Spike Lee is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the world. Still, some of his best work, his profound and solemn humanist documentaries, are relatively unsung next to his more flashy narrative works, comparatively at least. Docs like “4 Little Girls,” and HBO’s Katrina docs “When the Levees Broke,” and “If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise,” have been lauded the world over (“4 Little Girls” was nominated for an Oscar and the HBO docs are Emmy and Peabody award winners) but never quite get their due in the same manner and they really should.
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Maybe that will change with a new surprise doc series, “‘NYC Epicenters 9/11➔2021½,” which debuts on HBO on August 22. This is either a total surprise or a doc series that went under the radar, as far as we can tell.
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Lots of details below, but the TLDR part, if you’re that kind of person, the doc deals with Lee’s beloved New York dealing Covid-19 last summer, the Black Lives Matter protests, also of summer 2020, and of course, the aftermath and effects of 9/11. This is Spike taking another massive deep dive into the soul of a city, and he conducted 200 interviews for it.
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Some of the participants in the doc include Jon Stewart, Rosie Perez, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro; politicians Chuck Schumer, Bill De Blasio, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ron Kim, Mondaire Jones, Stacey Plaskett, Ritchie Torres, Muriel Bowser; medical professionals Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Ian Lipkin, Dr. Fritz Francois; NYFD members; machine operators from Ground Zero; engineers and architects; news anchors and reporters.
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Here’s the official synopsis with lots of dense details worth reading:
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“NYC Epicenters 9/11➔2021½” is a four-part documentary essay produced and directed by acclaimed director Spike Lee (HBO’s “4 Little Girls”, “When the Levees Broke”), is a rich tapestry of New York City in the 21st century, weaving together the stories, memories and insights of those who were eyewitnesses to New York’s greatest challenges. NYC EPICENTERS 9/11➔2021½ debuts Sunday, August 22 (8:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT), with the following two episodes airing subsequent Sundays leading up to the finale on September 11 at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. The series will debut on HBO and be available to stream on HBO Max.
Lee conducted over 200 interviews for the documentary series, which features first-hand accounts from residents of all walks of life, including first responders, politicians and journalists alongside Lee and his own family and friends, complemented by a treasure trove of visual imagery. The quintessential New York filmmaker uses his unique sensibilities to craft a multi-faceted mosaic of the city as it deals with some of the most life-changing events of the last twenty years. Beginning with the ongoing global pandemic and the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, Lee traverses through time to the devastating terrorist attacks of 9/11. This provocative series is an epic chronicle of life, loss and survival in what Lee calls “the greatest city on this God’s earth.” “NYC Epicenters 9/11➔2021½” captures the flavor and heart of New York City, exploring its resilience and grit and affirming its innate ability to rebound, rebuild and endure.
In “NYC Epicenters 9/11➔2021½”, Spike Lee pays tribute to the city that shaped him and inspired some of his greatest work. As the consummate cinephile, Lee infuses the series with scenes from classic films to amplify his themes, weaving in clips from his own eerily prescient “Do the Right Thing” and “Inside Man,” and intercuts scenes from such films as “On the Waterfront,” “Casablanca,” “On the Town,” alongside cultural figures like Leonard Bernstein into his narrative.
As a longtime citizen of Brooklyn, a borough hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 crisis; Lee opens his four-part series with an in-depth chronicle of the pandemic as it ravaged his hometown, speaking with doctors, medical professionals, first responders and family members of victims and hearing emotional, wrenching testimonies. Not simply dwelling on the devastating toll of the disease and the trauma left in its wake, Lee reveals stories of solidarity as New Yorkers come together to support the doctors and nurses in the trenches.
“NYC Epicenters 9/11➔2021½” also recounts the demonstrations that took place in New York City in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the civil unrest and police brutality that followed, hearing from activists, photojournalists and reporters who witnessed first-hand the violent clashes with the police. Warriors in the Garden, a collective of activists dedicated to nonviolent protest, speak to their efforts to counter systemic oppression and to eliminate race-based discrimination in the midst of a crucible of pent-up anger and frustrations. Looking back at a politically freighted year, the series travels to Washington D.C. to hear first-hand from the New York representatives and others who were in or near the Capitol during the January 6th insurrection. Lee then turns his unique lens from one attack on American democracy to the life-altering events of September 11th, 2001, weaving together a fiercely vivid picture of that day as it unfolded for the New Yorkers on the ground and the first responders who raced to the scene. Detailing the day and the aftermath from many different perspectives, we hear from survivors, family members, firefighters, political leaders and frontline workers who helped with the clean-up, and fireboat and ferry boat captains who participated in the under-reported maritime evacuation, wherein almost half a million people were rescued from the southern tip of Manhattan and shipped to safety.
Absent in the release is the participation of writer/director/editor Sam Pollard (“MLK FBI“), who produced, edited, wrote and worked on the aforementioned early docs (he’s a co-Oscar nominee on “4 Little Girls.”) Pollard’s career has finally blown up in recent years, so why he may still be involved, it would not surprise if he was simply too busy to participate. Either way, “‘NYC Epicenters 9/11➔2021½” arrives August 22 on HBO (surprise!) and HBO MAX, and we should be receiving a new trailer soon. In the meantime, the official poster is below.