Never far from the center of a storm, self-described filmmaker “provocateur” Spike Lee is headed to New Orleans to make a documentary examining how race and politics collided in aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Lee says he will use “factual journalism, not creative narrative” in his look at Katrina and New Orleans, which has become a rallying point for black political activists and conspiracy theorists.
Amid criticism that the administration of President Bush was slow to respond, leaving thousands of black and low-income people stranded amid violence and lawlessness, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has suggested the levees in New Orleans were broken as a way of “getting rid of the poor.”
Activist Jesse Jackson compared the New Orleans convention center, where evacuees gathered, to “the hull of a slave ship.”
“I wouldn’t put anything past the U.S. government when it comes to people of color,” Lee said in an interview with Reuters. “There is too much history ... going back to when the U.S. army gave smallpox-infested blankets to Native Americans.”
Lee watched television coverage of Katrina while he was in Venice, Italy, for a film festival and found himself riveted to the television.
“I thought, ‘I have to find an angle and if I find it, I have to do something,”’ he said.
It’s Chinatown, JakeLee compared the New Orleans situation with the 1974 film “Chinatown,” which starts as a simple detective story set in 1933 Los Angeles but evolves into an intricate tale of high-level corruption and greed.
“People could not believe, especially the residents of the Ninth Ward, that there wasn’t hanky-panky in the flooding,” Lee said of the impoverished New Orleans neighborhood that was hit especially hard by the flood.
“And what I thought about automatically was ‘Chinatown,’ the great film by Roman Polanski. The whole subplot of the whole thing is about water in Southern California and how it was not delivered to the people who needed it.”
Lee’s documentary will be produced by Time Warner’s HBO cable channel and he plans to have it ready for the one-year anniversary of Katrina.
Making 18 films in more than two decades, Lee has been a heat-seeking missile aimed at hot issues like police brutality, racism, black nationalism and interracial sex.
Call him a ‘provocateur’In his new book, “That’s My Story and I’m Sticking Too It,” as told to British writer Kaleem Aftab, Lee describes the “blood, sweat and tears” needed to turn such topics into movies.
“I don’t like the term ‘controversial,’ he said. “I like ‘provocateur.”’
In his book, he wrote it is “never the filmmaker’s job to have all the answers” but to raise questions and promote dialogue.
Lee attributes his outspoken nature to being raised in the New York borough of Brooklyn, which he has used as the setting for films like “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Do the Right Thing.”
“I was raised that way, to speak my mind. Everybody in my household did, sometimes all at once,” he said.
Lee’s struggle to raise funds for films is a key part of his story. His company, 40 Acres and a Mule, has been a seminal influence on black film and helped make stars out of actors like Academy Award winners Denzel Washington and Halle Berry.
Yet never having a blockbuster hit, Lee has had to borrow money from family and friends. Commercial work also has been a big source of income.
‘Spike has a big mouth’It’s more than just money, though. His sometimes abrasive, relentless style has antagonized movie executives as he has slammed Hollywood for racial stereotyping and a lack of creativity and chided filmmakers for glamorizing black gangsters.
In making “Malcolm X,” Lee fought with Warner Bros. for more money and backing for the three-hour epic. In his book, he describes berating studio boss Terry Semels by saying: “Warner Bros. doesn’t view black people as important.”
Lee won’t censor himself. His wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, complained in the book: “I think he hurts himself often by saying what he thinks.”
Also in the book, actor Ed Norton, put it more bluntly: “Spike has a big mouth.”
Lee said he wanted to include such criticism in his book. ”I tried to make a book that was honest,” he said. “That’s the way I like to do things.”