Spike Lee is easily one of the best and most prolific American artists of the last quarter century, and he continues to be black America's agent provocateur. In his latest work, which airs on HBO Aug. 23 and 24, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise, Lee returns to New Orleans five years after Hurricane Katrina to follow up on his Emmy Award-wining documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. What he finds, political changes and a Super Bowl-winning team aside, is a city and region still reeling from the catastrophe that is now contending with an oil spill that makes the Exxon Valdez spill look like a minor leak. Not one to be shy or to shy away, Lee, with trademark humor and wit, in a far-ranging interview with The Root, also shares his thoughts on everything from the Obama presidency to going green to his annual Michael Jackson birthday bash.
The Root: Has the government — federal, state, local, whoever — fulfilled the promises made to rebuild New Orleans after Katrina?
Spike Lee: Well, I would say no, if you look at housing. All the work I have seen done in the Lower Ninth Ward has been done by private groups. Brad Pitt's group, Make It Right. You got Common Ground. Lower Ninth Ward NENA. I mean, they are not the federal government. They are not the state government. They are not the local government. I don't know what they (government) are doing. I don't think there is any great urgency to get black people back into New Orleans.
TR: In the film, someone says that only 37 percent of those who left New Orleans because of Katrina have returned. Are there folks who will never come back?
SL: There are two camps. You have the people who have moved to Atlanta, San Antonio, Houston, and found a better standard of living, higher-paying jobs, better places to live and superior school systems for their kids. In the other camp are people who want to come back, but a lot of these people were in public housing, which has been knocked down. And the rents have quadrupled. And they don't have jobs.
TR: So who is moving to New Orleans now?
SL: A more affluent citizen.
TR: Black and white?
SL: I'll say majority white.
SL: I think it's a combination of things. To me, people gave him a slide in the first term — as Miss Luella Givens says in the piece, no one had a playbook for when your city is underwater. It's that second term that people weren't feeling.
TR: Mitch Landrieu, who is white, is now the new mayor, and in the documentary, people talk about how the Landrieu family has a good reputation in the black community. Will he be able to succeed where Nagin failed?
SL: He's got a hard job, though. They are on pace to have 203 murders this year — which, per capita, would make it the murder capital of the United States of America. Plus, only some crazy [small] number of homicides are actually prosecuted in New Orleans. So you can literally get away with murder in New Orleans.
TR: So on top of the tenuous recovery comes the BP spill. Recently you said you didn't believe the pronouncement from the oil company that in fact, 75 percent of the oil in the Gulf is gone.
SL: That's a lie! Now are they saying 75 percent of the oil on the surface? The Exxon Valdez happened 20 years ago, and they're still cleaning that up. This oil disaster is the biggest one in the world, ever. How is this all of a sudden all right and peachy clean? And what gets lost in the sauce is that 11 people died. Somebody needs to go to jail!
SL: Well, look, I supported the president 100 percent, still do. Campaigned actively for him. But if we all play Monday-morning quarterback and we look back five, 10, 15, 20 years from now, the one thing people might just keep coming back to is this whole thing of going after national health care and not jobs. Look at all the people out of work. People don't have jobs. So I think that it's all coming down to jobs now. America needs to work. And I have no ideas whatsoever what he could do to get it back on track. But I know people are hurting. I'm not saying that health care is not a good issue, but maybe not out the box.
TR: Do you think this is the stumbling block in 2012? Do you think he gets re-elected in 2012? Do you support him in 2012?
SL: Yeah, but this economy has to turn around or it's going to be hard. I mean, I don't know how you get re-elected if the economy doesn't get turned around.
TR: What do you think of immigration? What do you think about Republicans' attempt to amend the 14th Amendment, which states that if you are born here, you are a citizen?
SL: If it were left up to them, we would be back in slavery.
TR: Is that the GOP or the Tea Party folks, or both?
SL: Is there a difference? He said jokingly, "Is there a difference?"
TR: What do you think of gay marriage and Proposition 8, out in California?
SL: Look, here's the deal: Black people very sincerely … and I had breakfast with Reverend Al Sharpton yesterday morning, and he was saying that on his radio show he gets hit up — and he's pro-immigration and against Prop 8 — he gets killed because black folks don't want to hear about men marrying men and women marrying women. They don't want to hear about this immigrant thing. We're very conservative as a people.
TR: Why did you start the annual Michael Jackson birthday bash in Brooklyn?
SL: Are you coming? We are doing it again Aug. 29, Prospect Park. DJ Spinna is going to be on the wheels of steel. It was a great success last year, and we want to keep celebrating for as long as we can Michael's birthday, the king of pop. And it's fun.
TR: But there are people who are conflicted about him, particularly around the accusations of his relationship with children.
SL: They don't have to come. [Laughs hysterically.] They don't have to show up. We had 25,000 last year, and we expect more this year.
SL: The thing that affects me the most — and I don't know how it would affect other people, but me personally — is that we have to get off our addiction to fossil fuel, and it really enlightened me, so I'm going green now. I'm fanatic on the lights, man, lights off. We never recycled at my office, 40 Acres and a Mule, before, but now we're on it. Because I was ignorant like a lot of people who were [thinking] that this was some white, hippie, you know … but that was ignorant thinking on my part. This is everybody's earth, everybody's planet.
TR: Have you mellowed?
SL: Mellowed? Did you see this film? [Laughs out loud.]
TR: Are you still angry?
SL: About BP. About injustice. About people being murdered for no other reason than greed. I pick and choose better what I get angry about. But part of that is being married. And she's [wife, Tonya Lewis Lee] on me, too, about that. 'Don't say nothing! Don't say nothing! Let somebody else say something!' It helps.
TR: How has New Orleans been transformed besides racially and economically? Is it the Crescent City of years ago, happy-go-lucky, a fun town with a fun spirit?
SL: It was there. It changed April 20 [BP oil spill], though.
TR: Are you going to return to New Orleans in five years?
SL: To shoot? I don't know. I don't know. I don't know what I will be doing. If God is willing and da creek don't rise, I will be alive in five years. [Laughs out loud.]
Nick Charles is a regular contributor to The Root.