Spike Lee's Katrina Requiem

This undated promotional photo provided by HBO shows director Spike Lee as he revisits the shattered Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans on July 22, 2006, prior to the release of his HBO documentary "When the Levees Broke." The film premieres Monday, Aug. 21.
AP Photo/HBO, Charlie Varley
Several weeks after Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans, Spike Lee called HBO to propose a monumental documentary on the storm, the ensuing flood and its aftermath, focusing on the suffering of black residents of the city.

The first half of Lee's heartbreaking film, "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," debuts Monday.

Lee spoke about his powerful documentary on The Early Show Monday, with co-anchor Harry Smith.

"Everybody had a story," Lee told Smith. "And that was the purpose of doing this documentary. There's no narration, I'm not in it. Just let people tell their stories. I know it's been covered on news and sound bites, stuff like that, but I don't think in a way like we've done it, where it's just four hours straight, intense examination of the debacle of what happened in New Orleans and the Gulf region."

Lee had scathing words for President Bush.

And at one point, Lee lamented, "It's a year later, and not that much has changed."

To see the interview, click here.

Lee also addressed the documentary with Judy Faber of ShowBuzz. To watch that interview, click here.

The four-hour documentary marks a career milestone for Lee. Twenty years ago this month, his first feature film, "She's Gotta Have It," hit theaters to instant praise from critics. Since then, he has released an average of a film every year, including this year's "Inside Man," his most profitable, with $185 million in global sales.

Nearly all of Lee's films have strong African-American themes and characters. Though filmmakers have always dabbled in racial topics, Lee, who is black, has been unique. Steadfastly chipping away at the subject in ever more complex ways, he has helped make race and ethnicity central to American film.

"He's made a tremendous difference in the history of American cinema," said Jacqueline Stewart, a film professor at Northwestern University in Chicago who teaches a class on Lee's work. "Spike Lee's films get people to talk about what race means and how race continues to function in our society."

2For years, Lee did that with an in-your-face approach — characters who yelled racial slurs at the screen, on-screen brawls between whites and blacks. Lee himself was often in front of the camera, playing a string of incendiary sidekick characters. He also often wrote, produced and directed his films, enlisting family members to contribute music, writing and acting.

But in recent years, Lee has stepped back. He did not write or appear on-screen in "Inside Man," "She Hate Me" in 2004, or 2002's "25th Hour." Though he remains focused on black America, his approach has become quieter, less self-conscious.

"Levees" reflects that.

Using current and historical footage, music, and more than 100 interviews, the film reminds viewers that, although Katrina shattered the entire Gulf Coast, New Orleans and its mostly black residents got hit especially hard. Thousands fought to survive deadly floodwaters for days while federal help was slow in coming. Many are left today with a nearly ruined city and broken hearts.

Lee conducted each of the interviews, and although viewers occasionally hear him asking questions, he never steps in front of the camera. There is no narrator telling viewers that New Orleans was abandoned, or that this may have happened because most residents are black. There is no need.