It’s just a day before the film Bamboozled opens nationally, and director Spike Lee is sitting calmly in the Claremont Hotel in the hills of Oakland. He’s been here for the past two days, promoting his new film before he heads home to watch his New York Yankees play the New York Mets in the World Series.
He has been to two screenings, 17 newspaper interviews, and 15 TV and radio sit-downs, and given a lecture at U.C. Berkeley in between. Lee looks weary as he talks with this reporter and two other journalists, his mild manner belying the sharp barbs that fuel Bamboozled, a satirical film on the media. The film opened nationwide October 20 and came in second at the box office, earning more than $13.1 million in its first week.
Bamboozled explores the ways in which television plays on stereotypes and negative images of African Americans to garner heavy ratings. Pierre Delacroix, Lee’s main character, creates a show in which the actors appear in blackface – it’s a gimmick, but the gimmick catches fire. This puts Delacroix (Damon Wayans) in a dilemma; he has to either go with the show’s unsavory popularity or go against the grain.
Sitting with us in Oakland, Lee talks about compromise, about the portrayal of blacks in the media, the negativity in hip hop, and his love for sports. At times it is like pulling teeth, as Lee likes things short and concise. But as he talks he begins to open up and give his opinions, some of them contentious.
Spike, a lot of black journalists have been offended by Bamboozled.
Well, it is a satire. It is a joke. We should not think that we are a monolithic group, and that all black people will like it. That is why I say we need to get those positions that are gatekeepers. Those that decide what is on the front page, and what gets buried in the back pages.
What motivated you to do this film?
Just the history of our images in cinema and television.
What do you want this film to do?
I want to have people talking about this. I want it to spark discussion and debate.
Will you be attacked for being a racist?
Why not. People attacked me for being a racist with Summer Of Sam, and there were no black people in that movie.
What do you think about the charges against you? They also said you were anti-Semitic?
Well, I mean it is apparent what they are trying to do with those charges.
Do you get in trouble for the topics you make movies about? On race?
I am an artist. I am a filmmaker and these are the stories I want to tell. Not everything I do involves race, but when I do tell a story regarding race, when we do deal with it, we have to go at it strong.
How do you expect this film to motivate young people?
If that happens, so be it. I just hope that the young people get some positive things out of it. I think a lot of the stuff they didn’t know anything about. Such as the origin of blackface. The minstrel show, all of that stuff. They don’t understand it at all. That’s how come I think it will be good for them to see this film.
Were some of the older blacks offended by the film and the images it shows?
There are some people, black and white, that feel that these images need to be buried forever. They are like, “Let it die and move on.” I don’t agree, but I respect that opinion.
Your film is a satire, but how real do you think it is?
It is very real. People get hung up about, “This can’t happen, because no one will put blackface on their face,” but you don’t need blackface in the 21st century to make a minstrel show.
In the film, Savion Glover just wants to dance. He will do it in spite of it being offensive to people. Can you knock the brother for it?
Everyone has to make a decision where you might have to compromise themselves. That is what the film is saying, without saying the decision that you should make.
Give me some examples of modern day minstrels.
Gangsta rap videos. I think that there are shows on television.
Do you think your film attacks hip hop?
I am not condemning a whole genre of videos, but I think that gangsta rap is a subdivision of hip hop.
You say gangsta rap is a modern-day minstrel show. What do you want to see change in the genre?
The lyrical content. This whole pursuit of mass consumerism. The Bentleys.
You sound like Stanley Crouch.
No, he condemns all gangsta rap. I don’t. If you go back to Do the Right Thing, you see “Fight the Power” and the Crooklyn Dodgers . I’ve had hip hop in my films. But I have a problem with all the Bentleys and the Rolexes. The Cristal. The Platinum. The platinum teeth. The ice.
So gangsta rap is coonism?
Look at those videos. Look at the portrayal of the women in those videos.
This is your fifteenth film. Do you sit back and think about how your career has evolved?
I try and reflect on it every so often. I think it has been substantial in what we have been able to do. Fifteen films in fifteen years. I have built up a substantial body of work. I am very proud of it, and I look forward to continuing to do it.
Do you think that people know what your production company’s name – 40 Acres and a Mule —means?
Some people do, others don’t.
What do you think about the reparations concept?
Well, everyone else is getting reparations. Recently the German government and businesses got together to talk about the dollars they are going to give to the survivors of the Holocaust. They should get it. Someone told me the other day that there is an article in Harpers Weekly that says if you figure out the number for African Americans it would be something like $900 trillion. It was a bunch of white economists figuring this out.
Let me ask you about your sports book, The Best Seat In The House. How did it do?
It did well. I would love to do another sports book. In fact, my next film, if I can do it, will be about Joe Louis and Max Schmeling.
What is going on with the Knicks? What did you think about the Patrick Ewing trade?
They have not lost in pre-season, but it was terrible that Patrick could not retire as a Knick. With Alonzo being hurt, and with Rik Smits retiring, Indiana is weaker. It was a bad move.
But they would still lose to the Los Angeles Lakers. Right?
Hey, the Lakers might not get beyond Portland this year. Remember they were behind by 15 points in the fourth quarter in Game 7 against the Blazers. And now they got Dale Davis and Shawn Kemp, and all the Lakers have is Horace Grant.
How will the Joe Louis film be?
It will be an epic.
Who will play Joe Louis?
We will find someone. It will probably be someone new.
What is up with your boy Mike Tyson?
I will buy the fight on Friday night, and he will knock Golotha out.
What about Tyson/Lewis?
I will go to that fight. If you can ever think about a tragic figure, that is Mike Tyson. He is a good brother. He just has a lot of confusion around him.
How is the situation in Hollywood? Is it still a minstrel show?
Minstrel show. I would say that we will not have fundamental change until we get into positions of what I call the gatekeepers. These are the people who can say what film gets made, and what television show gets made. That is where we have to be.
What do you think about a black studio? What about having as many black film studios as they have record companies?
Yeah, I like that, but none of those record companies have national distribution. Where is the first one? Where is the first black studio?
Is it possible for the few black people that have finances to put their money together and finance films? Wasn’t that your model with Get on the Bus?
Well, the investors all made their money, but it was like a one shot thing…I am not a financial person. There are enough black people here who know about money. My job is a filmmaker.
to new to be right.