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23 August, 2021 - 12:15pm
The filmmaker’s epic new documentary series, “NYC Epicenters 9/11-2021½,” is an alternately mournful and irreverent tribute to New York.
Spike Lee, like the city he’s from, exudes a kind of brash resilience. His resting facial expression says “Try me.” In New York, it can feel as if trials await around every corner. Hardship here is a kind of birthright, whether of the quotidian variety (the gantlet of garbage smells in the summertime) or the catastrophic (the Sept. 11 attacks, the first spring of the Covid-19 pandemic).
In his new eight-hour documentary series “New York Epicenters: 9/11-2021½” — the first of its four installments premiered Sunday on HBO — Lee memorializes the indefatigable spirit of New York. Dozens of New Yorkers, appearing ringed by a faint blue glow in front of a dark backdrop, testify in interviews that chronicle each phase of the two disasters. The first two installments focus on the pandemic; the latter two hark back to the World Trade Center attacks.
Many of the faces are well known — Senator Chuck Schumer, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rosie Perez — but the bulk of story is told from the perspectives of those who were seen the least and saw the most: health care workers, firefighters, activists and survivors. They form a kind of chorus, with Lee, as the conductor, slowing things down or speeding them up as individual memories harmonize and diverge.
Recently, I spoke to Lee by video call about making the series, about his own sense of grief and about why he still questions what caused the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Well, something that gets overlooked is that I’m a documentary filmmaker, too. But for me, it’s still narrative. I don’t really put in the segmentation, as two different categories. And I’m a New Yorker — it just made sense with the … I don’t like to use the word anniversary, but with 20 years coming up since 9/11, and with people often saying of New York during Covid, “This is the epicenter,” it was natural.
Well, I think that we’re honoring the people who lost their lives, people who lost lives with 9/11 related illnesses. And also the more than 600,000 Americans who are no longer here because of Covid. More Americans have died of Covid-19 than Americans have died in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq and ironically, Afghanistan. Combined.
Well, we have great researchers — Judy Aley led a phenomenal crew. And I have people I know, and people I read about in The New York Times. We just wanted to be as well-rounded as possible, a kaleidoscope of witnesses. That’s what I call them: They’re witnesses. The only people who said no was NYPD. They don’t look good in this. And that footage [of police officers assaulting Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020] does not lie. They were cracking heads.
They saw “Do the Right Thing.”
The most moving thing to me, not including archival footage, are the interviews with the people who lost loved ones. Those are hard interviews to do because they know why they’re there. And they know I got to ask tough questions. People just bare their souls. It was very, very emotional. For me, I can’t comprehend what they’re going through. But to see — it’s hard to ask questions where you know people are going to break down. That’s not easy; it’s not fun. But I got to ask those questions.
I try not to cut them off. I’m not successful all the time, but it’s part of my job. We want people to be informed. And this is very important, Reggie: I think that they trust me. The people … not the NYPD, but these people trust that it’s not going to be exploitative; it’s going to be the best possible look. And I do not want to betray their trust.
We hear 600,000 with Covid, or you hear 3,000 plus with 9/11 — those are just numbers; cold. But those numbers are human beings. People who are loved by their spouses, children, friends, relatives. Who are those people? Who are those Afghans who were on the landing gear of the plane and fell? You’ve got to bring the human element, you know? It just can’t be a number.
The other thing that it shows you, in kind of a cruel way, is that life goes on. If you saw “Crooklyn,” I lost my mother when I was a sophomore in college. She never got to see any of my stuff. And she’s with me all the time, but, you know, life goes on. I think that interviews with these individuals who’ve lost loved ones, I feel they understand that, too. You can’t replace the love of a loved one, and you’re going to miss them forever, but life goes on. I think that’s something very important that’s in this film.
Oh, yeah. My mother, my grandparents. Oh, yeah. It gives you understanding. Everybody’s different. But losing loved ones is losing loved ones. So I can speak, I think, knowing what that loss is, even today.
It’s compassion. Do you remember LaChanze, the actress?
I was crying for her. That broke me down. Not to negate anybody else’s loss, but when she broke down, I broke down. But that’s my job. And there’s humor in a lot of the film, too. It wasn’t planned like that, but there were moments where humor just came out.
It wasn’t conscious. It’s just who I am. Even “Do the Right Thing,” a very serious film, there’s humor in that. That’s something that’s just part of my makeup. I think I’m successful with my documentaries because I don’t want people to feel that they’re being interviewed — we’re just having a conversation. The cameras happen to be here, but we’re just chopping it up, you know?
The difference is this: I’ve only visited New Orleans. I did not grow up there. New York is home. It’s in my DNA in a way that New Orleans is not.
I didn’t know about the maritime exodus [after the World Trade Center attacks]. Over half a million New Yorkers got off the island [by boat] — more than Dunkirk.
Because I still don’t … I mean, I got questions. And I hope that maybe the legacy of this documentary is that Congress holds a hearing, a congressional hearing about 9/11.
The amount of heat that it takes to make steel melt, that temperature’s not reached. And then the juxtaposition of the way Building 7 fell to the ground — when you put it next to other building collapses that were demolitions, it’s like you’re looking at the same thing. But people going to make up their own mind. My approach is put the information in the movie and let people decide for themselves. I respect the intelligence of the audience.
People are going to think what they think, regardless. I’m not dancing around your question. People are going to think what they think. People have called me a racist for “Do the Right Thing.” People said in “Mo’ Better Blues” I was antisemitic. “She’s Gotta Have It,” that was misogynist. People are going to just think what they think. And you know what? I’m still here, going on four decades of filmmaking.
23 August, 2021 - 11:29am
Colman Domingo speaks with FOX 32's Jake Hamilton about his new film 'Candyman' and monsters that intrigued him from his past.
CHICAGO - If you’re not brave enough to say his name five times into a mirror, you can still see Candyman, if you head to the theaters this weekend.
A new sequel to the 1992 classic horror film sees the return of the legendary slasher monster to the city of Chicago – and in addition to scares and gore, it also tackles some big Chicago themes, specifically focused around the Cabrini-Green Homes.
FOX 32 Entertainment reporter Jake Hamilton spoke with "Candyman" star Colman Domingo about how Chicago plays such an important part of the monster’s legend.
"That’s why we revisit Chicago," Domingo said. "There’s so much story there. Whether or not you’re watching the neighborhood being gentrified or you’re watching people being displaced, we do an examination of: ‘Who’s city is this?"
Domingo added "It’s unpacking many things, on many levels."
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22 August, 2021 - 11:00am
The former quality pertains to how often rural noirs position outsiders as the protagonists rather than people who’ve lived in these rural areas all their lives. A film like Wind River, for example, is about outsiders (portrayed by Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen) entering an Indian Reservation to explore a murder. Writer/director Taylor Sheridan imbues humanistic touches to the inhabitants of this location. However, the inherent point-of-view of this rural thriller can’t help but create a barrier between the audience and those who live here. The natural inhabitants don’t get to headline a story focused on their anguish.
A similar tendency to tell these rural thrillers through the eyes of outsiders permeates this genre heavily, such as the film Texas Killing Fields making one of its lead characters a New York detective played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. An attempt to provide a point-of-view surrogate for moviegoers who live outside rural territories can’t help but lend a voyeuristic quality to depictions of issues specific to rural communities. These problems need to be addressed, but are these the best eyes to examine them through?
Little Woods, meanwhile, centers on people who live right in the middle of the rural community at the heart of this story, which sees two sisters turning to crime after they're given a week to pay the mortgage on their late mother's home. Ollie and Deb Hale (Tessa Thompson and Lily James) are not out-of-towners going through the character arc of learning people in North Dakota are human beings. They’ve existed in this area their whole lives and have developed fully dimensional existences that go far beyond any classic Hollywood stereotypes. Eschewing the trend of telling these stories through outsider’s eyes doesn’t just thoughtfully subvert genre norms, it’s also helpful to the basic tenets of DaCosta’s storytelling.
The subversive perspectives put center frame in Little Woods extends to the very presence of Ollie as a protagonist in the piece. Films of any genre set in rural parts of America do not have a strong track record of recognizing the existence of people of color in these areas. Titles like Lawless don’t even feature prominent people of color in their casts. This problem of erasing the very existence of people of color in these storylines is so common that only a handful of modern rural noirs, such as Out of the Furnace, make room for multiple characters of color.
Little Woods is the most notable exception to this trend, with this deviation extending to qualities off-screen. After all, this film is the rare rural thriller written and directed by a woman of color. Meanwhile, the film’s protagonist, Ollie, is a Black woman who also gets to be the centerpiece of the story. Her white sister, though a prominent part of the story, is the supporting figure in Little Woods, a reversal of the typical racial norms in rural noirs. Someone relegated to the background of other rural thrillers is now brought to the forefront, with DaCosta even presenting this prominence in a naturalistic fashion. It’s not even something Little Woods overtly lingers on. The presence of a Black woman having a life in a rural area is depicted in a naturalistic fashion.
Meanwhile, plot details that are depicted as “important” to the central characters of Little Woods are a further departure from standards in this genre, especially Deb’s desire to get an abortion. American cinema in general, let alone the specific subgenre of rural noirs, doesn’t often go near the topic of abortion. Here, like the presence of a Black woman in a lead role, Little Woods treats this detail of its screenplay with naturalness. Deb knows what she wants here, her decision to get an abortion isn’t used to create strained conflict within herself or with Ollie.
Following in the footsteps of other subversive entries in this genre like Winter’s Bone or Frozen River, Little Woods upends the concepts of what is considered “important” in this domain to help reinforce the diversity in real-world rural communities. Individuals like Ollie or Deb are not just confined to the silver screen, they exist in North Dakota and all other rural communities across America. Now, their plights, struggles, and even moments of tender unity can finally be seen on-screen.
In being cognizant of these qualities, Little Woods separates itself sharply from even other unorthodox entries in the rural noir. By going down this route, DaCosta forces viewers to confront heady challenges often kept off-screen, like the struggles women have in accessing healthcare. Oh, and she’s also able to deliver a compelling noir that would make Nicholas Ray or Samuel Fuller proud. Like those great noir directors, DaCosta realizes a film can both be in touch with the real world and keep you on the edge of your seat.
Long before she was drumming up scares in Candyman or even orchestrating the larger-than-life superheroism in The Marvels, DaCosta was effortlessly tapping into reality to rewrite the rules of rural noirs with Little Woods.