HBO: Can you talk a little about the title, and its significance?
Spike Lee: Well, titles are always important for all my films. That’s the first thing the audience hears. Even before I had written the script for Do the Right Thing I had the title. I can’t remember exactly when we came up with the title for When the Levees Broke but it was early on.
HBO: It’s very open-ended, and almost leaves the viewer to finish the sentence themselves.
Spike Lee: I’ve tried to progress past the point with my films where I’m giving a five-word description. One of the significant things about the title is that most people think that it was Katrina that brought about the devastation to New Orleans. But it was a breaching of the levees that put 80 percent of the city under water. It was not the hurricane. And last week the United States Army Corps of Generals went on record and finally ‘fessed up, and said that we f—d up.
HBO: What was the thing that devastated you more than anything, about what happened in New Orleans?
Spike Lee: The thing that’s very hard for me, and I think’ll be hard for any filmmaker who has to ask difficult questions, especially when you’re asking people who’ve lost loved ones, is that, as a filmmaker and as a storyteller, it was my job, it was my duty to ask some difficult questions that I knew would stir up feelings…that would make people break down. Now, that was not my intention. But we have people talk about how their whole life has been changed.
So it’s very important that the audience, not just here in the United States but all over the world, hear these stories from these individuals, these witnesses, who saw the horror of what happened in New Orleans.
HBO: There were so many stories, and I’m sure even today you still hear stories that you haven’t heard that just horrify you. How did you decide which you were gonna go with?
Spike Lee: Well, when you choose the stories a lot of it depends who’s telling the story and who can convey that story. Everything you shoot cannot make it into the final film. So, myself along with my editor and producing partner Sam Pollock, we thought long and hard about what goes, and what stays.
HBO: When did you know you had to do a film about this?
Spike Lee: When Hurricane Katrina went through New Orleans or around it, I was in Venice, Italy at a film festival. It was a very painful experience to see my fellow American citizens, the majority of them African- Americans, in the dire situation they were in. And I was outraged with the slow response of the federal government. And every time I’m in Europe, any time something happens in the world involving African-Americans, journalists jump on me, like I’m the spokesperson for 45 million African-Americans, which I’m not. But many of them expressed their outrage too. And one interesting thing is that these European journalists were saying the images they were seeing looked like they were from a third world country, not the almighty United States of America.
It was around that time that I decided that I would like to do this. And as soon as I got back to New York, I called up (HBO’s) Sheila Nevins, and we met, and she agreed to go forward. What many people say in this film is that what happened in New Orleans is unprecedented. Never before in the history of the United States has the federal government turned its back on its own citizens in the manner that they did, with the slow response to people who needed help.
Recently, there was another horrific earthquake, a national disaster in Indonesia. And, once again, the United States government was there within two days. Now it’s great that we were in Indonesia in two days. But…let’s get a globe [LAUGHS], and see what the distance between the United States and Indonesia, and to New Orleans, and the people in the whole Gulf region.
HBO: When you first set foot on the ground, was it what you expected? Were you prepared for what you saw?
Spike Lee: Anyone who has been to New Orleans will automatically tell you that what you saw on television, the pictures, they can’t really describe the scale of the devastation. When you go to the Lower Ninth Ward, it looks- Hiroshima must have look like that. Nagasaki. Beirut. Berlin after it was bombed in World War II. That’s the way the Lower Ninth Ward looks like, and a lotta other places in New Orleans.
People in New Orleans are up in arms about progress. People wanna move back. New Orleans was a predominantly African- American city, and its black citizens were dispersed to 46 other states. People wanna come home, but there’s nowhere for them to live. They wanna work. The thing is just all messed up. I would not wanna be Mayor Ray Nagin. That has the next hardest job in this country besides the President of the United States, being the mayor of New Orleans.
HBO: Why do you think the response was what it was?
Spike Lee: Well, I would just say, what Kanye West expressed, that George Bush doesn’t care about black people. Many people think it had nothing to do with race, it had more to do with class. You have a large population who happened to be poor, and if they did vote they didn’t vote Republican anyway. Everybody was on vacation. Ms. Rice was buying Ferrigamo shoes on Madison Avenue while people were drowning, then went to see Spamalot. Cheney was on vacation. Bush was on vacation, and even when the President cut short his vacation, he did not fly directly to New Orleans. He did not fly directly to the Gulf region. He had the pilot of Air Force One do a fly-over.
Politicians do many things that are symbolic. And people might say well, what’s the good if it’s just symbolic? Sometimes there’s a lotta good in symbolism. In 1965 with Hurricane Betsy, then President Lyndon B. Johnson flew to New Orleans, and went to the Lower Ninth Ward. He shined a flashlight in his face in the dark and said, I’m Lyndon B. Johnson, I’m the President of the United States and we care about you. George Bush did not feel he had to do that. He showed up late, and the damage had been done already.
One of the things I hope this documentary does is remind Americans that New Orleans is not over with, it’s not done. Americans responded in record numbers to help the people of the Gulf Coast, but let’s be honest. Americans have very, very short attention spans. And, I’ll admit there was eventually a thing called Katrina fatigue. But if you go to New Orleans, only one-fourth of the population is there. People are still not home. So hopefully, this documentary will bring this fiasco, this travesty, back to the attention of the American people. And maybe the public can get some politicians’ ass in the government to move quicker, and be more efficient in helping our fellow American citizens in the Gulf region.
HBO: Has this forever changed the way people think about New Orleans?
Spike Lee: I think when we look back on this many years from now, I’m confident that people are gonna see what happened in New Orleans as a defining moment in American history. Whether that’s pro or con is yet to be determined. And that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do this film.