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Spike Lee pokes Bush, Obama during roundtable

Lee was in town Sunday for partial screening of his documentary 'If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise.'

Marty Toohey
Stephanie Lang, left, hands Spike Lee a UT jersey with the number 40, for 40 acres, during closing remarks Sunday by Daina Ramey Berry.

Spike Lee doesn't mince words, and during a roundtable discussion Sunday, the filmmaker was blunt in his take on presidents, disasters and the slowness of the country to come to grips with its basic problems.

Lee was in Austin for a screening at the University of Texas of portions of his Gulf Coast documentary, "If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise," in which he revisits post-Katrina New Orleans as a follow-up to 2006's "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts." His latest feature shows how the BP oil spill was affecting recovery efforts.

Seated before about 650 people, the 53-year-old filmmaker defended accusations that former President George W. Bush is racist, called President Barack Obama weak and urged the audience to challenge assertions that "75 percent of the spilled oil has evaporated."

"The oil is still there," he said. "Don't believe Obama and his scientists."

More generally, Lee's comments followed a major theme of the documentary: that even as New Orleans rebuilds after Hurricane Katrina, the nation has not meaningfully addressed the complex issues revealed by the hurricane and the BP spill.

Lee's documentary ran this summer on HBO. Before Sunday's event, which was dubbed "An Afternoon with Spike Lee," some audience members said they came to see how his provocative style translated to the documentary format.

"I know Spike is very good about getting perspective that isn't always shown in the media," Marlah Neal, 40, said.

The portion of the documentary shown Sunday focused in great detail on the government's response to the spill and featured top officials as well as devastated residents. Lee showed Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson's defense of the Obama administration, as well as the frustrations of Louisiana commercial fisherman Dean Blanchard, who at one point says bemusedly, "I never thought the British would kill us."

After the screening, Lee spoke briefly as part of a roundtable of students and professors. He started with subdued comments but, in expanding on the idea that mistakes from the Hurricane Katrina era will be felt for some time, criticized Bush, who is promoting a new memoir, "Decision Points."

"No matter what book of revisionist history our former president may try to write, people are no longer (living) because of the five days it took" for the federal government to mount a response to Katrina, said Lee, who did not indicate whether he had read the book.

"He's not a good guy. It's that simple," Lee said. "And I don't think Kanye should back up, either."

Lee was referring to Kanye West, a rapper who said, "George Bush doesn't care about black people," at a televised fundraiser in Katrina's aftermath. During his book tour, Bush has said the accusation of racism was the low point of his presidency because it was attacking not only the wisdom of his decisions but also his basic morality.

After his comments on Bush, Lee expanded on one of the major themes of "If God Is Willing" — that the Obama administration's response was weak, as evidenced by its decision to partner with BP to cap the leak and not confer a major leadership role in the recovery to retired Gen. Russell Honore, a Louisiana resident.

"BP ran this thing," Lee said. "I think they dictated to Obama and the United States of America how this was going to go. ... Eleven people died. The biggest environmental disaster ever. Why all this deference to BP?"

mtoohey@statesman.com; 445-3673