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About Face: An Interview with Spike Lee

By Rebecca Cantu, Contributing Writer


Interviewing the notoriously terse Spike Lee is a daunting task in itself. Interviewing Spike Lee about a new film that threatens to shatter our perceptions of race relations and expose all our recent "progress" as phony is almost too much to handle. After all, Bamboozled, his new film, is causing a ruckus all over the country as it slowly rolls out into theaters and there's no question that it will continue to spark debate long after its run is over.

With Bamboozled, Lee takes a look at one of film and television's rarest breeds-the black television executive. His satire is based on the current lack of diversity in Hollywood, where 75 percent of television writers are white. And in most cases, the minority writers at networks are all working on the same show (in 1999, it was found that ABC employed nine black writers-all assigned to the same sitcom). In order to succeed in his position as a black television executive, then, Lee's main character delves back into the history of blacks on screen to revive one of the most popular forms of early entertainment: the Minstrel. And with the Minstrel, of course, comes Blackface-perhaps the most dreaded image in the history of American media.

We had the opportunity to meet with Lee at a Boston hotel to discuss his newest, and perhaps most controversial film, and to consider impending reactions.

The Harvard Crimson: You don't shy away from controversy, but this film is eliciting even more impassioned reactions than most of your films. Is there a specific incident that prompted you to write the screenplay?

Spike Lee: Not really. There are a whole lot of things that added to the idea, things that I got from watching television, or from movies. Bamboozled came from the ideas I was having about us making a transition from the end of this century into the next. I've really been disappointed by the portrayals of people of color in the media and this seemed like an appropriate time to think about the direction we're going in.

THC: You could have passed off the screenplay to another director-why did you feel you were the only one who could tell this story?

SL: I felt it. This was a story that I wanted to tell. You know, now that I think about it, another great thing about being a film director is that you have to know and you get to know about a lot of different things.

THC: Your films usually have trouble getting a studio distributor. Was it difficult to find a distributor for this film?

SL: I had more trouble getting this film picked up by a studio than any other film. But that's expected given the content.

THC: Are you worried that there may be public outcry from the black community about the content of the film?

SL: I am sure that there will be some criticism, but that has to be expected. The content of the film will raise some uneasy feelings, but by no means am I worried. I actually think that it's great that the film will raise discussion and I don't mind it being the stepping stone to people becoming aware of things that have been forgotten or ignored. There's a lot of ignorance about the history of these images. It is a movie that makes people sit down and talk about what they just saw. I actually think that it needs a second viewing for the audience to understand everything.

THC: But don't you ever worry about preaching too much at an audience?

SL: Worried, about it? We were screaming to the audience! And we loved it.

THC: In your opinion, has the movie industry changed for the better or the worse in the last few years?

SL: There have been some forward steps and some backwards. It is really hard to separate recent progress from the legacy of racism that America has inherited.

THC: But this legacy of racism also seems to be producing some curious side-effects, right? Your movie also implies that white people are trying to become "more black"...

SL: History is filled with white people who have tried to become blacker. Take Elvis Presley... even today, groups like N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys. Culture is for everybody, but there is a difference between appreciating a culture and appropriating a culture.

THC: So who is the movie supposed to speak to? To black audiences or white audiences? Or do you think that it has a message for everybody?

SL: No question about it, it's for everyone to watch. I know that it's painful at times, but we're not making this up. The depths of degradation in cartoons, movies, and television shows, the misrepresentation of a people - it's an American legacy. Not just in television or movies, but in all media.

THC: Is it possible that the hype around the film and the sensationalistic buzz that surrounds these images might contribute to their glorification?

SL: All I can say is that my film is definitely not a glorification of these images.

THC: Let's talk about the technical decisions you made for filming. Why did you choose to use digital video and what benefits did it bring to the production?

SL: Considering the small budget for the movie - it cost just under $10 million - I thought that the Sony VX 1000 worked well and was appropriate for the look of the film. Digital video made sense aesthetically since it's a film about a television show - and it also made sense practically because it allowed us to shoot quickly.

THC: On a quick shoot, do you abide strictly by the script or do you allow your actors to improv?

SL: The way I work, in any film that I do there's always some improv; there's definitely some in this film too.

THC: How did the actors feel about blackening up?

SL: They absolutely, absolutely dreaded it. There's no question that they felt it was dehumanizing. Some of the cast and crew weren't familiar with blackface, actually. They didn't know what to feel and I could tell that they were just dumbfounded.

THC: Not only are they dealing with blackening, but their characters are "bloody" as well. Are there any characters that you feel are more despicable than others?

SL: I would say that all the characters are "bloody." Everyone is equally guilty of something and I think it is important to stress that everybody is in cahoots.

THC: If everyone is guilty, then isn't that a possible basis for giving the film a clear resolution? Why did you decide to leave it so open-ended?

SL: I firmly believe that it's not the artist's job to give the answers to racism and I never attempted to provide an answer to "institutional" racism. All I know is that in the universe I created [in the film], people have to pay.

THC: In Bamboozled, you're not only talking about the history of racist media images, but you're also commenting on the state of the current media landscape. There are shows on television today that are the subject of your parody, correct?

SL: There are plenty, and we all know what those shows are. My film is supposed to reflect that; it is an indictment of the people who write and accept those shows, because we know that they exist today. It also has to do with the $1 million question: What is black? It is a never-ending quest for who we are, and some people are still in search of that.

THC: So what do you think about the Mantan Show hitting television screens in this decade? Could it really take off today?

SL: Yes, I do. Maybe not a version as explicit, but think about it - a lot of gangster rap music videos are minstrel shows in themselves.

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