Spike Lee Takes on Hollywood

Thursday, October 5th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) — The images are painful and ugly. Depictions of blacks as lazy and shiftless, or as mammies and Uncle Toms, their faces darkened and their features exaggerated to generate laughs.

The early portrayals of blacks in Hollywood — some by white actors in blackface, others by black actors in stereotypical roles — are a source of embarrassment and anger for many blacks, even decades after these images disappeared from the screen.

Spike Lee's provocative new film ``Bamboozled'' revisits those images.

A satire of a 21st-century black minstrel show, the movie parodies the images of blacks on television and film today, and questions just how much progress blacks have made in Hollywood.

``I think from my observation, black people don't want to deal with that stuff,'' says Lee. ``It's like, `Oh, why bring that stuff up? We're trying to get away from it.'

``But I think we need to deal with that stuff because it still has an effect on us today. By seeing who these people were — why were they forced to do that? What was the effect of those roles? How is it still affecting us? ... These are all things we need to ask.''

The movie's poster displays a cartoon image of a man with jet-black skin, ruby-red lips and a bright white smile, recalling Sambo images of the past. The New York Times refused to run the image as an advertisement for the film, asking that Lee submit a different image.

Lee has become adept at stirring up controversy with films about race, including ``School Daze,'' ``Do the Right Thing'' and ``Malcolm X.''

``Bamboozled'' is no exception. It stars Damon Wayans as Pierre Delacroix, a Harvard-educated TV writer for an upstart, struggling network. As the only black on staff, he is ordered by his white boss to come up with something black and hip — or be fired.

So the frustrated Delacroix, hoping to get the boot, creates ``Mantan The New Millennium Minstrel Show,'' a contemporary blackface comedy starring two desperate street performers, played by Savion Glover (Broadway's ``Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk'') and Tommy Davidson (TV's ``In Living Color'').

But instead of getting fired, Delacroix is celebrated for his ``genius'' by the white network brass, who put the show on the air and watch it become a phenomenon — with dire consequences.

Although the film is over-the-top and outlandish, Lee believes the idea of modern black minstrel shows isn't far-fetched. They already exist, he says.

He won't point to any particular show, but says ``the stuff is there, and (we) just hope that we start to make some headway, so when African-Americans do appear on television, it doesn't always have to be a sitcom.''

In the past, Lee has described Eddie Murphy's claymation comedy ``The PJs'' as ``really hateful, I think, towards black people.'' The show, which debuted on Fox and is now on the WB network, is set in a mostly black housing project afflicted with drugs, guns and poverty.

The filmmaker also was one of a number of critics, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who pounded the UPN network for ``The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer,'' a sitcom about a black English nobleman who becomes butler and adviser to President Lincoln during the Civil War. The low-rated show, which debuted during the 1998-99 television season, was quickly canceled.

As usual, when Lee talks, people listen — and tend to get upset. Comedian Jamie Foxx, who stars on the WB's ``The Jamie Foxx Show,'' recently took offense at the 43-year-old director's general criticisms of today's black comedy hits.

``With the most respect I can give him, I think he needs to back off a little,'' Foxx told Entertainment Weekly Online. ``I think it's getting to the point where nobody cares, because he talks about it so much that now he's just become the angry guy, the angry black man.''

Lee called Foxx's statement ``ignorant.''

``I did not name a show, I did not say his show was a minstrel show. ... So, I don't know why he would get all defensive,'' he says.

``And then, for me, to say that Spike is angry — that sounds like some white person, No. 1, because black people — I think we're not angry enough, to tell you the truth. And also, anger is good.''

``Bamboozled'' takes its title from a speech by Malcolm X in which he said blacks in the United States had been ``bamboozled'' and ``hoodwinked.''

``Being a conscious black man in this country, and seeing how we've been depicted in television and film, this film has been inside of me since I started watching television and going to movies,'' Lee says.

For many in the cast, the film was an education on the history of blacks in Hollywood and how they were debased on film. For example, when Davidson and Glover put on blackface, they burned cork and smeared the ashes on their faces.

``What was hard for Tommy and Savion was putting on that blackface,'' says Lee. ``That was the hard part, because that is a very painful thing to do, very painful.''

Lee had the cast, which includes Jada Pinkett Smith and Michael Rapaport, study old films that showed Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney — even cartoon character Bugs Bunny — wearing blackface.

Rapaport says those images surprised him.

``I didn't realize the extent of it. I didn't realize that's what it was, that black performers, that's what they did, and that's pretty much only what they did. I didn't realize how much it was just sort of a regular thing,'' he says.

In the film's closing credits, Lee tries to educate the audience as well. He shows a montage of offensive images of blacks from past films. Among those featured in the clips are Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel, comedian Stepin Fetchit and the namesake of Glover's ``Bamboozled'' character, Mantan Moreland.

While those actors have been derided by blacks for their role in perpetuating stereotypes, Lee offers a more sympathetic view.

``These were very talented people, and it's criminal that they were not able to express the full range of their talents. I mean, do you think that Bill `Bojangles' (Robinson), that in the highlights of his film career, he had to be dancing with this moppet, Shirley Temple?

``These guys were great artists, but because of the times, they were confined to play that part.''


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