I Like Spike: A Spike Lee Interview

I remember when I first saw “She’s Gotta Have It” in 1986. It was like a smack in the face, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. At the time, portrayals of African Americans in films basically consisted of criminals, drug dealers and pimps. Having grown up in Detroit in a racially diverse community, I knew these stereotypes to be utter bullshit. Hollywood seemed only to be interested in typecasting Black actors into certain roles. Lee’s debut feature film “She’s Gotta Have It” portrayed Blacks as people. It was about damn time.
Spike Lee’s films don’t just push buttons — they become the subject of national discussions. His latest, Bamboozled, is a controversial comedy that stars Damon Wayans as a frustrated TV executive. He comes up with an idea for a show he thinks will never make it on the air. It’s called “Mantan: The New Millenium Minstrel Show,” and it’s about a pair of lazy, homeless black men. If anyone ever questioned whether Spike Lee has balls as a filmmaker, don’t even bother asking. Lee has the biggest balls of any filmmaker currently alive on the planet! This is intelligent, volatile stuff.
Bamboozled cleverly deals with the subject of racism using over the top, satirical humor. Spike Lee has delivered an amazing movie on, what I believe, is the most important issue facing our country today. This is a remarkable film that will provoke thoughtful discussion about racial stereotypes in America. It is his angriest and most brilliant film.
I caught up with Spike in the hopes of discussing and dissecting this one together.

Have things gotten better for Black filmmakers since “She’s Gotta Have It” came out almost 15 years ago? Or black actors?

I’d say definitely better for black actors. You’ve got people like Denzel (Washington), and Will (Smith), Chris Tucker, and Martin (Lawrence). You know, making $20 million now per film. So it’s definitely better for them. Not so much for African American directors, but it’s a lot better than it was back in 1986. And I would like to say also that it was Robert Townshend’s film “Hollywood Shuffle” that also changed the landscape. So together “She’s Got to Have It” and “Hollywood Shuffle.”

“I think any artist, that’s their role to stimulate and provoke…”

Right. Those two films blew the door wide open. So let me ask, are things better as far as perception of African Americans in the media?

I think it’s opened up a little bit, but it really depends what you’re talking about. This film was the hardest film to get made. If New Line didn’t come at the last moment I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. Nobody wanted to make this film.

In Bamboozled, Pierre Delacroix says he wants to “wake up America.” Is this film going to do it? What will it take?

Well, it’s going to take more than a movie. I think any artist, that’s their role to stimulate and provoke. You’re not necessarily going to get answers from the artists, but you know it’s their job. It’s their job to reflect the times they live in.

The film criticizes Quentin Tarantino’s liberal use of the “N-word” – if you could talk to him face-to-face, what would you say?

I wanted to poke a little fun at him and myself, because in the same scene I say, you know, the character played by Michæl Rappaport, “I don’t care what Spike Lee says, Tarantino was right!”

I’ve read a few reviews of Bamboozled that have criticized the shot-on-digital film look – I think it adds to the film’s realism, was that your intention?

We thought that too. Plus, we didn’t have the money to shoot 35mm.

Could you imagine the very same film, same script, same actors shot in glorious 35mm, looking pretty? Wouldn’t it have diluted the message? It (the digital image) made it a lot harsher, that’s for sure. (LAUGHS) I think that’s right, it would have softened the message and taken some of its power away.

With regard to Black culture, I want to applaud you for the following quote you said on television, “Appreciation, not appropriation.” I personally find it irritating to see white kids going around trying to be Black.

I’d like to say this: It’s a thin line, because I think culture is there for everyone to enjoy, (and) to embrace. But this is just me thinking, if young white kids want to embrace black culture, I don’t think the best thing to take from us is walking around with your pants down below your ass and calling each other nigger. We got better things that they can embrace.

“This whole country is in an identity crisis. That’s what it is.”

Right. I think it would be as ridiculous as if young African American kids were dressing in green and speaking with Irish accents.

(BIG LAUGH!) This whole country is in an identity crisis. That’s what it is.

Which isn’t so bad, because those questions need to be asked. Debra Wilson, from MAD TV, calls the kinds of stereotyped characters seen so often on TV “blackity-black-black.” How do you change that?

(LAUGHS) You change it by getting into those positions of the gatekeepers, the people who decide this show’s getting made and this show’s not getting made. The decision-making positions.

You know you mentioned that Bamboozled almost didn’t get made. Is it that difficult to get financing? Does it come down to the gatekeepers with the money that decide what gets made, what gets put on prime time TV?

That’s what it comes down to, and we’re not in those positions. Of all the Wesley Snipes and the Denzel’s and the Will Smith’s and Chris Tucker’s and Martin Lawrence and everybody, those are just actors. We’re not in those positions at the studio’s that say “Alright I’m making this.”

“The easiest way to dismiss my work, especially work that deals with racism, is to call me a racist.”

There’s the perception that you “hate white people.” I’ve been following your career from the beginning, I’ve seen your films, I don’t get that. Why do you think that there’s this misunderstanding?

The easiest way to dismiss my work, especially work that deals with racism, is to call me a racist. Therefore, my work has no merit, because how can he be talking about racism when he’s a racist himself? You know the old trick. But I think people are really smart, they’re not going for that shit.

I want to talk about the New York Times and the fact they rejected the original ads for Bamboozled. You must have known…

We knew it was going to be somebody, but I never thought it would be the “liberal” New York Times.

Yeah, perhaps “the formerly liberal” New York Times.

You know, I thought it would be the New York Post. (LAUGHS)

What happened?

We had a teaser campaign, and they rejected that ad. Then we had two one-sheets that compliment each other. One is a pick-a-ninny eating a watermelon. The other one you’ve probably seen with Savion and Tommy in black face. So, they told me they rejected all the ads because they felt they were offensive to their readers. Then we threatened with a lawsuit, and my lawyer talked to their lawyer. So, we came up with this compromise where we made some more ads, and basically it’s the same thing. I think what really got them was the first time we submitted the stuff it was in color. Then we submitted the others in black and white, and I guess it doesn’t read as harsh or whatever.

You’ve been nominated twice for an Oscar and…

…And Bamboozled killed any chance–(LAUGHS!)

No, I actually think you’ve got a shot. For some reason, correct me if I’m wrong, I get the feeling you’d like to win one.

Nah.

I believe that the Academy awards Oscars to one kind of movie — dramas with white people.

But look at 1989. “Do the Right Thing” didn’t even get nominated, and what won that year? “Driving Miss Daisy!”

“You change it by getting into those positions of the gatekeepers, the people who decide this show’s getting made and this show’s not getting made. The decision-making positions.”

It’s almost as if the “safe” interpretations of African Americans are the ones that get any kind of recognition whatsoever.

Exactly. And the same interpretations are going to be possibly Men of Honor and Remember the Titans. You know, those are very safe. No disrespect to Denzel, who I love, or Cuba Gooding, but you know those are a very safe type of “Ghost of Mississippi,” “Mississippi Burning” or “Cry Freedom” dealing with the serious subject matter.

Let’s say you win an Oscar. Or perhaps they give you the lifetime achievement award, anyway.

Oh, where they wheel me out? (LAUGHS)

Yeah, 20 years from now they’re going to wheel you out…

I hope it’s more than 20 before I’m in a wheelchair!

What are you going to say, because that’s a huge platform?

I’m not even thinking about it. What’s interesting about the Academy Awards is every year they got this guy, Chuck Workman, who does these little (montages). Well this year they should junk Chuck Workman, and show the final montage from Bamboozled instead. (LAUGHS)

Which is absolutely chilling, I might add. To me it begs almost another project, a documentary about perceptions of African Americans in Film. It might make a great film class that you could teach.

Uhum.

You can even look at films like Animal House, which isn’t that old…

…Otis Day and the Night?

Yeah! I saw that when I was a kid, and to see it now it really stands out as being so wrong. I’m an optimist I’d like to think things are getting better.

Hope so.

Originally posted on May 11, 2001. 

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