“Entertainment was never considered for us,” Williams continues, in a phone call from his house in Sag Harbor, where Tonya Lewis’s parents were also members of the tight-knit community of elite black summer people when she was growing up. “Entertainment conjures up fast living and drugs, which was not what this group was about. One of the few people who became an entertainer from our set was Lena Horne.”
And so the Lewises were skeptical of the man who’d directed She’s Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing when their daughter fell in love with him. “After my wedding,” says Lewis Lee, “my mother told me, ‘We sent you here in a black limousine and you’re leaving in a white one.’ ”
Williams says he thinks Spike Lee is “brilliant, and he made a brilliant move when he married Tonya Lewis. He knew by marrying her he would get the family, the background, the support, the playing golf with the grandfather in Florida where they winter. I’m sure it’s very important to him, as it should be. He’s off doing his entertainment.”
Lee is, by all accounts, a dedicated father. He flew home from the New Orleans set of When the Levees Broke to be with his son for the night of his birthday; he calls both his children several times a day. And Tonya Lewis Lee is a formidable wife. When she tired of living in the Fort Greene neighborhood where her husband grew up, she told him, “You can stay in Brooklyn. But I won’t be there.” Before he went to Germany with their son a few days ago, she said, “If anything happens to Jackson, you don’t get on the plane. Do not come home.” But, she says, Spike lives up to the nickname his mother gave him for being difficult. (His birth certificate says Shelton Jackson Lee.)
There is a scene in Malcolm X in which Betty Shabazz cries to her husband that he’s always working, that his cause always seems to trump his responsibilities at home. In the director’s commentary on the film, Lee says that it’s an age-old fight, one that he’s had with his own wife many times.
Lewis Lee agrees that it’s an ongoing struggle but says she doesn’t think the comparison to Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X is fair: “Spike is not as malleable as Malcolm.”
There are no white people on Lee’s set today. Everyone is either black or pink.
The sun here in New Orleans seems to be everywhere, and the wet, filthy heat feels like a subway platform at rush hour on the worst day of August. And it’s only May.
Hurricane season starts on June 1, in about two weeks, and Colonel Lewis Setliff, the (pink) spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, is telling Lee on- camera that the Corps will be ready. Yesterday, he was quoted on CNN saying they would not.
Setliff is in full fatigues and combat boots, shuffling in front of the debris of the destroyed 17th Street Canal flood wall. Across the street, there is a row of houses that look like they’ve been chewed in half by gigantic wild animals: Roofs have collapsed, furniture and plumbing and wires stick out like veins. “Construction is not complete, but protection is restored,” says Setliff, upbeat. “We’re providing repairs that actually enhance the system, so on June 1, the people of New Orleans will have a hurricane-protection system that’s better and stronger and much more resilient! In some places, they’ll actually have more protection than existed prior to Katrina.”
“You’re talking about pre- Katrina levels?” says Lee, who stands in the sun behind the camera, wearing a baseball cap, green track pants, and bright-blue Nikes.
Setliff motions at the crumbled flood wall behind him. “We weren’t happy with how these performed,” he says. He’s not making a joke.
Later that day, Lee’s crew tapes a woman named Phyllis LeBlanc inside a government-issue trailer, which sits on the front yard of her squashed house. LeBlanc says that on the night of Katrina, “it was like it sucked all the air out of the city. It was, like, womblike shit. Beyond Africa hot. They keep saying, ‘Go back to Africa.’ If Africa is hot like this? Hell, no!” LeBlanc was trapped in her house by the storm surge during Katrina and ultimately rowed out with an elderly neighbor and two children in an empty refrigerator. She has nightmares about the water coming back.
On the banks of the Mississippi, Lee interviews a young woman named Kimberly Polk who had been looking for her daughter for the nine months since Katrina. A few days ago, she identified the 5-year-old’s body.