Spike Lee is a proud New Yorker --he lives for the Yankees, dies for the Knicks and bleeds for all things Brooklyn--but for the past year, his heart has been in New Orleans. To make his new four-hour HBO documentary about Hurricane Katrina, "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," the 49-year-old director visited the Gulf Coast region nine times and interviewed more than 100 people, including the mayor of New Orleans, the governor of Louisiana, Sean Penn, Soledad O'Brien, Kanye West, engineers, historians, journalists, radio DJs--even the guy who spotted the vice president during a post-Katrina photo-op and told him, "Go f--- yourself, Mr. Cheney." But the voice you'll remember best belongs to a 42-year-old woman named Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, a survivor from the city's obliterated Lower Ninth Ward and one of the rawest specimens of classic Nawlins spitfire you'll ever find. In Lee's devastating film, LeBlanc is a frequent, and frequently hilarious, presence, a fuming Greek chorus of one who still can't believe that, for nearly a week, her country left her and her neighbors for dead. "There were two things I asked Spike when we first met," says LeBlanc, sitting in a lawn chair outside her government-issued trailer home in New Orleans--the one she finally received four months after applying for it. "First I asked him, 'Are you going to tell the whole story and make it clear that all black people aren't poor, ignorant looters?' And then I asked if I could cuss." She laughs. "When he said yes to both, I said, 'Hot damn, we've got a deal!'"
"When the Levees Broke" features a fair amount of cussing, especially if you agree with most Gulf Coast residents that FEMA is a four-letter word. But heartbreak, not fury, is the dominant emotion of Lee's $2 million documentary, which will premiere in two parts on Aug. 21 and 22, and then air in its entirety on Aug. 29, the anniversary of Katrina's landfall. Lee is older and wiser than the man who made "Do the Right Thing," and the result is arguably the most essential work of his 20-year career. Act I covers the storm's arrival; Act II chronicles the failure of the emergency response; Act III follows an abandoned community coming to grips with all that it lost, and Act IV addresses the halting, haphazard effort to begin again. But images and ideas echo through each act like a fugue. Lee's voice is rarely heard; he lets Terence Blanchard's thundering brass score, dizzy with grief, do the speaking for him. (Blanchard, who has now collaborated with Lee 13 times, is a New Orleans native. In one of the film's most wrenching scenes, Blanchard visits the wreckage of his boyhood home with his aging mother.) Most of Katrina's victims were black, but Lee hasn't made a racial polemic. Some viewers will be surprised to find that Lee views the tragedy as a national betrayal rooted in class, not skin color. To him, what the victimized share most is that they had very little to begin with and were left with nothing.
On the day that Katrina began pummeling New Orleans, Lee was at a film festival in Venice--Italy's own sinking jewel of a city--and he never left his hotel room. "I just sat there glued to the TV," he said back in May as he drove through New Orleans with a NEWSWEEK reporter, scouting voting sites to film during the city's upcoming mayoral election. "I just couldn't believe this was happening right now in America. It was one of those moments where you know someone will ask you years from now, 'Where were you when Katrina happened?' " Instantly, Lee knew he'd make a documentary about the catastrophe, so he called HBO, his partner on two previous docs: the Oscar-nominated "4 Little Girls," about the deadly 1963 African-American church bombing; and his 2002 biography, "Jim Brown: All American." HBO handed him $1 million for a two-hour film, which quickly ballooned to three, then four hours, doubling the budget. "We've never had a four-hour documentary," says Sheila Nevins, HBO's president of documentaries and family programming. "But we could tell early on that the story needed more time."
In late September, Lee made his first trip to New Orleans, and he was stunned by how little the televised images prepared him for what he saw on the ground. "It looked like what I assume Hiroshima looked like after World War II," he said as his car rolled past still-uncollected piles of trash and debris. "I didn't know what to expect when I got here, but I didn't expect what I saw, that's for sure." His first stop was the office of embattled New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, whose handling of Katrina ranged from inept to impassioned. "Nagin was in a tough spot," Lee says now. "A lot of people say, 'It's similar to New York and look how [the then Mayor Rudy] Giuliani handled 9/11'." But you can't compare the two at all. One event was man-made, the other wasn't." After a year of sifting through the complexities of what went wrong post-Katrina, Lee is careful in his film not to carve out a pie chart of accountability. He seems to share the view of the regular folks down in New Orleans: the failure was systemwide.
Still, the Bush administration takes plenty of lumps--especially Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose Manhattan shoe-shopping trip while New Orleans drowned is recalled in vivid detail. Lee says he spent months searching for the woman who approached Rice in a Ferragamo store and chastised her for her insensitivity. "I did my best to find her--talking about her in the media, hoping she'd see it or somebody would tell her," he says, "but I don't think she wanted to be found." (Lee has joked that she's probably in Guantánamo Bay.) In her place, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the social critic and author Michael Eric Dyson take turns chopping down Rice. "I knew that what I had to say about this administration would see the light of day with Spike," says Sharpton. "Many times the mainstream news will cut you off when you have something negative to say about the White House. This documentary will make up for all those times."
The film's most provocative sequence doesn't involve any specific finger-pointing. In Act II, Lee gives voice to the alarmingly popular notion in New Orleans that the levee system was intentionally dynamited--the idea being to preserve the city's wealthiest wards by flooding its most blighted. Several people who live near the levees claim in the film to have heard loud explosions in the midst of the storm; engineers insist that they were just hearing the levees give way naturally. Lee himself refuses to take sides. "I'm not saying it's true or not true," he says. "I'm saying that many people who lived through Katrina believe it, and that shouldn't be overlooked. And given the history of African-Americans in this country, from slavery to the Tuskegee Experiment, it's not that farfetched." (Especially considering that it has happened before--during the 1927 Great Flood of Mississippi.)
Onscreen, Lee gives the boldfaced names--the Kanyes and the Sharptons-- their fair share of face time. Right after the storm, Sean Penn raced to New Orleans, hired a boat and began hunting for survivors. He appears briefly in the film, looking askance at the camera, smoking a cigarette with studied nonchalance and proving forever that you can love the deed and still roll your eyes at the guy who did it. Other A-listers didn't wait for an invitation from Spike. On Election Day in May, while the director filmed Nagin campaigning on a busy street, the Rev. Jesse Jackson arrived out of nowhere in a black SUV. "He must've smelled the 16-millimeter film," one crew member joked under his breath, busting up the entire group, including Lee.
But generally speaking, Lee makes sure that "When the Levees Broke" belongs to the spirited, ordinary survivors of New Orleans, like Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, who deserved better than to be called "refugees" in their own country. For them, this documentary isn't over. LeBlanc draws laugh after laugh in the film, but in real life she still panics every time she feels a raindrop. When a storm hits, she runs down the street to a friend's trailer and locks the door until it passes. She'd like to take something for her nerves, but that would require getting in line at 3 a.m. to see a city-appointed mental-health specialist. For her, Lee's film was more than just a chance to tell the world her story. It was therapy. "To be honest, I'm not sure what I would have done if Spike hadn't come when he did," she says. "I had a nervous breakdown right after Katrina, and I was fighting every day not to have another one. But talking about it to someone who I know cared about me and the people who suffered through this--it saved my sanity in a way. And I'm sure I'm not the only one."