[H]e was talking about When the Levees Broke, his forthcoming documentary about Hurricane Katrina, and Condoleezza Rice. He was cracking up, giggling and cackling—in fact, caggling.
Mr. Lee recalled the story of a shopper who approached Ms. Rice at the pricey Ferragamo shoe store on Fifth Avenue during Katrina and reportedly shouted “How dare you shop for shoes while thousands are dying and homeless!” before Secret Service physically removed her.
Mr. Lee picked up The Observer’s tape recorder and held it close in front of his face. “To the lady that got in Ms. Rice’s face in the store before you got pulled off by Secret Service,” he said. “If you read this article, please contact The New York Observer because we’re trying to find you for the documentary we’re doing on Hurricane Katrina.” Caggle, caggle. “IF you are still alive, that is.
“Also, to the person that said ‘Go fuck yourself, Mr. Cheney.’ If you are still alive, we’d like to contact you too. If you are still on our planet”—caggle—“if you are still walking amongst us, if you get this down in Guantnamo with the other jailed peace activists and suspected Al Qaeda agents who have been jailed for five years and not charged with anything, please get a message to me! We want to know what prompted you to tell Mr. Cheney to go fuck himself! Thank you.” He paused to catch his breath. “Seriously, we’d like to find that woman.”
“African-Americans will have to really, really, really, really, really, REALLY analyze the Secretary of State’s record, and get past the pigmentation of her skin,” he said. “If we do that, I don’t think we can vote for her. I’m not the spokesperson for 45 million African Americans … but that’s my right as an American citizen.” He laughed. “Hopefully, that right hasn’t been rescinded yet. I’m not going to vote for that woman. No. Way.”
He was at the Venice Film Festival, glued to CNN, when Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans. He said he knew right away that it was a story he wanted to tell; the forthcoming HBO documentary is slated to premiere in late August.
“I don’t think the last eight years have been a good moment in our history, under this President and administration,” he said. “There are people down there six months later who are still in despair. They still don’t have a home. They’re still waiting for FEMA.” He paused. “That should be a play—Waiting for FEMA! Down there, FEMA is a dirty word.
“Before Katrina, New Orleans was 80 percent African-American,” he continued. “What’s it going to be like when the majority of its black citizens have spread out—given one-way tickets, I might add. Can you imagine? Those people got on those planes, when they were being evacuated and they weren’t told where they were going. So you get on a plane and fall asleep—and your black ass is waking up in motherfucking Anchorage, Alaska!”
Last October, he tussled with Tucker Carlson (“the guy in the bow tie”) on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher when Mr. Lee said he’d be including in his documentary the conspiracy theory that it was the U.S. government who bombed the levees.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “Even today, a large part of the African-American community of New Orleans thinks that those levees were bombed. Now, whether that is true or not, that should not be discounted.” He rattled off past government trespasses: 1927’s Great Flood of Mississippi, when the levees were, in fact, blown up; the flooding of the Ninth Ward during Hurricane Betsy in 1965; the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
“So, in the collective mind of African-Americans, it is not some science-fiction, hocus-pocus thing to say that the government is doing stuff,” he continued. “Even if it didn’t happen, you cannot discount it and dismiss it as Oh you people are crazy. It’s what people think—talk to Jewish people. Because of the Holocaust, you know, anything that happens, it’s like, ‘Oh! It’s starting again.’ And I’m not going to fault someone of Jewish ancestry that feels like that because that happened! This is history.
His voice grew louder. “No one is saying to Jewish people, ‘Oh, you’re crazy!’ So if you use the same analogy, then it’s not so farfetched. It is my duty as a filmmaker to let them give their opinions, and there are people who will swear on a stack of bibles that they heard an explosion down there.”
Would he be shocked if it turned out to be true? “No. No, I would not,” he said.