Spike Lee, Exultant at the ‘Epicenter’

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The filmmaker’s epic new documentary series, “NYC Epicenters 9/11-2021½,” is an alternately mournful and irreverent tribute to New York.

Spike Lee, Exultant at the ‘Epicenter’
Spike Lee interviewed more than 200 people for a new docuseries that pays tribute to lives lost during Sept. 11 and the pandemic. “It’s hard to ask questions where you know people are going to break down,” he said.Credit...Satchel Lee/Courtesy HBO
Spike Lee, Exultant at the ‘Epicenter’

Spike Lee, like the city he’s from, exudes a kind of brash resilience. His resting facial expression says “Try me.” In New York, it can feel as if trials await around every corner. Hardship here is a kind of birthright, whether of the quotidian variety (the gantlet of garbage smells in the summertime) or the catastrophic (the Sept. 11 attacks, the first spring of the Covid-19 pandemic).

In his new eight-hour documentary series “New York Epicenters: 9/11-2021½” — the first of its four installments premiered Sunday on HBO — Lee memorializes the indefatigable spirit of New York. Dozens of New Yorkers, appearing ringed by a faint blue glow in front of a dark backdrop, testify in interviews that chronicle each phase of the two disasters. The first two installments focus on the pandemic; the latter two hark back to the World Trade Center attacks.

Many of the faces are well known — Senator Chuck Schumer, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rosie Perez — but the bulk of story is told from the perspectives of those who were seen the least and saw the most: health care workers, firefighters, activists and survivors. They form a kind of chorus, with Lee, as the conductor, slowing things down or speeding them up as individual memories harmonize and diverge.

“Everybody’s different,” Lee said. “But losing loved ones is losing loved ones.”Credit...Andre D. Wagner for The New York Times

Recently, I spoke to Lee by video call about making the series, about his own sense of grief and about why he still questions what caused the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What was the initial germ of the idea for this series? Why did you want to make a documentary tying together New York’s experience of the pandemic and 9/11?

Well, something that gets overlooked is that I’m a documentary filmmaker, too. But for me, it’s still narrative. I don’t really put in the segmentation, as two different categories. And I’m a New Yorker — it just made sense with the … I don’t like to use the word anniversary, but with 20 years coming up since 9/11, and with people often saying of New York during Covid, “This is the epicenter,” it was natural.

What did you see as the connection between the two events?

Well, I think that we’re honoring the people who lost their lives, people who lost lives with 9/11 related illnesses. And also the more than 600,000 Americans who are no longer here because of Covid. More Americans have died of Covid-19 than Americans have died in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq and ironically, Afghanistan. Combined.

You’ve said you interviewed over 200 people for the series — political leaders and actors, along with health care workers and activists. Who were you looking for?

Well, we have great researchers — Judy Aley led a phenomenal crew. And I have people I know, and people I read about in The New York Times. We just wanted to be as well-rounded as possible, a kaleidoscope of witnesses. That’s what I call them: They’re witnesses. The only people who said no was NYPD. They don’t look good in this. And that footage [of police officers assaulting Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020] does not lie. They were cracking heads.

They didn’t want to talk to you? They couldn’t defend themselves?

They saw “Do the Right Thing.”

Which of the subjects moved you the most?

The most moving thing to me, not including archival footage, are the interviews with the people who lost loved ones. Those are hard interviews to do because they know why they’re there. And they know I got to ask tough questions. People just bare their souls. It was very, very emotional. For me, I can’t comprehend what they’re going through. But to see — it’s hard to ask questions where you know people are going to break down. That’s not easy; it’s not fun. But I got to ask those questions.

The series includes footage from last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, including this march in Brooklyn. The NYPD declined to be interviewed, Lee said. “They don’t look good in this.” Credit...HBO

I was struck by how you show up in many of those moments. We hear you chime in with a word of support or encouragement. What goes through your head when you’re sitting across from someone baring their soul like that?

I try not to cut them off. I’m not successful all the time, but it’s part of my job. We want people to be informed. And this is very important, Reggie: I think that they trust me. The people … not the NYPD, but these people trust that it’s not going to be exploitative; it’s going to be the best possible look. And I do not want to betray their trust.

We hear 600,000 with Covid, or you hear 3,000 plus with 9/11 — those are just numbers; cold. But those numbers are human beings. People who are loved by their spouses, children, friends, relatives. Who are those people? Who are those Afghans who were on the landing gear of the plane and fell? You’ve got to bring the human element, you know? It just can’t be a number.

The other thing that it shows you, in kind of a cruel way, is that life goes on. If you saw “Crooklyn,” I lost my mother when I was a sophomore in college. She never got to see any of my stuff. And she’s with me all the time, but, you know, life goes on. I think that interviews with these individuals who’ve lost loved ones, I feel they understand that, too. You can’t replace the love of a loved one, and you’re going to miss them forever, but life goes on. I think that’s something very important that’s in this film.

Do you think your own experience grieving your mother helped you to bond with your subjects?

Oh, yeah. My mother, my grandparents. Oh, yeah. It gives you understanding. Everybody’s different. But losing loved ones is losing loved ones. So I can speak, I think, knowing what that loss is, even today.

Was it ever too much? How do you handle grappling with 20 years worth of grief?

It’s compassion. Do you remember LaChanze, the actress?

Yes, her husband, Calvin Gooding, died on Sept. 11 while she was pregnant.

I was crying for her. That broke me down. Not to negate anybody else’s loss, but when she broke down, I broke down. But that’s my job. And there’s humor in a lot of the film, too. It wasn’t planned like that, but there were moments where humor just came out.

There’s a lot of lighthearted boostering for your favorites: the Yankees, the Knicks, Morehouse, N.Y.U.

It wasn’t conscious. It’s just who I am. Even “Do the Right Thing,” a very serious film, there’s humor in that. That’s something that’s just part of my makeup. I think I’m successful with my documentaries because I don’t want people to feel that they’re being interviewed — we’re just having a conversation. The cameras happen to be here, but we’re just chopping it up, you know?

Right. Even with the edit, there’s a playful irreverence at times. You insert snippets of “A Few Good Men” and the music video for Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me.” That style is different from what you did with “When the Levees Broke,” about Hurricane Katrina, which is much more sober. Has your approach evolved since then?

The difference is this: I’ve only visited New Orleans. I did not grow up there. New York is home. It’s in my DNA in a way that New Orleans is not.

What’s something you learned about from your research that you didn’t know before?

I didn’t know about the maritime exodus [after the World Trade Center attacks]. Over half a million New Yorkers got off the island [by boat] — more than Dunkirk.

The last episode of the series devotes a lot of time to questioning how and why the towers fell. You interview several members of the conspiracy group Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth. Why did you want to include their perspective?

Because I still don’t … I mean, I got questions. And I hope that maybe the legacy of this documentary is that Congress holds a hearing, a congressional hearing about 9/11.

You don’t buy the official explanations?

The amount of heat that it takes to make steel melt, that temperature’s not reached. And then the juxtaposition of the way Building 7 fell to the ground — when you put it next to other building collapses that were demolitions, it’s like you’re looking at the same thing. But people going to make up their own mind. My approach is put the information in the movie and let people decide for themselves. I respect the intelligence of the audience.

Right, but you don’t say “make up your own mind” about whether or not the vaccine is poison, or “make up your own mind” about whether Joe Biden was legitimately elected.

People are going to think what they think, regardless. I’m not dancing around your question. People are going to think what they think. People have called me a racist for “Do the Right Thing.” People said in “Mo’ Better Blues” I was antisemitic. “She’s Gotta Have It,” that was misogynist. People are going to just think what they think. And you know what? I’m still here, going on four decades of filmmaking.