The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Spike Lee’s flirtation with 9/11 trutherism isn’t a surprise. But it should be a warning.

Filmmaker Spike Lee outside his studio in the Fort Green section of Brooklyn. (Andre D. Wagner for The Washington Post)

Initially, the news that acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee is sympathetic to a noxious class of conspiracy theories about the 9/11 terrorist attacks seems shocking. But it’s hardly the first time that Lee has elevated conspiratorial thinking. And he’s not alone: Filmmakers have long gravitated to conspiracy theories as excellent sources of plot and atmosphere.

However, it’s worth taking a closer look at the claptrap some artists are feeding the public — and to recognize that it’s more than benign entertainment.

The so-called 9/11 Truth movement, which questions the obvious explanation for what happened that day — that hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, while passengers forced down United 93 in the fields of Pennsylvania — and posits alternative and sinister explanations for why the buildings came down has a sordid history. So it’s natural that the New York Times’ Reggie Ugwu would ask Lee why he included extensive comments from a 9/11 Truther in his new documentary “New York Epicenters: 9/11 – 2021½.”

“I got questions,” Lee said, parroting well-known 9/11 Truth talking points. “The amount of heat that it takes to make steel melt, that temperature’s not reached. And then the juxtaposition of the way Building 7 fell to the ground — when you put it next to other building collapses that were demolitions, it’s like you’re looking at the same thing.”

This isn’t the first time Lee’s raised such “questions.” In his Hurricane Katrina documentary “When the Levees Broke,” Lee gave airtime to folks who darkly hinted that the levees in New Orleans had previously been destroyed during Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and may have been deliberately blown up again during Katrina to flood poor Black neighborhoods.

Lee’s filmography often deals with the ways in which minority communities have been abused by those in power, so it’s not surprising that he often sees dark forces at work behind the scenes. But it is somewhat surprising he can’t turn that part of his brain off even when confronting a tragedy we all saw play out live on TV.

Lee is by no means the only great filmmaker to channel his conspiratorial leanings into his work. Oliver Stone is currently making the festival rounds with “JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass,” a documentary he hopes “ties up many loose threads, and hopefully repudiates much of the ignorance around” both John F. Kennedy’s assassination and “JFK,” the fictionalized movie Stone made about the case.

Richard Linklater included old pal and rabid conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in his films “Waking Life“ and “A Scanner Darkly,” the latter of which posited a strange confluence of American hyper-surveillance and the ills of the pharma-industrial complex.

It is not difficult to separate art from artist here. Lee’s “Bamboozled” remains a bracing comment on the nature of racial depictions on TV and in film, regardless of whether or not he’s willing to entertain the idea that George W. Bush did 9/11. Nor is it difficult to separate art from truth: “JFK” remains one of the best-edited movies I’ve ever seen, the rapid cutting replicating the verbal avalanches used by conspiracy theorists to overwhelm common sense, even if Lee Harvey Oswald absolutely and without a doubt killed Kennedy.

But in an age of resurgent conspiracism, with wild talk about QAnon and vaccination misinformation filling the void as 9/11 Truth has ebbed, it is worth thinking about the ways in which mainstream filmmakers have helped give rise to our new paranoid moment.

“We have some complicity in sort of narrativizing conspiracies and building a universe in which, you know, there’s always a twist and there’s always a secret bad guy/organization behind stuff,” screenwriter John August recently said on his podcast with fellow screenwriter Craig Mazin, “Scriptnotes.”

Mazin’s words were even stronger.

“It oughta give strong, clear pause if you are thinking about writing a conspiracy theory story. Because we have absolutely fed into this,” Mazin said in response to a question from listeners about whether or not the rise of Q and similar theories could be traced back to shows such as “The X-Files.” “The insistence that everything that happens in the world has occurred because humans wanted it to happen, and that anybody that thinks otherwise is naive and foolish, that’s a problem. It has absolutely fed into this stuff.”

Mazin and August highlighted the Jason Bourne movies — about a clandestine superspy organization keeping tabs on everyone all over the globe at the same time — but this sort of device pops up everywhere. From the big-budget comic book blockbusters, which feature organizations such as S.H.I.E.L.D. in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Amanda Waller’s Suicide Squad in DC’s movies; to the final reveal in mid-budget horror titles such as “Old”; to the entire “Purge” franchise, which is predicated upon the idea that the government would sanction the murder of minorities for fun and profit, there’s a sinister, controlling hand at work nearly everywhere we look.

Certainly Fox Mulder didn’t create Q; “The Parallax View” isn’t responsible for vaccine hesitancy. But it’s hard to deny that a media saturated in paranoia contributes to a public steeped in mistrust. When Lee says he simply wants to put “information in the movie and let people decide for themselves,” I can’t help but think of all the people doing their own “research” on covid-19 vaccines in an effort to talk themselves out of getting a lifesaving shot.

“A person is smart,” Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) tells Agent J (Will Smith) in a key conspiracy text, “Men in Black.” “People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.” Conspiratorial thinking may be fun to play with on screen. But filmmakers concerned about the brains of their audience might want to consider whether to keep feeding that sort of dumb panic.