Spike Lee, New Yorkers Remember COVID, 9/11 Tragedies During Screening of ‘NYC Epicenters 9/11 -> 2021 1/2’

Spike Lee made a brief appearance ahead of a two-hour screening for his upcoming HBO’s NYC Epicenters 9/11 -> 2021 1/2, an eight-episode documentary series looking at two major New York City events — the ongoing pandemic and the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks — from the experiences of New Yorkers who were on the frontlines.

Hosted by non-profit Rooftop Films, the screening of the first and sixth episode was part of a busy lineup for NYC Homecoming Week, a collection of around 100 entertainment and community events around the five boroughs celebrating the city’s lifting of COVID restrictions.

Wednesday night’s outdoor event saw hundreds gather on the grass at Rockefeller Park in Lower Manhattan, a location that held powerful significance for the event’s second hour due to its proximity to the former towers and rescue events that took place the day they fell.

“One of the things that really struck me on September 11 was, first of all, how terrifying it was but soon thereafter the thing that really struck me was the incredible courage that so many people showed [and] an incredible camaraderie that came about as a result of that crisis,” said Rooftop Films’ president Dan Nuxoll, who was at a school around the corner from the park when the towers were hit. “I saw a lot of that same camaraderie when the COVID pandemic crisis hit. The event that you’re at right now is 100% a symbol of that camaraderie.”

After being introduced by Nuxoll and walking out to loud applause, Lee offered a playful correction to Nuxoll’s welcome of the famed Brooklyn director as “maybe the greatest New York filmmaker of all time.”

“Mr. [Martin] Scorsese, I did not say that,” Lee said as the crowd laughed and continued to cheer. “It was this guy right here.”

“I don’t call it an anniversary,” Lee added of the timing of his doc’s release, which marks exactly two decades since Sept. 11, 2001. “But it’s been 20 years.”

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Spike Lee at Rooftop Films’ ‘NYC Epicenters 9/11 -> 2021 1/2’ screening.
Maike Schulz / Rooftop Films

Ahead of Lee’s appearance, Dale Dobson, executive director of the Maysles Documentary Center, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, also spoke, with Brewer offering up the most colorful commentary of the night in a punchy speech. “Some of you know that I am very partial to Manhattan, with all due respect to Brooklyn, Spike Lee,” Brewer started off.

She went on to speak to the significance of the events Lee’s documentary series covers, pointing out that when it came to her own personal experience with Sept. 11 involving a canceled election for city council, some New Yorkers were at the polls and not at the World Trade Center towers, sparing their lives. But she also noted the issue of equity, something Lee’s documentary explores both in its coverage of the pandemic and the Sept. 11 attacks, sharing that while some could take time to vote, “the secretaries and the clerks had to be at work.”

Brewer also shouted out pioneering firefighter Brenda Berk, who is featured in Lee’s doc, and encouraged people at the event, which required proof of vaccination, to get their friends vaccinated.

The screening was put on with the help and support of several local organizations, the New York City Mayor’s Office, Sundance TV and HBO Documentaries. Just two days before, Lee appeared beside Mayor Bill de Blasio to support his announcement of the city’s new vaccine pass mandate for indoor activities, including movie theaters, music venues and larger event spaces like arenas and convention centers.

“This is the greatest city on this god’s earth, and we’ve been through hell and high water,” Lee said during the Monday, Aug. 16 press conference. “Even setting aside 9/11 and the pandemic, New York City has always been a target… and we’ve always, always come through.”

While speaking during the press conference,  Lee acknowledged that national response efforts to the pandemic could have been handled better, and noted that de Blasio will receive a cameo in the series after calling New York City the “epicenter” of the pandemic in a presser during its early months.

“Over 600,000 Americans, mayor, are no longer here. These are our parents, our siblings, our friends. And it didn’t have to be that way,” Lee said. “We get into Agent Orange [Donald Trump] in the documentary — but it didn’t have to be that way.”

NYC Epicenters 9/11 -> 2021 1/2,  a four-part, eight-chapter documentary looking at how the global COVID pandemic affected New York and how the city weathered the tragic events of Sept. 11, will debut on HBO and HBO Max starting Aug. 22, with the last episode airing on Sept. 11.

NYC Homecoming Week runs from Aug. 14 to Aug. 22, and will culminate in a star-studded concert at Central Park organized by music mogul Clive Davis and featuring acts like Bruce Springsteen, Jennifer Hudson, Paul Simon and Cynthia Erivo with appearances by Jimmy Fallon and Gayle King, among others.

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