Show caption Spike Lee at a screening for his new docuseries, which has landed him in the same hot water that never seems to cool. Photograph: StarPix/Dave Allocca/Rex/Shutterstock FOR HBO US television Why is Spike Lee’s 9/11 docuseries so controversial? His new HBO series has been re-edited after backlash over featuring 9/11 ‘truthers’ – but a thread of distrust remains Charles Bramesco @intothecrevasse Wed 1 Sep 2021 14.39 BST Share on Facebook
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Spike Lee is no stranger to controversy, but pre-emption is new for him. His incendiary work has inspired scandals both righteous (Do the Right Thing frightened a complacent America with its vision of urban unrest) and regrettable (the Jewish club owners in Mo’ Better Blues attracted charges of antisemitism), and now, his new docuseries NYC Epicenters 9/11 —> 2021½ has landed him in the same hot water that never seems to cool.
In a recent New York Times profile, Lee raised plenty of eyebrows by discussing his skepticism about official narratives surrounding the events of September 11, 2001. He went so far as to invoke the conspiracist’s favorited catchphrase – “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams,” he said in so many words – in defending a section of the fourth installment that dips into unfounded theorizing. The public reacted in a small uproar, and just like that, 30 minutes featuring conspiracy group Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth had vanished from the final edit sent to critics.
Though gun-shy higher-ups at HBO may have applied some pressure, in a statement sent to the press, Lee projected an all-is-well message: “I’m Back In The Editing Room And Looking At The Eighth And Final Chapter Of NYC EPICENTERS 9/11 —> 2021½. I Respectfully Ask You To Hold Your Judgment Until You See The FINAL CUT.”
The offending content has been excised, and yet it’s difficult to assess the sprawling whole of this nearly eight-hour project without that context. Even if he hadn’t left in one segment that sees an interview subject suggest that the hijacked Flight 93 crashed in a Pennsylvanian field because it was shot down rather than overtaken by the passengers, there’s a pervasive air of skepticism to Lee’s politicized postmortem. In his assessment of two landmarks in institutional failure, he lays out the ample cause to distrust the government and their messaging. From there, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump into tinfoil-hat territory.
The proliferation of conspiratorial beliefs in America has run parallel to the mounting exposure of very real wrongdoing and collusion, a concept that HBO last explored in their series on the QAnon subculture. For decades, Lee’s narrative features have been keenly attuned to the manifold injustices and corruptions perpetrated by state and private entities alike, from police brutality to sexual abuse in the church. Freed by the massive run time of NYC Epicenters, he can bring an even more granular, detail-oriented approach to his research and reportage on the city-testing crises of 9/11 and Covid-19.
He leaves plenty of room for positivity, placing a great focus on the unsung stories of heroism under fire during these catastrophic times; the maritime evacuation of Manhattan after the World Trade Center collapsed, a less-known thread of the day’s history, is recounted blow by blow. Lee puts names and faces to those who survived and those who didn’t, showing the first responders and civilian casualties as real human beings instead of the statistics to which they’re often reduced.
The celebration of that old New Yorker resilience goes hand in hand with a pointed critique of the dishonest policies put forth by deceitful administrations amid the chaos. We learn that in the hours following the attack on the Twin Towers, EPA head Christine Todd Whitman assured responders that the air at Ground Zero would be free of any carcinogenic toxins that could cause health issues down the line. As the men and women now living with a litany of medical conditions can attest, that ruling was premature and mistaken at best, a lie at worst. In one arresting scene, Lee confronts her via Zoom, his well-founded outrage peaking again when he brands “LIE” over claims of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. It’s the same attitude he reserves for the pandemic bungling of Trump and Andrew Cuomo, their egos and shortsightedness leading to muddled communication and lives needlessly lost. They withheld essential information the CDC tried its best to disseminate, leading to an all-time lack of confidence in what were supposed to be authority figures.
While watching Lee’s broadside of cynicism, a viewer may find themselves flashing back to Black Jeopardy, the most insightful sketch generated by Saturday Night Live since who knows when. Tom Hanks plays a far-right Maga type surprised to learn that his beliefs, especially his dubiousness about the legitimacy of the voting process, are shared by the African American contestants playing against him. These strange bedfellows have arrived at the same conclusion through diametrically opposed ideologies – one, with a hard-earned awareness of how the highest halls of power cooperate to insulate wealth and influence along racial lines, and the other, a wingnut paranoia that everyone’s out to get the True Patriots. Lee straddles the divide between them, his identities as a rabble-rousing activist and a fantastically rich person colliding. NYC Epicenters illustrates horseshoe theory in action, the danger of conflating well-meaning wokeness with a nastier offshoot of thought. The oft-repeated mantra that “Bush did 9/11” may not be factually accurate, but in the global geopolitics sense, it holds a deeper, almost spiritual truth. The trouble starts where one explanation bleeds into the other.
NYC Epicenters 9/11 —> 2021½ is airing on Sundays on HBO in the US with a UK date to be announced