The prolific and brilliant Spike Lee has always represented his home of New York City with the greatest of pride but also an unblinking social conscience, wearing his love for NYC on his Yankees baseball cap and his Knicks jerseys, and of course most importantly through such lasting feature films as “Do the Right Thing,” “Crooklyn,” “25th Hour, “She’s Gotta Have It,” and “Inside Man.”
Lee also has focused on other elements of life in America by directing such invaluable documentaries as “4 Little Girls,” “David Byrne’s American Utopia” and “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” — so given his passion for New York and his non-fiction storytelling gifts, who better than Lee to direct an epic, four-part, nearly eight-hour HBO documentary series about the complex and rich and tragic and beautiful and heartbreaking and inspiring world of New York City in the 21st century?
In the comprehensive and illuminating “NYC Epicenters 9/11 ? 2021 1/2 ,” Lee conducts 200 interviews with New Yorkers from all walks, from health care workers to journalists to firefighters to actors to politicians, while often offering his own, typically strong and vocal opinions about everything from 9/11 to the Black Lives Matter movement to Donald Trump to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. (I’ve seen three of the four episodes.) And while the series is New York City to its very core and only occasionally visits stories in other parts of America, the people we meet and the stories they tell and the hardships they endure and the battles they fight are relatable to the rest of the country and most of the world.
Episode 1 is largely about the outbreak of the pandemic, as politicians, front line health care workers, patients and journalists recall the early days of uncertainty followed by the months and months of tragedy. Every time new interview subjects are introduced, they introduce themselves on camera, e.g. “My name is Chuck Scarborough, I’m a news anchor at NBC-4 New York and I’ve been working there since 1976,” “My name is Sylvie De Souza, I’m the Chair of Emergency Medicine at the Brooklyn Hospital Center,” “I’m Bill de Blasio, 109th mayor of the City of New York,” etc. Virtually every interview provides a new and unique perspective. Lee serves as off-camera interviewer, allowing the subjects and the stories they tell to be front and center. (Not that he doesn’t inject his unique phrasing and his unfiltered opinions; when Donald Trump is onscreen, the graphic refers to him as “President Agent Orange.” In a later episode, Barack Obama is identified as “President Barack ‘Brudda Man’ Obama.”)
During “Epicenters,” Spike Lee identifies Donald Trump as “President Agent Orange.”HBO
“Epicenters” eventually expands into lengthy treatments of the Black Lives Matter movement; the marches and rallies and conflicts across the USA in the summer of 2020; the dangerous spread of misinformation about COVID and the vaccines, and the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol of Jan. 6. Never one to opt for the more subtle notes, Lee at one point plays a live version of Bruce Hornsby singing the social protest anthem “The Way It Is,” while we see still photos and mug shots of insurrectionists.
The third installment is all about 9/11. Lee starts with a clip of from “On the Town” (1949), with Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin as sailors trying to experience all that New York has to offer in 24 hours. We then segue to footage of the building of the World Trade Center in the 1970s, accompanied by “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Brooklyn native Aaron Copland. Soon thereafter, we’re plunged into the waking nightmare that was 9/11, with witness after witness saying at first the whole thing felt like it was something out of a movie.
We’ve seen much of this footage and heard many of these stories before, but it’s still a devastating reminder of one of the most horrific days in American history. There is an extended passage about one aspect of the rescue efforts that was relatively overlooked: the maritime evacuation of more than a half-million people from Lower Manhattan by a convoy of Coast Guard vessels, NYPD Harbor Unit boats and ships, fireboats, merchant ships, tugboats and civilian ferries.
Through it all, Spike Lee’s lifelong love affair with New York City and its people is fierce and unwavering.