Spike Lee is not hiding his anger about New Orleans' devastation by levee breaks and the government's slow response to save lives. He hopes his documentary on the subject will bring attention back to the region, where it's needed, he said Wednesday.
"People are still in dire straits. We want to put the focus back here," Lee said at a news conference with historian Douglas Brinkley and HBO officials.
Titled "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," the film premieres Wednesday night at the New Orleans Arena. Organizers say they expect anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 people. The film will air in two two-hour segments on HBO Monday and Tuesday night. It also will be shown in its entirety Aug. 29, the one-year anniversary of Katrina's landfall.
Lee admits he's a bit uneasy about Wednesday's first public showing, but his anxiety is not for himself. It's for the thousands who experienced unfathomable loss.
A woman whose 5-year-old daughter drowned in the flood told Lee she planned to drive from Fort Worth, Texas, to see his film. So did the son of a woman who died in her wheelchair at the city's convention center. He told Lee he was driving from Alabama.
"I told them not to come," Lee said Tuesday night. "I'm really worried about them. This is not going to be easy."
Lee has received criticism by some who got an early look for not including more representation from Mississippi Gulf Coast residents and New Orleans' white population. Lee said Wednesday there is diversity in the film, but "because of the historical significance ... we chose to focus here. That was my vision. I wanted to concentrate on New Orleans."
In New Orleans, much of the city's poor black population did not evacuate ahead of the storm and had to be rescued later.
Though he didn't point fingers, Lee described what happened as "a criminal act."
"The devastation here was not brought on solely by Mother Nature. People in charge were not doing their job."
Lee said he included in the documentary theories of an intentional bombing of the levees, but he stopped short of saying he believed them.
"I don't know if it happened," he said. "All I know is, I talked to the people who were there, and they said they heard what sounded like an explosion, something blew up."
Lee said the project was originally going to be about two hours in length. Even at four hours, he said, "It's incomplete. You can't tell a story like this in four hours."
Lee said he is seriously considering another Katrina documentary that picks up where this one left off.
Though graphic, Lee said this documentary successfully captures the spirit of New Orleans through individuals sharing their stories. It contains actual footage supplemented by interviews, though at least one scene, a jazz funeral procession, was staged, Lee said. He interviewed more than 100 people, including Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Mayor Ray Nagin and a host of musicians and residents.
Among them was Gralen B. Banks, who was working security detail at the Hyatt Regency when Katrina hit. Banks was laid off in June and is living in a federally issued trailer while renovating his New Orleans home.
Despite the hardships of the last year, Banks, who planned to attend the Wednesday-night premiere with family and friends, said he intends to stay in New Orleans.
"I just don't fit nowhere else," he said. "I just don't."