If nothing else, Spike Lee is a prodigious filmmaker, releasing at least one or two movies each year. His summer offering, Kings of Comedy, was a script-free filming of four popular black comedians’ standup performances. With his latest film, Bamboozled, Lee has switched from immortalizing one facet of black comedy to harshly criticizing another – this time the ways blacks are portrayed in entertainment. Lee’s attacks hit home as he takes on the television industry.
Anytime I do a film, the motivation is to tell a story, Lee said. First and foremost I consider myself a storyteller, and this is number fifteen.
The film starts off as a comedy that people are afraid to laugh at, but then shifts gears, becoming a serious commentary on the state of television. The movie attempts to show just how short the United States has fallen in achieving racial equality.
I wanted to do something about the film and television industry, Lee said. And take a look at its ugly past.
The protagonist of Bamboozled is Pierre Delacroix, played by Damon Wayans (Mo’ Money). Delacroix is the only black sitcom writer working at CNS, the film’s fictional network, whose ad campaign bears a strong resemblance to ABC’s yellow and black billboards.
When pressed to create a new black show, Delacroix devises a plan to get himself fired. After hiring two homeless men and naming the men ManTan and Sleep-n-Eat, Delacroix pitches the idea to his white boss, played by Michael Rappaport, who jumps at the chance to produce ManTan’s New Millennium Minstrel Show. The program features classic minstrel/vaudeville material, making fun of blacks by using racial stereotypes. Savion Glover, the young tap-dancing virtuoso, plays ManTan, using his tap skills as the cornerstone of each episode.
Of course there are detractors, and black activists are horrified when the program comes to air. What Delacroix did not expect was the public’s overwhelming acceptance and support for the show. Viewers even don blackface (layers of makeup white minstrel performers applied to look black) along with their favorite stars.
In classic Dr. Frankenstein style, Delacroix’s sure-fire plan to get fired goes awry, and he has to deal with the monster that the show has become. Delacroix gets drawn into his own joke, attracted by a thing called fame, and fortune, and celebrity, things that Lee said he likes to think he has avoided.
I’m very good I think, I’ve been very well-grounded, Lee said. (I) continue to do what I do, and that’s make films, not let the other stuff sidetrack me.
Lee admits he had some trouble finding a studio wishing to produce his film because of its radical topic.
New Line pictures financed us, Lee said. It was the hardest one ever, New Line was the only one that said yes.
Lee was vague about how many other studios turned him down. More than ten, was the only reply Lee offered.
Shot on inexpensive digital cameras, the film has a distinctly amateur feel, similar to last year’s faux-documentary Black and White.
There was one choice aesthetically … and also it was a budgetary consideration, Lee said. The camera we shot with this film was a Sony DX 1000, that camera costs twelve hundred dollars, it’s a consumer camera.
Lee said he believes that with digital equipment like this, anybody can make a film nowadays. That doesn’t mean the films are going to be good, but it makes it more democratic I think.
The lead roles in Bamboozled also seem less glamorous than most leads in big Hollywood productions. Savion Glover is not yet known for his acting, and he still seems most at ease on-screen during the tap-dancing sequences. Damon Wayans, best known for his comic roles, allows his character to develop as the film progresses, until it becomes a full three-dimensional being, instead of a flat cardboard character with no depth.
(I) felt he was a fine dramatic actor, Lee said. The same with Savion Glover.
The film is awash with celebrity cameos, from O.J. Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran to rap artists like the Roots and Erykah Badu. References to pop-culture are everywhere; lauding the Cosby Show, and damning shows like Homeboys from Outer Space and Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer. In the interview, Lee bitterly describes shows like those as sitcoms about slavery.
Networks such as UPN and the WB also take a hit in the movie, but they’re not the only ones, Lee said. He even goes so far as to drop a barb directed towards himself, thinking that in the spirit of the movie, we’re getting a lot of people, so why should I be excluded? Lee said.
Lee said he is prepared for criticism that might come his way.
We felt that we went to where we needed to go, Lee said. Number one, when you have a film like this and you go after something sacred like television, Hollywood, and Tommy Hilfiger, you can expect to meet some people who don’t agree with your vision. This film really is a litmus test to how people truly are.