By David Patrick Schranck, Jr.-
Between late August and mid-September of this year, HBO released Spike Lee’s four-part documentary series, NYC Epicenters 9/11→2021½, that connects the 20th anniversary of 9/11, inarguably one of the most pivotal events of the 21st century so far, with the current COVID-19 pandemic and New York City’s role as an “epicenter” in both of these earth-shattering crises. Many other networks and streaming services put together their own documentary specials to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, most notably Netflix’s Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror, but I’d argue that none give the audience a perspective on 9/11 as unique and personal as Lee’s latest project does. With Epicenters, he showcases his love for his hometown and his equally strong love for its residents in a very charming and endearing way. However, the series is certainly not without its flaws.
Lee sets the tone of the series very quickly. At some moments the content is very serious, while during others Lee seeks to put both his interview subjects and his audience at ease with jokes and references to points of connection (teasing about sports rivalries, highlighting subjects’ New York roots, discussing subjects’ esteemed alma maters, Lee’s in-joke alternate names of the various boroughs like “Da People’s Republic of Brooklyn” and “Da Boogie Down Bronx” used on title cards). This serves to cut the high tension and emotion evoked by his two core subjects in a jovial manner. It also is ultimately a reflection of the distinctive personality of the man behind the camera.
The first two episodes of the series released in August centered on COVID-19’s impact on New York City and the Trump presidency. The second two episodes released in September focus on 9/11’s impact on New York. The first two episodes seemed to be the weaker half in my view. The COVID episodes are much more representative of Lee’s personal politics than the 9/11 episodes, in a way mirroring the political division of the COVID-era as opposed to the “unity” of the 9/11 era. Though his analysis of President Trump’s (or, as Lee calls him, President Agent Orange) failures to adequately address COVID are solid, he falls short in other places.
The section concentrating on the Black Lives Matter uprising of the summer of 2020 in some respects missed the mark and revealed the shortcomings of Lee’s biases more so than any others. Powerfully, he includes a comparison between his magnum opus, Do the Right Thing, and the police killings of Eric Garner and George Floyd that reminds audiences of the tragic persistence of the issue of police brutality against Black people in America. Additionally, his pairing of protest footage from around the world with Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” was gorgeous and moving. But, Lee chooses to also highlight Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and a group of liberal Black Lives Matters in New York who both reject the idea of defunding the police (let alone the idea of actually working to abolish them). To his credit, he does feature Rep. Cori Bush and a NYC activist who speak more favorably of the proposal too. But, I got the sense that Lee’s sympathies were more aligned with those against the idea than those for it.
Throughout the series, Lee interviews major political figures (mostly those representing New York), his famous NYC-local friends (Rosie Perez, Jeffrey Wright, Steve Buscemi, etc.), and everyday people affected by these tragedies. The most powerful subjects in the series are unquestionably the average New Yorkers featured. Their stories tend to bear the deepest emotions and the most authenticity. While to a degree I understand why Lee chose to take the same tone with the politicians as he does with the common people featured, it rubbed me the wrong way. The vast majority of the politicians featured in the film (with the exception of former NY Governor George Pataki) are Democrats and most of those are establishment, corporate Democrats. Seeing Lee be friendly and non-confrontational with ghouls like Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Ritchie Torres just didn’t sit right. Ultimately, Lee is a wealthy and famous liberal Democrat and not a radical activist, so this doesn’t really surprise me.
The series really hits its stride in the last two episodes about 9/11, though even these episodes are not perfect. Lee homes in on the visceral and deep sorrow of that horrific day in American history and its aftermath. As I alluded to before, the stories told by first responders, friends and families of those lost, and New Yorkers describing their memories of the day were quite impactful, moving me to tears at points. My only major issue with these episodes is that they seemed to lack a very necessary analysis of the subsequent War on Terror and Islamophobia in the United States. In my view, this is a crucial part of the story of 9/11, and the choice to almost completely avoid it seems odd and surprising.
In the original cut of the series, Lee had intended to include interviews with 9/11 conspiracy theorists. This segment was removed before airing after he received backlash. As a viewer, it seemed that the removal of these interviews didn’t hinder the series, as many last minute re-edits often do. The only indication that conspiracy theories were going to be prominently featured was during an interview with a man who was close with one of the flight attendants on United flight 93 which crashed in Shanksville, PA, CeeCee Lyles, who commented that he believed that the flight was shot down by the US military and not crashed as a result of a passenger revolt.
While Spike Lee’s series is by no means perfect, I think the emotions of the series are what save it and make it worth watching. But, ultimately I did enjoy the series despite my its shortcomings in some respects. Epicenters bears its heart on its sleeve in a very sentimental manner that sticks with you. Humor, mourning, anger, and hope are interweaved So, while I do recommend giving the series a watch, do so with a critical eye. I give the series 4/5 stars. You can watch it streaming on HBO Max.