Several weeks after Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans, HBO documentary executives were stumped. How to respond on film to something so monumental?
"We were in a meeting one day and I said, 'I guess we'll have to let Katrina go,"' said Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary and Family. "Then, literally within the hour, Spike called. It was like, 'Eureka!"'
Spike Lee was quickly signed to chronicle the storm and its aftermath in New Orleans. The first half of Lee's heartbreaking film, "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," debuts Monday.
The four-hour documentary marks a career milestone for Lee. Twenty years ago this month, his first feature film, "She's Gotta Have It," hit theaters to instant praise from critics. Since then, he has released an average of one film every year, including this year's "Inside Man," his most profitable with $185 million in global sales.
Nearly all of Lee's films have strong African-American themes and characters. Though filmmakers have always dabbled in racial topics, Lee, who is black, has been unique. Steadfastly chipping away at the subject in ever more complex ways, he has helped make race and ethnicity central to American film.
"He's made a tremendous difference in the history of American cinema," said Jacqueline Stewart, a film professor at Northwestern University in Chicago who teaches a class on Lee's work. "Spike Lee's films get people to talk about what race means and how race continues to function in our society."
For years, Lee did that with an in-your-face approach -- characters that yelled racial slurs at the screen, on-screen brawls between whites and blacks. Lee himself was often in front of the camera, playing a string of incendiary sidekick characters. He also often wrote, produced and directed his films, enlisting family members to contribute music, writing and acting.
But in recent years, he has stepped back. He did not write or appear on-screen in "Inside Man," "She Hate Me" in 2004 or 2002's "25th Hour." Though he remains focused on black America, his approach has become quieter, less self-conscious.
"Levees" reflects that.
Using current and historical footage, music and more than 100 interviews, the film reminds viewers that although Katrina shattered the entire Gulf Coast, New Orleans and its mostly black residents got hit especially hard. Thousands fought to survive deadly floodwaters for days while federal help was slow in coming. Many are left today with a nearly ruined city and broken hearts.
Lee conducted each of the interviews, and viewers occasionally hear him asking questions, but he never steps in front of the camera. There is no narrator telling viewers that New Orleans was abandoned, or that this may have happened because most residents are black. There is no need.
"Let the people tell it, the witnesses," said Lee, 49, during an interview this week. "People are giving testimonial, sharing all the rage and anger. What they're doing is sharing their humanity with us."
Nevins said the film is "a surrender of the ego of the maker to the people."
Despite heavy media coverage of Katrina, the film pulls together the before, during and after of the storm in a way that manages to be agonizingly fresh.
One man tells of being forced to abandon his dead mother's body in the city's Superdome. He pinned a note with his phone number on her shroud. Some spew rage as they insist that the city's protective levees, which gave way and flooded most of the city, were bombed.
Cameras follow trumpeter Terence Blanchard, the longtime composer for Lee's films and a New Orleans native, as he and his mother visit the family home in the Gentilly Woods section of the city for the first time since the flood. "Oh Lord have mercy," weeps Wilhelmina Blanchard, nearly hysterical. "You can rebuild this stuff," Terence murmurs, clutching her shoulders. "That's easier said than done," she says. "I knew it was devastation but I didn't think it was this bad."
Blanchard reflects later that day: "When we went into the house, that was really hard because, you know, it's like I can't go home." He stops, choked up. An ominous drumbeat finishes his thoughts.
The film, Lee said, is ultimately a plea to renew the city, where most of those forced out have not yet returned, tons of debris remains and there is no comprehensive rebuilding plan. "We want this film to spur action," he said. "Things still aren't right. People are still suffering."
This is partly why HBO gave it four hours, making it the channel's longest documentary. Two-hour segments air Monday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. (EDT). HBO is owned by Time Warner, the parent company of CNN.
"You never could tell the whole story because the story's still being told, but you sure couldn't tell it in two hours," Nevins said. "I don't know any other filmmaker who could have been a better match. I just don't know anyone with that kind of talent."
It's a long way from 1986. Lee, four years out of New York University's film school, was selling T-shirts outside a midtown Manhattan theater urging people to see "She's Gotta Have It," about a black woman and her three boyfriends. He was living in a rented basement apartment in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, where he grew up and still has offices for his production studio, 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks.
Three years later came "Do the Right Thing." It weaves a sentimental gaze at brownstone Brooklyn with the explosive tensions among blacks, Italian-Americans and police on a scorching summer day. After the police kill a black man, a fiery riot erupts and the neighborhood is ripped apart. It firmly planted Lee on the culture map, winning him staunch critics and supporters.
Lee is "the epitome of the independent auteur of the '90s and the 21st century," said William J. Palmer, a film professor at Purdue University who has included Lee's films in his classes for 14 years.
Stewart, the Northwestern professor, said it's hard to imagine a film like last year's "Crash," which explored ethnic clashes in Los Angeles, being made without Lee's influence. It won the Oscar for best picture.
Lee himself says he's most proud that he helped the careers of some of the nation's most celebrated actors and filmmakers. Halle Berry's first film role was a crack addict in 1991's "Jungle Fever." Rosie Perez and Martin Lawrence were first seen on film in "Do the Right Thing." Filmmaker John Singleton -- who wrote and directed "Boyz n the Hood" in 1991 and directed "Four Brothers" last year -- was in high school when he sought out Lee and declared that he, too, would become a filmmaker.
Lee says he's considering a follow-up documentary to "Levees," perhaps focusing on how New Orleans' black middle class has been gutted, and what that may mean to the city.
For now, he's spending little time pondering his 20-year milestone. "What I'm trying to do is just get better," he said. "Become a better storyteller. That's what I do."