Theater of Cruelty

Do the right thing

NYC EPICENTERS 911-> 2021½
Regissør: Spike Lee

911 / Spike Lee's documentary series, which now airs on HBONordic, is a comprehensive depiction of New York – interspersed with memories, stories and insights from eyewitnesses to the city's largest terrorist attack.


The series is now on HBO Nordic (4 episodes).

Like most Americans of a certain age – and people all over the world – I witnessed the surreal, catastrophic film-like events that unfolded on the television screens of September 11, 2001. Unlike most Americans, I sat in front of the television screen. min in Brooklyn. I watched my local NY1 News station as I did every morning, while getting ready for work – while I got the weather forecast (plenty of sunshine), updates of the subway (no major delays on the way to the city center) and politics (Mark Green looked set to become the next mayor of NYC). And then anchorman Pat Kiernan changed to an unlikely image – as if King Kong was standing on top of the Empire State Building. In other words, for me – as for other New Yorkers like Spike Lee, whose documentary series for HBO NYC EPICENTERS 9/11 -> 2021½ is both epic (7,5 hours!) and absolutely fantastic – 9/11 was not an international or national news story. This shit was personal.

This feeling was again made clear in the first episode of the series (chapters 1 and 2), which does not deal with the tragedy of 9/11, but the crisis that almost two decades later led The Big Apple back to "ground zero". What is perhaps more surprising than the local approach Lee has to his beloved hometown – everyone newyorkere know that NYC is not really a big city, just a giant small town consisting of five areas – is a somewhat unconventional approach.

Lee is no longer the director of Do the Right Thing (1989) who in legitimate indignation fight against the superiority and the system that does not protect the inhabitants. Lee is today solidly placed in the middle of life. Less insecure, easier and wiser. He is able to create what appears to be an oxymoron: a fun, gripping, emotionally charged pandemic capsule.

The African American society

With large red letters flashing across the screen, we become unfamiliar with the names of people and places that made their mark in the first days of the pandemic lockdown – as well as the names of those who foresaw it. Press conference footage with "President Agent Orange" – a nickname created by Busta Rhymes, and President Barack "Bride Man" Obama. Cities are referenced in New York slang: Da People's Republic of Brooklyn or Da Boogie Down Bronx. This is far from a sober, universal reflection, but a very specific memory of history – and therefore even more hovering.

When it comes to episode two (chapters 3 and 4), Lee has really found the form. Although the director has been accused of conspiracy (see also MODERN TIMESs artikkel if the last episode Lee had to change), he chooses this time to make what is practically an announcement about public services that aims to save the African American community, which has long been skeptical of interference from the medical community. (And lack of interference. Read the study with the dehumanizing title "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.")

Lee is less concerned with current American heroes (or villains if you point out Steve Bannon) as Dr. Anthony Fauci than with the virtually unknown Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett. For example, she is a black woman in her 30s who had a key role in development of the Modern vaccine.

Suddenly I get the feeling that we are not only witnessing a story, but an exciting retelling.

And the very first to get a vaccine shot in the arm? This is Sandra Lindsay, head nurse at the intensive care unit at Northwell Health in Queens – another black heroine.

Suddenly I get the feeling that we are not only witnessing storytelling, but an exciting retelling: BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color, editor's note] in the front line that enters the American history books.

Episode three (chapters 5 and 6) is as exciting as episode two, but also extraordinary – a work directed by a master who is not afraid to take off his silk gloves or show his cinematic heart on screen. In fact, the episode begins with an entire clip from On the Town (1949), the "New York, New York" number with Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin – which ends with a picture of Leonard Bernstein and the lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green in playful conversation (credited no less than Stanley Kubrick).

The narrators in this surprising episode include black flight crews who worked for United Airlines on September 11, or a black female firefighter who dragged water hoses through rubble from the World Trade Center (WTC). In addition, maintenance worker William Rodriguez, who with a broken accent says that he realized that he was the only one with a master key and who unlocked all the stair doors in the north tower. Rodriguez ran straight back to the burning building and fought against the flow of those who fled. It is nothing short of a revelation that so many of the heroes of 9/11 – just like during our current corona pandemic – illustrate this world's largest multicolored crucible. Sad that it is not until twenty years later that we see it.

To New Jersey

And then, of course, there is one of history's major rescue operations over water. In the course of 9 hours, about 400 people were brought across the rivers from the outskirts of Manhattan. More than in Dunkirk (000) during World War II. I ask myself: Why has no film been made about this? And why I first hear about this from the director Malcolm X (1992)?

Lee talks in detail with men and women who bravely maneuvered their boats in the face of an unimaginable incident. And a typical New York response: When a captain passed on to the passengers that he was taking them to safety in New Jersey, they began shouting, "We do not want to go to New Jersey!" His (equally predictable) New York answer? "This is not the subway!" That it has taken so long to hear these stories is quite inconceivable.

Outside the spotlight

This brings us to the last and controversial episode (Chapters 7 and 8), which originally included an extra half hour with Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth – a group best known (or infamous) for 9/11 theories – that The WTC did not collapse as a result of an attack, but due to controlled demolition.

[read our article related to this  from Architects & Engineers]

NYC EPICENTERS in my opinion did not need such speculation in the causes of the 9/11 disaster. Then it was better with the many selfless emergency crews that were highlighted in episode four: for example, people like the fire chief – who last saw the firefighter's brother when he nodded to him as he led his men up the stairs to a burning tower. Or another brave "one-time firefighter" – actor Steve Buscemi.

Also: What about the street artist who dutifully came every day to capture events on "Da Pile" on his easel? Or construction worker John Feal, an ordinary guy who set up an organization to fight for the rights of the sick on the spot (and later became famous when Jon Stewart took the case all the way to Washington DC).

"In these 19 years I have calmed down with the uncertainty"

These are the ones who have never sought out the limelight: for example, the black technicians who provided light so that the search for victims could continue day and night. Or the leaderless ad-hoc collection of New Yorkers who picked up a bucket and helped. And the sister of the "falling man", who wonders if her dear brother was actually the one who was then videotaped in the fall from the WTC: "In these 19 years I have calmed down with the uncertainty", she calmly explains.


This does not mean that New York's institutional leadership escapes cheaply. As the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who wrongly assured New Yorkers that the air was safe. Or other Bush administration officials, whose rhetoric "with us or against us" led Americans to turn their backs on each other. They must be held accountable for malfunctions that were committed in large quantities.

Lee makes a personal move by interviewing Sikh and actor Waris Ahluwalia from his film Inside Man (2006) – whose life seems to resemble fiction in the wake of 9/11. A black man from an airline even admits that he is still struggling with his shameful racial profiling of a passenger from the Middle East. And "LIE" in large red letters is placed across the screen while George Bush Jr., Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell all spew out their deadly spin.

And yet there is hope – and truth: as when New Yorkers testify to the city's resilience and sing at the city's praise while "FACTS" flashes across the screen like a middle finger to anyone who doubts.

As the almost eight-hour journey nears its end, we see a picture of a bloody Marlon Brando from On the Waterfront which is solemnly provided with a quote from the balancing artist Philippe Petit – the one who balanced over between the two towers, quoting Le Corbusier in NYC: "What a beautiful disaster."

This makes us actually love the city.

Translated by Iril Kolle.





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