You might have noticed that when I review multi-episode documentaries and streaming series for the Sun-Times, I often mention I’ve seen six of the total eight chapters, or the first eight of 10, etc. The various platforms providing these series for critics often withhold the final episode or two — sometimes because editing hasn’t been completed, sometimes because they want to be 100%, rock-solid certain the ending won’t somehow leak into the Twittersphere.
When I recently reviewed Spike Lee’s HBO documentary series “NYC Epicenter,” I had seen three of the four episodes, and I was mightily impressed by Lee’s sweeping, epic, journalistically sound and timely look at how his beloved home city reacted to 9/11 and its aftermath, not to mention the pandemic, the emergence of the polarizing Donald Trump from Big Apple super celebrity to the president of the United States, and the Black Lives Matter movement. It was six hours of brilliance — but I hadn’t seen the final episode when I wrote the review.
Last Monday, the New York Times reported Lee had devoted about a half-hour of that final chapter to wholly unsubstantiated and categorically false conspiracy theories about the terrorist attacks, and in particular to a group known as Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, including the organization’s founder, one Richard Gage, who has been peddling fictional garbage about 9/11 for years. (Gage is also a major proponent of COVID-19 hoaxes; as reported by Slate, he has said the pandemic is a “deep state…hoax” and a “false flag event” and the government has “locked us into our own homes and…poisoned us with vaccines that are going to kill us.”)
As a longtime admirer of Spike Lee the filmmaker and Spike Lee the human being, I was devastated to hear this. It’s one thing for Lee to have questions about certain circumstances surrounding the 9/11 attacks — though I would be more than happy to answer those questions, as I first did in my book “Debunked,” which included a full chapter dissecting and tearing apart many of the biggest lies perpetrated by conspiracy theorists who always ask us to prove a negative but never, never, EVER have provided significant evidence of their hurtful and delusional theories. It’s quite another thing for Lee to sully and sour what could have been a defining and lasting look at New York City over the last 20 years by ceding his platform to such garbage.
Here’s the good news. After the Times broke the story, there was widespread and deserved outrage, which led to Lee sending out a message saying, “I’m back in the editing room and looking at…the final chapter of NYC Epicenters. I respectfully ask you to hold your judgment until you see the final cut.”
Fair enough — and that’s exactly what I did. Courtesy of HBO, I was given access to the last episode of “NYC Epicenters,” the version that will be seen by the public on September 11, and I’m so pleased to report there’s not even a hint of a whisper about any conspiracy theories regarding 9/11. In fact, this final chapter is the crowning moment of the entire series, as Lee pays tribute to the fallen heroes, the firefighters, the rescue workers, the volunteers, the survivors, the loved ones and celebrity activists such as Jon Stewart, who has worked tirelessly to advocate for benefits for the families of 9/11 victims. It is a passionate, beautiful, respectful, deeply moving and resonant piece of work, with unforgettable images, e.g., footage of rescue workers saluting as the remains of a victim are carried to a waiting ambulance, while Lee’s longtime composer Terence Blanchard provides the perfect musical eulogy for the moment.
Logic and facts and reason and decency spoke up, and Spike Lee listened. The final cut of “NYC Epicenters” is a masterwork.