Sitting in a Manhattan sound studio, hurriedly finalizing his latest documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Spike Lee is prickly and preoccupied, yet there's something reassuring about his demeanor. First, it's in the sheer Spike Lee-ishness of him: the diminutive stature, the heavy-lidded owl eyes behind thick frames, and, of course, the chunky, retro Air Jordan basketball shoes recalling Mars Blackmon, Mookie, and everything electric about being black in the late '80s.
Then there's that familiar righteous indignation. ''It's an indictment of Bush,'' he says of Levees, which details New Orleans' devastation by Hurricane Katrina. After witnessing the tragedy from the Venice Film Festival where, holed up in his hotel, he flipped frantically between the BBC and CNN, Lee was dismayed by the snail's pace with which the government reached out to the region. Soon, he was cutting together archival footage and taking trips to New Orleans to capture the grief and anger of the city's residents and politicians. ''It's an indictment of FEMA, [Department of Homeland Security secretary] Michael Chertoff, Condoleezza. I hope some people go to jail behind this film.''
For two decades, whether audiences whooped or rolled their eyes at his incendiary opinions, Lee has unapologetically bellowed about gender, politics, and especially race. So it's no surprise that even after his greatest mainstream success this spring's $88.5 million-grossing Inside Man the director would tackle a tragedy that has overwhelmingly affected poor African Americans. And with moviegoers accustomed to pot-stirring polemics by Michael Moore and Al Gore, this would seem an ideal time for Lee to rage characteristically against the machine. But with Levees, Lee shows restraint like never before, letting anecdotes and images unfold without even the aid of a muckraking voice-over.
Suggest to Lee that the four-hour epic feels like an evenhanded examination of culpability rather than the fist-shaking salvo one might expect from the Do the Right Thing director, and he almost seems offended. ''It's very angry,'' he says of the film, which airs on HBO in two parts: the first on Aug. 21 and the second on the 22nd. (It re-airs in its entirety on the 29th, the anniversary of the day Katrina hit New Orleans.) ''You don't have to shout and scream to be angry.''
Lee's ''passion for the disenfranchised'' is the reason the Brooklyn-bred director was able to pull such poignancy from the citizens of New Orleans, says Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary and Family, who also collaborated with Lee on 4 Little Girls in 1997. ''They're happy to rise from the ashes with him. And it's not just African Americans. He speaks to all kinds of people in this film.'' While Nevins thinks Levees is plenty irate, she acknowledges Lee's subtle hand. ''He's learned maybe just growing older that you make more change possible by presenting it in a fair-handed way.''