feel the racial climate has changed from when you first came out 20 years ago?

Spike Lee: I think it’s safe to say it’s the same.

Q: What would you say is the biggest misconception about you?

Spike Lee: Can’t answer that.

Q: There has been a lot of discussion about doing a School Daze 2.

Spike Lee: Well, it’s something I’d like to get to eventually, but it’s not immediate. I’d like to do it.

Q: When you make a film like this [When the Levees Broke] do you find yourself revisiting the people after the fact and staying in touch for your own interests? What have you found?

Spike Lee: I keep in touch with a lot of people, and there’s still a daily struggle just to get by.

Q: There are a few films being made down there [New Orleans] that can bring a surplus of money.

Spike Lee: Yeah but that’s not gonna get to the regular folks. The fact that Déjà vu was shot in New Orleans did not impact the pocket book of the kinfolk.

Q: Do you feel that by making a film like this you are teaching and making an impact?

Spike Lee: Well we’ve been told by people that they’ve found stuff they did not know. Four hours…hopefully they learned something. [laughs] If you offer stuff people already know then something’s wrong.

Q: What was the budget for the film?

Spike Lee: We went from two to four million.

Q: Critically, the bet paid off. Do you know if it paid of in terms of who watched it?

Spike Lee: Oh yeah, this was the highest most rated documentary they’ve had ever I think. That’s not including HBO on Demand.

Q: In “Act Five” you featured a gentleman who had been arrested. Why did you feel it was important to bring that element into the fifth act?

Spike Lee: Many people who were arrested or in jail prior to the breach of the levees…some are stuck in jail now because their records were lost. The whole judicial system is messed up. People don’t know who’s in for what. It’s just chaos. A lot of lawyers and D.A.’s have left. The whole infrastructure of the city is gone.

Q: There was such a diversity of people in your subject matter. How did you go about finding the people?

Spike Lee: The majority of the people were found by our researcher who went down before me and just walked around and walked up to people and asked them their story.

Q: Another depressing aspect was the musicians who have lost their instruments and people who lost their valuables in general. Was there anyone in particular you knew of?

Spike Lee: There’s a couple that are photographers in the film and their whole entire life works are gone forever.

Q: I heard you’ve inked a deal with NBC for a new series. Can you elaborate on that?

Spike Lee: Well we’re in development. It’s called NOLA. It takes place in post-Katrina/post-levees breached New Orleans, like, today. People just trying to put their lives back together.

Q: Are there any genres you haven’t touched that you’d like to do?

Spike Lee: I think I want to do a musical.

Q: Any particular time period or style?

Spike Lee: Don’t know. I’m looking forward to seeing Dreamgirls though. It should be good. It looks good.

Q: In making the DVD for When the Levees Broke, was it interesting in revisiting the experience?

Spike Lee: Yes, because I had to go through all of the footage again, and put it together. I had some good stuff. I forgot.

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