Spike Lee on His New Katrina Documentary

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Spike Lee Patrick Semansky / AP

As the saga of New Orleans’s rebirth continues, so does director Spike Lee’s documentation of it. If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, which premiered Aug. 23 on HBO, is his second four-hour documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, following 2006’s Peabody Award–winning When the Levees Broke. He spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Joshua Alston. Excerpts:

Did you plan from the outset to revisit New Orleans sometime after you did When the Levees Broke?

We knew we were going to revisit [it] before we were even finished with When the Levees Broke. We knew the story was not done, not that it’s going to be done any time soon; we wanted to revisit it, and HBO agreed with me. It was just a matter of determining when we would return, and we felt like five was a good number, so we decided to do something that could air just prior to the fifth anniversary.

You’re known first as a director of scripted fare. Have you considered, or would you consider, a scripted project about post-Katrina New Orleans?

Nah, David Simon is already doing that on HBO with Treme. I liked it very much, I’m a big fan of David Simon’s work.

The first film explored the theory that the levees were intentionally detonated ...

Wait a minute. Wait a minute. That’s not—the first film was four hours long; that’s not the only thing it was about.

But you do talk to people in the film who held that opinion. Did you find that people who held that theory then still hold it five years later?

If you ask the same people do they think the levees were blown the f--k up, they would say yes. Right now people are just trying to deal with this BP oil.

Given the inclusion of the BP oil spill in the film, how recently did you finish production?

Our last day of shooting was, like, two weeks ago.

How far along in the process were you before you decided the oil spill was necessary to include?

We were done. We were done shooting. And then we had to rethink everything after April 20.

What would constitute a successfully revitalized New Orleans?

Well, I’ll say affordable housing for all. I’d say a great education system. A levee system that is sound. A lot of people have a lot of questions about how safe those levees are, even after Katrina. It’s what you want for any city to prosper.

The new film explores how much of a psychological toll Katrina took on the residents of the city. Obviously things can be rebuilt, but do you think a personal sense of comfort or normalcy will ever return?

Still today, people are dealing with posttraumatic stress, especially kids, and this was five years ago. First of all, you can never feel 100 percent secure, because New Orleans is under sea level, and it’s in the direct path of storms during hurricane season. So it’s just a risk living there. You can only feel so secure because of where it is.

Some of the people you spoke to for the film left New Orleans and didn’t return. Why?

People have not returned because the projects they were living in were knocked down. People didn’t return because there are no jobs. People didn’t return because [their] rents have quadrupled. Other people have not returned because they’ve found a higher standard of living in Houston, San Antonio, and Atlanta. We have people laying it out in the film more eloquently than I can. They have better-paying jobs in their new cities; the education systems are better. Those are the main reasons why people have not returned.

As a director, how do you weigh the value of footage captured by a victim versus stuff you’ve shot?

It’s about getting the best motherf--king shot you can get, I don’t care where the f--k it comes from. If I shot something and it’s not good s--t, I’m trying to get the good s--t. That’s what filmmakers do. There’s no balance—I’m trying to get the best s--t possible. So I don’t care where the f--k the sources are, I’m trying to get the best footage to tell the story. I don’t go and say, “I want footage from this person or this person.” I want the footage. Whoever has the best footage to tell the story.

What criteria are you using to decide what the best shots are?

“The best shot” could mean a lot of things. There could be stuff where something is shot poorly or the sound is not great, but it’s the only thing available, so you don’t care that it doesn’t look great. Even with narrative film, there might be a take where the sun came in, but that take featured the best performance. I’m always going to take the performance.

Do you think people still care about Katrina five years later? Or is it all about Haiti now, and it’s like “Katrina’s over”?

Well, it’s not about Haiti now either. Haiti’s over. A couple weeks ago, [former president Bill] Clinton went back, and now we won’t be back to Haiti until a year. Same with this; everyone will go back for the five-year anniversary, but after the 29th, no one will care anymore. I was talking about this with Anderson Cooper, who told me there are times when he wants to stay with a story but he can’t because people aren’t that interested anymore. People get fatigued. That’s where they got that term “Katrina fatigue.”

You weren’t stricken with Katrina fatigue.

No, not me. I was in Venice when it happened, and I was in my hotel room riveted to the television, watching CNN and the BBC. I just couldn’t believe I was watching Americans in the condition they were, standing on their houses, water all around them with signs that said “Help me.” That’s when I knew I wanted to do the first film.

This article is part of NEWSWEEK's series on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Click here for all our coverage.

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