Spike Lee Tackles 9/11 Anniversary and Much More in HBO Doc Series (Review)

Spike Lee has been directing for over 35 years.

In addition to his many feature films, he has released multiple documentaries for HBO over the years including the Oscar-nominated “4 Little Girls” and last year’s stage recording of “David Byrne’s American Utopia.”

After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, he won three Emmys for “When the Levees Broke,” a 4-part HBO documentary series that examined the impact and fallout from the storm.

As we approach the 20th Anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Lee has again turned to the cable network for another 4-part documentary that is as powerful as it is difficult to watch.

“NYC Epicenters 9/11→2021½” may have began as a way to pay tribute to those who lost their lives twenty years ago, but it became so much more along the way.

This is a wide-ranging piece of art that is the singular work of a visionary man. Lee conducted over 200 interviews and seemingly speaks to everybody. From Bill de Blasio to critical care hospital nurses and EMTs, he dives into the heavy details and pulls no punches.

Some moments are almost impossible to watch again, but somehow he maintains a balance and interjects occasional levity. After all, only Spike could insert what feels like a 15-minute montage of interview subjects saying they’re from Brooklyn in rapid-fire succession, but you almost have to have those moments if you’re going to witness footage of people jumping from the Twin Towers or the caught-on-film death of Heather Heyer after being run over by a white nationalist’s vehicle in Virginia.

In the first two episodes (running Chapters 1 through 4), there is plenty of discussion of how first responders handled the darkest moments after 9/11, but it also compares and contrasts how those working in the field over the last year dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the city.

A large chunk of Episode 2 deals with the epidemic of police brutality but also spends a lot of time with the January 6 insurrection from earlier this year on the U.S. Capitol. Lee shines a spotlight on the Capitol Police who did everything they could to hold their ground and honors those who lost their lives either during the attack or by suicide after. Make no mistake about where the filmmaker’s allegiance lies – Donald Trump is only identified on screen as “President Agent Orange.”

It’s worth noting that the final installment that will air this Sunday night on September 11 has been thankfully edited. The original screener copy of Episode 4 that was provided to critics contained about 30 minutes of screentime for interviews with conspiracy theorists. After a Slate editorial was posted condemning Lee for this in a film that would air on the actual anniversary of the attack, no less, he went back to the editing room and has taken those interview portions out of the film entirely.

The first 3 episodes of “NYC Epicenters 9/11→2021½” are available now on-demand from HBO and HBO Max. Episode 4 airs tomorrow night at 10pm eastern.

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