NEW YORK (August 13, 2006) — Director Spike Lee interviewed more than 100 people for his upcoming HBO documentary about Hurricane Katrina. But the voice that will be remembered best, reports National Correspondent Allison Samuels, belongs to 42-year-old Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, a survivor from New Orleans? Lower Ninth Ward.
?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!? ?
Samuels reports on Lee?s upcoming documentary, ?When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,? in the August 21-28 issue of Newsweek (on newsstands Monday, August 14). On the day that Katrina hit New Orleans, Lee was at a film festival in Venice 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???
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.?
Lee visited the Gulf Coast region nine times and interviewed, among others, Nagin, the governor of Lousiana, 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.?
Lee says he spent months searching for the woman who approached Secretary of State Condoleezza 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 GuantÃ¡namo Bay.)
The film?s most provocative sequence doesn?t involve any specific finger-pointing, Samuels reports. 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.)
Lee?s worked with HBO before, his partner on two previous documentaries. 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.?