"Those levees are still not safe," Lee told me when he was in Los Angeles recently. "People are dead because of the incompetence of the Army Corps of Engineers. Forty years after they started work and it still ain't right! I'm proud that we show in the film the way the teensy-weensy country of Holland has great levees. Why? Because they had the will to get it done right."
He explodes with a fresh cackle of laughter, his way of signaling that he's as much confounded as incensed over some new outrage. "I mean, Holland, what've they got? Wooden shoes, tulips and a great soccer team. So how come they can do it and we can't? People are still waiting for a plan from [Mayor C. Ray] Nagin and - a year later - there's still no plan for the good people of New Orleans. It's a disgrace."
If "When the Levees Broke" arouses controversy, it will be for a sequence of interviews with African American residents who believe it was the government, not the hurricane, that destroyed the levees last August. Lee makes no apologies for airing what others might view as a conspiracy theory, noting that levees were dynamited to save the city's business center during the great flood of 1927.
"As an African American, I wouldn't put anything past the U.S. government," he said. "After things like the Tuskegee experiment, you can't just dismiss what these people believe as hocus pocus."
For Lee, there is plenty of pain to go around. He says one of the revelations he had making the documentary was that the Katrina catastrophe was as much about class as race. "If you're poor in America, you're [screwed]. Those poor white folks in New Orleans got a serious wake-up call, because they got treated the same as black people by this government."
Lee shook his head. "I just hope people come away from this film realizing this disaster didn't just happen to dumb-ass people who wanted to live below sea level. This was about the choices of our government. The National Guard was in Iraq, not in New Orleans." He pointed out the window at the lush Los Angeles greenery outside his hotel. "It doesn't have to be a hurricane. It could be the San Andreas Fault."
He couldn't resist one last cackle. "Judging from the way FEMA handled things, you could be next!"
I don't get HBO, so if one of you fine folks was to videotape the documentary and send it to me, I would watch it, take good care of it, and send it back. (Hint, hint, beg, beg)