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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

A conversation with Spike Lee

By Veronique Bergeron

The Mac Weekly: I was wondering if you might speak about the concepts of “politically correct” and “politically incorrect” and how popular culture has come to use these terms to validate insensitive behavior?
Spike Lee: A lot of times people are going to hide behind the [first] amendment and their rights as Americans, but you don’t have the right to humiliate other people. I know if I was a student here I’d be very upset [about a recent party themed “politically incorrect”]. What you have to be able to understand is that things like this happen. This is not the only college campus where instances like this have happened. There have been cross-burnings, you know, stuff happens. There’s some type of misguided thinking that campuses of universities and colleges are some utopian place, where the evils of the world don’t come upon these treasured halls of learning. But people lived in the world before they came here, and they’re bringing their prejudice, racism, attitudes from the world. The best college is where everyone is not from the same place and there can be an exchange of ideals, thoughts, stuff like that. I think [President Brian Rosenberg] has a great opportunity to turn this negative into a positive and address this whole issue as a whole. Maybe this is something people might not have been thinking about. A lot of the time racism, prejudice is like the big elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about, it’s lying under the surface but now it’s come out, so people can just come out and deal with it. I think this should be a call for the president, saying let’s get this out in the open. Let’s start dialogue within the community here on campus and talk about these things.

TMW: Your documentary also approaches the idea of politically correct/incorrect, but in a very different manner. Mayor Ray Nagin’s demands after the hurricane were called “politically incorrect” at the time, but many of the people interviewed in the film acknowledge that his actions got the ball rolling in getting aid into the city. In what context and in what ways can politically incorrect behavior also be productive?
SL: If you’re drowning, and you’re calling out for help, I don’t think it has anything to do with being politically incorrect. It took five days for the federal government to show up. People were dying, people were drowning. So, that was someone who was crying out for help. I don’t think it has anything to do with being politically correct. The president of the United States wasn’t doing anything.
TMW: Why do you think the media portrayed his comments as politically incorrect?
SL: People said he might be a hothead, but it was never a matter of being politically incorrect. Most of the people I’ve talked to and the stuff I’ve read, people understood why he was irate. Because everybody was watching television and seeing what was happening and even Average Joe American could see that it was the fifth day and the United States government still hadn’t shown up. And whether you like Ray [Nagin] or not, people understood why he was irate.
TMW: Much of the documentary seems to revolve around the media coverage surrounding Katrina. Was this intentional?
SL: Anything I do is intentional. Media had a great impact in Katrina, and media has a great impact on the world, period. Through the media, Bush, Powell, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice told the world that the reason we had to go in Iraq was because they had weapons of mass destruction. That message went out through the media. There were no weapons of mass destruction.
TMW: What do you think of the media coverage surrounding Katrina?
SL: There are so many things that happened. What I’m concerned about now is that the media is getting tired of this story, which a lot of Americans are also, so it’s not becoming a focus anymore. I was in New Orleans last week and not just New Orleans, not just Louisiana, it’s Mississippi and parts of Alabama too.­­ People are still hurting, and many people feel that the United States government and also the government at the state and local level have turned their back on them. They’ve left them out there high and dry.

TMW: At one point, one of your interview subjects describes the attitude of FEMA and the federal government as “If we look the other way, it will go away.” Was your aim with this documentary to combat that attitude?
SL: Here’s what we wanted to do with this documentary. We wanted to have the people who went through this tell the world about what happened. We wanted to give them a platform, give them a vehicle so they could explain to the world what they were going through. These are people who witnessed this. That was the plan. That was the goal.

TMW: Have you noticed a change since the release of the documentary?SL: A lot more people are aware of what’s happening now, but people are still messed up down there and they feel that they’ve been abandoned by their government.
TMW: What can college students do to help?SL: Many college students have gone down to New Orleans during their spring breaks and during summer to help clean up, build houses. The young American college student has done work that’s been great. Not just about talking about it, but they’ve gone down to New Orleans and they’ve helped. Thousands have helped.

TMW: What did you want to convey with the final scene of the documentary with the Katrina funeral procession?SL: Just being in New Orleans and knowing their traditions there, one of the greatest traditions they have is the jazz funeral. So we wanted to bury Katrina. And so we staged this mock funeral for Katrina. I think the movie ends on a hopeful note, but at the same time, we’re not crazy. Everyone who’s down there knows it’s going to take ten years to turn this thing around, if it does turn around. It’s not going to be overnight.
TMW: Phyllis Montana Leblanc, one of the Katrina survivors in “When The Levees Broke,” recently told Newsweek that she found her interviews with you very therapeutic. Did you similarly find the process of making this film cathartic?
SL: It’s not a catharsis for me. I had the easy job, I just asked questions. I’m not on the other side of the camera crying, like a lot of people [in the film]. I just like making documentaries, and I consider myself a filmmaker and that means I do it all, well, I would say, and I love it all.

TMW: Has this project changed you as a filmmaker?
SL: I think it’s evident that I’m getting better as a filmmaker. This thing is four hours, with the DVD it’s six hours. It’s a massive undertaking. And even in six hours, it’s not done. We want to continue with this.
TMW: What was the biggest surprise for you in making this film and conducting interviews?SL: One of the most surprising things to me was that when I envisioned it I never thought there’d be so much humor. Some of it is gallows humor, but a lot of it is funny. For me that’s just an indication that we were able to capture the spirit and the character of the people.

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