Like the majority of Americans of a certain age – and citizens around the globe – I witnessed the disaster movie-level events of September 11, 2001, unfold in surreal fashion across a TV screen. Unlike the majority of Americans, however, my television screen was in Brooklyn. I’d been tuned in to my local NY1 News station as I was every weekday morning, simultaneously readying for work while catching «weather on the ones» (abundant sunshine), subway updates (no major delays heading downtown), and the primary day politics (Mark Green looked to be the next NYC mayor). And then anchorman Pat Kiernan cut away to an image as likely as King Kong scaling the Empire State Building. In other words, for me – as for fellow New Yorker Spike Lee, whose latest four-parter for HBO Max NYC EPICENTERS 9/11➔2021½ is both epic (7½ hours!) and utterly magnificent – 9/11 wasn’t an international or even a national news story. This shit was personal.
A sentiment made abundantly clear from the very first episode (chapters one and two) of NYC EPICENTERS, which deals not with that sudden tragedy but with the slow-moving crisis that nearly two decades later would throw the Big Apple back onto the «ground zero» stage. What’s perhaps more surprising than Lee’s local approach to his beloved hometown – all New Yorkers know NYC isn’t really a metropolis, just a gigantic small town (comprised of five fiefdoms) – is his unconventional execution. No longer the righteously angry director of Do the Right Thing, railing against The Man and his system that once again failed to protect its citizens, Lee is now solidly middle-aged. And unselfconscious, lighter, and wiser. Able to craft something that would seem practically oxymoronic on its face: a fun, feel-good – and poignant – pandemic capsule.
A specific rememberance
Indeed, in loud red letters that flash across the screen, we’re treated in an unfamiliar way to the familiar names of people and places that defined the early days of the lockdown – as well as foretold it. Press conference footage featuring the likes of «President Agent Orange» – a nickname infamously coined by Busta Rhymes, who likewise appears onscreen to wrestle with the existential question of why anyone would actually want to be orange – and President Barack «Brudda Man» Obama. Boroughs are referred to in New York-ese: Da People’s Republic of Brooklyn, Da Boogie Down Bronx. Far from a sober universal reflection, this is a very specific remembrance of history – and one all the more soaring for it.
So by the time we get to episode two (chapters three and four), Lee has really hit his maverick stride. Though the director has long been accused of conspiracy-mongering (but more on that reedited final episode later), he chooses this time to craft what is practically a public service announcement aimed at saving the African American community, long skeptical of medical establishment interventions. (And lack thereof. See the dehumanizingly titled Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.) He focuses less on current American hero (or villain if you’re mainlining Steve Bannon bunk) Dr. Anthony Fauci than on the practically unknown Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett – a thirty-something Black woman who was a key developer behind the Moderna vaccine. And the very first person to get a shot in the arm on these shores? That would be Sandra Lindsay, the director of nursing for critical care at Northwell Health in Queens – and yet another unsung Black female hero. Suddenly one gets the sense that we’re witnessing not just history but a thrilling reclamation of narrative: BIPOC on the frontlines writing themselves into the American history books. (As opposed to, say, waiting for white folks to toss over a marginalized holiday now and again.)
Suddenly one gets the sense that we’re witnessing not just history but a thrilling reclamation of narrative
Yet as riveting as episode two is, episode three (chapters five and six) is all the more extraordinary – a work directed by a master unafraid to take off the gloves and wear his cinematic heart onscreen. Indeed, the piece begins with an entire clip from On the Town, the «New York, New York» number featuring Sinatra, Kelly, and Jules Munshin – which ends with a cut to a photo of Leonard Bernstein and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green in playful conversation—credited to Stanley Kubrick no less. Talking heads in this endlessly surprising episode run the gamut from Black flight crews who worked for United Airlines at the time of 9/11, a Black female firefighter who hauled hoses through WTC rubble, maintenance worker William Rodriguez who, in his Spanish-inflected accent, recounts realizing he was the only one with a master key to unlock all of the North Tower’s staircase doors. He ran right back into the burning building, fighting against the tide of those fleeing. It’s nothing short of a revelation that so many of the heroes of 9/11 – as it has been during this pandemic – were a reflection of the nonwhite melting pot that is the greatest city in the world. And yet, it’s equally a shame that this is even a revelation twenty years on.
And then, of course, there’s one of the largest maritime rescues in history. No, not Dunkirk – but the 9/11 evacuation by water of over 50,000 people in a nine-hour period at the tip of Manhattan. (Which begs the question, why has there not been a movie made about this? And why am I learning about it from the director of Malcolm X?) Lee speaks deeply with the men and women who bravely worked their boats nonstop in the face of an unfathomable event. And also a typical New York response. When one captain relayed to his passengers that he was whisking them to safety in New Jersey, they started griping, «We don’t want to go to New Jersey!” His (equally predictable New York) response? «This isn’t the subway.» That it has taken this long to hear these rescuers’ stories finally is pretty much unconscionable.
This brings us to that final controversial episode (chapters seven and eight), which initially contained an additional half-hour allotted to the Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth – a group most (in)famous for their claim that the WTC collapse is the result, not of a jet-as-missile attack, but controlled demolition.
The NYC EPICENTERS didn’t need guys pontificating about the causes of the 9/11 catastrophe, better are the many selfless first responders already highlighted in episode four. Guys like the fire chief – who last saw his firefighter brother when he gave him the nod to lead his men up the stairs of a burning tower. Or another brave onetime fireman – the actor Steve Buscemi. How about the street artist who dutifully arrived every day to capture events at «Da Pile» on his easel? And then there’s construction worker John Feal, an average hometown Joe, who would go on to set up a foundation to fight for the rights of those sickened at the site (and later became famous when Jon Stewart joined his cause all the way to DC).
In the series the focus stays on those who never sought the spotlight: the Black film technicians who lit up the «holy site» so the search for victims could run day and night. The Black female heavy equipment operator («Big Liz») transformed a hulking machine into a delicate sifter. The leaderless, ad hoc collection of undaunted New Yorkers who just picked up a bucket and found a job to do. The sister of the supposed «falling man», who reflects on whether her beloved brother was, in fact, the person so elegantly captured descending from the sky in that tragic photo. «In these 19 years, I have found peace with not knowing», she calmly explains.
«In these 19 years, I have found peace with not knowing»
This isn’t to say institutional leadership of any color gets let off the hook. Everyone from the head of the EPA – who falsely assured New Yorkers that the air was safe – to other Bush administration officials, whose «with us or against us» rhetoric led to Americans turning on one another, are held to account. (Who needs conspiracy when malfeasance is abundant in plain sight?) Again Lee makes things personal by interviewing his Sikh actor Waris Ahluwalia from Inside Man – for whom life seems to have imitated fiction in the wake of 9/11. (A Black flight crew member even admits that he struggles to this day with his shameful racial profiling of a Middle Eastern passenger.) «LIE» – in bold red letters naturally – is stamped across the screen as Bush and Condi Rice and Colin Powell all spew their lethal spin.
And yet there is hope – and truth – as New Yorkers attest to the city’s resilience, sing its gritty praises while a bold red «FACT» flashes like a middle finger to all the doubters. As the nearly eight-hour journey comes to a close – with the image of a bloodied Brando in On the Waterfront having the last visual word – the quote from high wire artist Philippe Petit (quoting Le Corbusier on NYC) is solemnly given weight. «What a beautiful disaster.» In fact, that’s why we love it.