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.
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."
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
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?
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, [at] this Academy Awards, let's run
the final montage from Bamboozled.
You know they're never going to own that.
[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.
How do you see definitions of "black" film or "black" media
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 f*cking around getting
high, standing on a corner, drinking a 40, saying "Know'm sayin'? Know'm
saying'?", then you're black.
The Mau Maus seem to be caught between definitions like that. Did the performers
you cast bring their own ideas to the film?
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.
For your soundtracks, you always work with amazing people, Chuck D, and ...
Stevie, Prince, Erykah Badu, people like that.
How do you set up for the musicians' participation in a film?
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.
Can you talk a little about Jada Pinkett-Smith's character, Sloan? She seems
central to what goes on in the film.
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
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
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.
That "hard" comedy reminds me of Kings of Comedy, which might
be bringing it to a mainstream audience.
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.
The film also touches on a history in which comedy and tap-dancing are ways
"in" for African American performers.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
How would you answer concerns that Delacroix or other characters are too broad?
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.
Delacroix has an effective antagonism with Michael Rapaport's character,
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
How did you decide to use digital video? All your films have very precise, vivid
looks, and this one too, but differently.
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.
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?
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.
Click here to read Cynthia Fuchs' review.