Spike Lee's Katrina 'Requiem' Mixes Anger, Sorrow

Aug. 18, 2006 — -- Spike Lee wants the world to see what happened to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina -- but not his children, not yet anyway.

The 40-year-old director was in Venice a year ago when the hurricane devastated the Gulf Coast. As he watched the tragedy unfold on TV, he called home to New York and agreed with his wife that the devastation was just too much for his 8- and 10-year-old children to watch.

A year later, Lee still believes his kids are too young for the heart-rending details, and so they won't be watching "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts." The documentary airs on HBO Monday and Tuesday nights, and will be repeated Aug. 29 to mark the one-year anniversary of Katrina's landfall.

At a special screening in New Orleans earlier this week, the normally brash Lee was uncharacteristically skittish about showing the film to survivors. A woman whose 5-year-old daughter drowned in the flood told him that she was driving in from Fort Worth, Texas. A man whose son died in a wheelchair at the city's convention center said he was coming from Alabama.

"I told them not to come," said Lee. "This is not going to be easy."

It was quite an uncharacteristic move for a director who has always relished using his art to provoke. He confronted simmering race relations head-on in 1989's "Do the Right Thing," and it's a theme that's pervaded many of his films.

But in many ways, "Requiem" is at least as hard-hitting as any of his other work, taking a hard look at why much of the city's poor and black population did not evacuate ahead of the storm, and why rescue efforts seemed to take so long.

"The devastation here was not brought on solely by Mother Nature," Lee said. "People in charge were not doing their job."

Lee: 'Questions Need to Be Asked'

Lee has called the slow response to Katrina "a criminal act," although he's not directly singling out local, state or federal officials. Over the past year, he's interviewed dozens of victims, rescue workers and officials, including Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

"Was it a conspiracy it took five days for the United States government to get here? Was it a conspiracy it took President Bush 12 days to get here?" Lee asks. "These questions need to be asked."

In the documentary, Lee even considers the charge made by a few in New Orleans that the levees were deliberately blown up. While he's suggested that he doesn't give that conspiracy theory too much credence, it clearly reflects something about the attitudes of people caught in the event.

"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's career seems on an upswing. His latest film, the Denzel Washington cop thriller "Inside Man," was his biggest box office success since 1992's "Malcolm X," grossing $89 million domestically. It was an impressive turnabout after several disappointing efforts.

But as Lee turns to the television premiere of "Requiem," he's unsure, even now, how New Orleans will bounce back.

"It could go either way, in my opinion, down here," he said. "People are still in dire straits."

ABC News Radio contributed to this report.