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The Bigger Picture


Spike Lee has already done three interviews by the time I see him for breakfast at 9am. But he’s got plenty of experience fielding questions about his “controversial” work, and as always, he’s ready. He’s willing to take both risks and hits for his work, beginning with She’s Gotta Have It back in 1986. Since then, he’s established a reputation as an innovative and intelligent artist and provocative cultural critic. He knows what he’s done and what he can do, he’s generous with his time and clout (particularly in mentoring young talent), and he’s got more integrity and conviction than just about any filmmaker you can name. Talking about his new film Bamboozled, which satirizes racist media through a hugely popular TV minstrel show, Spike Lee is as enthusiastic as I’ve seen him.



Cynthia Fuchs:

Let’s start with the end of the film: the montage of minstrel and blackface images that closes the film has been getting a lot of attention, in particular from people who claim it shows that “things aren’t so bad as they used to be.”



Spike Lee:

I don’t understand the thinking that says, “Oh, it’s not as bad as it used to be.” That doesn’t negate what the film is about or what we’re trying to say. I think it shows that today, it’s more sophisticated, so you don’t have to wear blackface to be a minstrel actor. Is anybody going to say at the end of Schindler’s List, “Oh, well, it’s better today.” Does that negate that horror to say, “Well, at least Hitler’s not alive now.”



CF:

I know that a lot of people have called Bamboozled “controversial,” and that you’ve voiced your frustration that the discussion sometimes — conveniently — stops there. What issues do you want to be able to talk about when you talk about the movie?



SL:

This film is really an exploration of the history of racism and misrepresentation of African Americans and people of color since the birth of film and television. This film shows how racism is woven into the very fabric of America: when you think of America, you think of Hollywood, and this wasn’t just D.W. Griffith. This was Al Jolson, and “wholesome” performers like Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Bing Crosby. It was like, the sky was blue, just accepted, an accepted view of black people. If you look at the end credits sequence, all the toys, the black collectibles, that was the accepted view. And it’s funny, every year the Academy Awards have a mini-montage, made by a documentary filmmaker. I say, this Academy Awards, let’s run the final montage from Bamboozled.



CF:

You know they’re never going to own that.



SL:

[Laughs]. We know that, but still. That’s also a legacy, and it’s the stuff they leave out. And I hope people don’t get stuck thinking this is only about television and miss the condemnation of film. They’re one and the same to me.



CF:

How do you see definitions of “black” film or “black” media changing?



SL:

We’re still wrestling with this question because it comes down to this: black people were stripped of our identities when we were brought here and it’s been a quest since then to define who we are. That’s why we’ve gone through the names — Negro, African American, African, Black. For me that’s an indication of a people still trying to find their identity. Who determines what is black? I always give the example, if you turn on the radio today, black radio, Lenny Kravitz is not black. Bob Marley wasn’t black: in the beginning, only white college stations played Bob Marley. So there is this definition of black: if you’re a young black kid today in urban America and you speak correct English and you get great grades, you’re not black. But if you’re fucking around getting high, standing on a corner, drinking a 40, saying “Know’m sayin’? Know’m saying’?”, then you’re black.



CF:

The Mau Maus seem to be caught between definitions like that. Did the performers you cast bring their own ideas to the film?



SL:

All that was in the script. We knew we wanted to cast real rappers, but rappers who had something to say. So that’s why you go to people like Mos Def, Canibus, and MC Serch. They understood exactly what it is. I like rap, it’s just that gangsta rap, I can’t get with, and none of these guys are considered gangsta and they have some kind of consciousness.



CF:

For your soundtracks, you always work with amazing people, Chuck D, and ...



SL:

Stevie, Prince, Erykah Badu, people like that.



CF:

How do you set up for the musicians’ participation in a film?



SL:

I let them read the script and show them the film, try to get them to feel. I don’t dictate, you don’t dictate to Stevie Wonder [laughs], not successfully.



CF:

Can you talk a little about Jada Pinkett-Smith’s character, Sloan? She seems central to what goes on in the film.



SL:

Jada’s really the conscience of the film, the character the audience feels for. And despite that, her hands are bloody too, as are Delacroix’s. Everybody’s bloody in the film, everybody’s in cahoots, and she knew about it from the beginning, but like everyone else in the film, she wants to see how it’s going to work out. She’s somewhat seduced by the fame and being affiliated with the number one show on television. At the premiere in New York, a lot of women applauded when Sloan made her speech about men who (and I’ve done this myself) see a woman who’s successful and attractive and think, “Well, how’d she get this thing? It just can’t be her brains, it has to be something else.” We felt it was important to have somebody who’s as attractive as Jada give those views.



CF:

Another sympathetic moment comes with the relationship between Delacroix and his dad, Junebug, because it’s so personal and so sharply drawn, in the midst of all this excess.



SL:

Right. And Junebug is played by the great Paul Mooney. He’s one of the giants, he wrote some of Richard Pryor’s best material for years. His character is in many ways, himself; he never really blew up, because his comedy is really hard, and there were certain things he didn’t want to do, so his career suffered in some ways. Delacroix thinks his father’s a disappointment because he’s playing these small clubs in the South, and Junebug is disappointed in his son because he has no knowledge of self, he’s lost his dignity, he has that fake accent, he changed his name.



CF:

That “hard” comedy reminds me of Kings of Comedy, which might be bringing it to a mainstream audience.



SL:

It didn’t surprise us that Kings of Comedy has done so well. We were trying to convince Paramount from the beginning that the film would be a hit. They got it eventually, especially for the price it cost, the film only cost $3 million. They kept comparing us to The Wood, which was their last African American film. But it was a learning experience, and hopefully, when the next film comes around, they’ll have some knowledge to draw upon.



CF:

The film also touches on a history in which comedy and tap-dancing are ways “in” for African American performers.



SL:

Since the days of slavery, if you were a good singer or dancer, it was your job to perform for the master after dinner. I’m not negating the great talent we’re talking about. I think the summer has demonstrated that black comics are huge now, the Wayans with Scary Movie, Martin Lawrence with Big Momma’s House, Eddie Murphy with The Klumps, and Kings of Comedy. I hope that the summer wasn’t a fluke, and we’ll see some of that success spread over to other genres.



CF:

One of the things Bamboozled deals with is the pain in that legacy, combined with the exhilaration and art of it, for Savion Glover’s character.



SL:

I think the film has compassion for people like Bill Bojangles, Stepin Fetchit, or Mantan Moore, or Butterfly McQueen, and Hattie McDaniel. They had little or no choice. They had to do that stuff if they were going to eat, to perform or pursue their careers. And that’s a big contrast with the many choices we have today.



CF:

And yet, there are certainly those who feel a lack of choices. In the film, for example, the only option the Mau Maus can come up with is a violent one.



SL:

Well, violence is a part of America. I don’t want to single out rap music. Let’s be honest. America’s the most violent country in the history of the world, that’s just the way it is. We’re all affected by it. The Mau Maus feel like they’re doing it for the good of all African American people. They’re misguided, but they have to take responsibility.



CF:

How would you answer concerns that Delacroix or other characters are too broad?



SL:

This is a satire: we made fun of everybody. [Delacroix’s] part was written, but Damon came with a lot of good stuff, like the accent. We wanted this guy to be someone who’s very uncomfortable in his black skin, someone who’s never felt at ease with being black, someone who doesn’t achieve knowledge of self until it’s literally too late, when he’s on his way to buy the farm. And for the Myrna Goldfarb character, there’s an unwritten law that you cannot have a Jewish character in a film who isn’t 100 percent perfect, or you’re labeled anti-Semitic. I can have the Mau Maus, who kill [people] in the movie, and that’s okay. And a minor character, who probably has two minutes’ screen time, and I’m anti-Semitic because she’s a condescending publicist, who’s condescending to potential black clients? That’s crazy.



CF:

Delacroix has an effective antagonism with Michael Rapaport’s character, Dunwitty.



SL:

There are people like Dunwitty: I did not make that up. And I’d like to state that Spike Lee is not saying that African American culture is just for black people alone to enjoy and cherish. Culture is for everybody. But there’s a distinction between appreciating a culture and appropriating it, and Dunwitty is an appropriator. He thinks he knows something because he knows who Willie Mays is.



CF:

How did you decide to use digital video? All your films have very precise, vivid looks, and this one too, but differently.



SL:

Any time you talk about the look of the film, it’s not just the director and the director of photography. You have to include the costume designer and the production designer, and for a lot of my films, the costume designer has been Ruth Carter, the production designer’s been Wynn Thomas, and for this one, Victor Kempster, who’s worked on a ton of Oliver Stone’s stuff. For DPs, I’ve had Ernest Dickerson, Malik Sayeed, and now Ellen Kuras, who shot this film, Four Little Girls, and Summer of Sam, plus a ton of music videos and commercials. I like to work with the same people when I can, and you want to get people with the same interests that you have, and the same aesthetic. We decided to use digital video because we were dealing with the medium of television, and it gave us that video look. Plus, we didn’t have a lot of money, and many pages to shoot, and needed a lot of cameras to cover the show, when we were doing the numbers. We needed to be able to move, so we had small cameras — we shot with the Sony VX1000, which is a consumer camera, and we shot in PAL, because PAL gives you better resolution when you blow it up to 35mm. It was a learning curve, as we’d never shot basically a whole film like that. The stuff you see during the show, we shot in Super 16, to get a different look.



CF:

In Stevie Wonder’s “Some Years Ago” [on the Bamboozled soundtrack], he sings about a time when “we had more hope than money.” How do you understand that sense of sadness?



SL:

Because many advances have happened, we’ve lost the urgency — and that’s just human nature — that we had before, when we couldn’t vote, couldn’t use mass transportation, or drink from the fountains. And there’s a lot of Americans, black and white, who think that we’ve arrived where we need to be and nothing else needs to be done and affirmative action needs to be dismantled. We’ve got Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, and Chris Tucker, and all these entertainers making $20 million a movie, so it seems like we’re there. But at the same time, there are more black people living in poverty now than ever before. We can’t let our successes blind us to where we stand with the bigger picture. I hope the film will make some of that picture visible, and have people talk about the influence of images, the power of images.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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