Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Gambit interview: Spike Lee

Posted by on Tue, Aug 17, 2010 at 10:38 PM

BY MATT DAVIS

Academy Award nominated director Spike Lee is in New Orleans for the premiere of his new HBO documentary, If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise, tonight at the Mahalia Jackson Theater. Gambit caught up with Lee over his second Arnold Palmer cocktail as he enjoyed some corn and crab soup in the French Quarter before the screening.

The following are excerpts from our interview, which will appear in the next issue of Gambit.

GAMBIT: How did it feel, asking Ray Nagin how he thinks he’ll be judged by history?

SPIKE LEE: Ray was kinda on edge, that interview, and it was really, we had Ray and we were supposed to interview Landrieu, and the only time Mitch could do it was right after Nagin, so were trying to keep them from seeing each other. We’d finished with Nagin, we were trying to get him to leave and he was staying in front! Someone must have told him that [Mitch] Landrieu was coming.

But for me that wasn’t the hardest question. The hardest question to ask him was to ask what he thinks about the most. And I think it was his best, when he talked about the eight hour window to call the mandatory evacuation, and he waited until the eighth hour, and I know…well, he didn’t talk about it, I didn’t ask him, I think that’s something that’s going to haunt him the rest of his life. It would haunt anybody. Because he knows, we all know that by waiting til the eighth hour, people are no longer here. That decision meant the difference between living and dying, and I give him, you know I respect, because he didn’t have to answer that, but he did.

When he got elected, he didn’t know the city was going to be 80% under water, there was no playbook, but I feel people’s problem with Nagin was really what he did in his second term, or what he didn’t do in the second term versus something that happens that he had nothing to do with.

...

Someone you’ve been critical of in the past was Larry Bird. Now Mitch is the first white mayor of New Orleans since his father, Moon Landrieu left office in 1978. Is Mitch Landrieu the Larry Bird of New Orleans mayors?

He can’t shoot like Larry. Or I’ve never seen him. I don’t know if he even plays basketball. But look, I like Mitch, I like his sister, but as he says in the film, he’s got a hard job. Right now New Orleans is on pace to have 203 murders this year, which by use of the population makes it the murder capital of the United States of America. Think about this: Greater New Orleans has 700,000, New York has eight million people. Eight million. They’re going to have more murders than New York City here, and New York City has eight million people! That’s, you’re talking about like, Iraq odds, I mean, crazy.

I know you interviewed [Tulane University homicide expert] Peter Scharf for the film.

Yes. He was very very informative. He’s the go-to guy for homicide. His figures he has are chilling, and it’s young black men killing young black men, and it’s not something that’s just owned by New Orleans. It happens everywhere.

click to enlarge spike

SPIKE LEE, PHOTOGRAPHED FOR GAMBIT BY CHERYL GERBER

Was it difficult for you to know how to respond to the BP catastrophe, because you’d been in town since February?

Our first day of shooting was the Super Bowl. But we were making trips back and forth. What was hard was we had stopped shooting, we were done. April 20 happened and we had to change everything. The problem with the BP thing was that the story was changing every day, it’s a very fluid story, still is, and it’s going to be for many years to come, so we had to keep pace, and we were shooting as late as two weeks ago.

It’s kind of dynamic, obviously quite stressful, when you have a film in the can, to re-open it, but then again?

We had to. That’s our job, as filmmakers. As documentary filmmakers. This is the biggest oil spill in the history of the world, and it’s not going to be in this?

Doug Brinkley was in the film, and he said something...I was interested to hear what your response to what he said was. He said that New Orleans has this "knee-jerk boosterism." It’s the result of schizophrenia in the city, between this confidence elsewhere and slight insecurity. What do you think of that, when he said that?

I think that schizophrenia he’s talking about is the highs and lows that people go through, which is part, it’s just the way we roll here, the highs and the lows, the good and the bad, the joy and the pain. And as I’m telling people, let’s start from the beginning. From the get go, New Orleans is below sea level, let’s just start there. And then it’s in hurricane alley. So forget about anything else that happens, you’ve got that. Then you add the eradication of the wetlands, the marshlands, shoddy work of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which many people still question how safe it is. So, you live down here -- it’s not boring.

For more from Spike Lee -- including his thoughts on Brad Pitt, the Make It Right Foundation, BP, Treme, and more -- pick up next week's Gambit.

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