Spike Lee's latest film, BAMBOOZLED, is a biting satire that dares to take on the state of race in the American media in the year 2000. In an era of no-holds-barred, no-limits, gross-out comedy, Spike Lee has created a film that is equally on-the-edge, controversial and shockingly funny, but one that also makes you think.
With Bamboozled, Lee takes a look at one of film and television's rarest breeds -- the African-American television executive. His funny send-up is based in some sobering facts about the world a black writer enters, a world in which 75 percent of television writers are white. In a 1999 survey by the NAACP, it was found that ABC, for example, employed just nine black writers, five of whom were all working on the same show. At the time, NAACP's Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch president Billie Green stated: "The lack of diversity in writers' rooms throughout television is even more startling than the lack of diversity on the air."
So what is a young African-American writer to do? In Bamboozled, Pierre Delacroix tries to go with the flow and give the people, or at least the network's conception of the people, what they want - but in so doing, he manufactures his own spectacular downfall. Delacroix delves back into the history of African-Americans on film and television and unwittingly revives one of the most popular forms of early entertainment - Minstrel, the burnt-cork, black-face dance and comedy shows. It might seem far-fetched but it also might not be too far off the mark. As black historian Donald Bogle writes in his book Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: "Often enough the old stereotypes resurface, simply dressed in new garb to look modern, hip, provocative and politically 'relevant.'"
"Bamboozled came about because I was thinking about the end of this century and moving into the next. I have always been disappointed by the limited ways that people of color have been portrayed, depicted and often rewritten out of history -- and this seemed an appropriate time to think about the next hundred years of media," explains Spike Lee. "And it's not just in television or cinema, but all media as well."
With Bamboozled he comes at his subject from a cutting, satirical view point as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. Looking around at the current content of movies and television shows, he says, "I saw the minstrel show still very much with us. Pierre Delacroix's show doesn't seem that out there when you realize the only thing he's really doing different from some of the actual television shows on the network now is putting black-face on the actors."
But Lee did decide to take Delacroix's television production to the next degree of ironic absurdity - absurdity that cuts to the core. "This is very clearly satire," he explains. "But this is also one of those topics where once you learn the real history, it raises some uneasy feelings. You see the images and you always have this internal conflict: just how funny is this and should I laugh or have some other response? Even Delacroix and Sloan aren't sure how to respond, just as is the audience."
Lee has always been interested in using the power of entertainment to spark such uneasy responses - and the compelling and necessary conversations that follow in their wake. With Bamboozled, he found himself opening people's eyes even before production got under way. "I found that a lot of the cast, crew and studio executives had never seen the historical footage before," he explains. "They had never seen Bugs Bunny in black-face. They had never seen Judy Garland or Mickey Rooney in black-face. They weren't aware of the depths of degradation in cartoons, movies and television shows, the misrepresentation of a people. Now people look at this stuff and don't know what to feel. There's a lot of ignorance about the history of media images."
Bamboozled re-introduces some of that history with montages of historical clips - as well as authentic artifacts from black history, some of which come from Lee's own extensive collection of black collectibles. Lee also hearkens back to this stereotypical history by having Pierre Delacroix re-name Savion Glover's character from Manray to Mantan, after the 1940's actor Mantan Moreland, who became better known for his wide-eyed portrayal chauffeur Birmingham Brown in the Charlie Chan movie series.
But to capture exactly what happens to Pierre Delacroix in the millennial present, Lee used a new technique to shoot Bamboozled: he armed his crew with multiple mini digital video cameras to track the ensemble cast through the winding story. Although still in its revolutionary infancy, digital video fit the bill for what Spike wanted to accomplish with Bamboozled. He explains: "First of all, digital video was a good aesthetic choice because it's a film about a television show. I was also very influenced by the look of the film Celebration (by Dogma (1999) director Thomas Vinterberg) which I liked very much. Finally, using Mini-DV suited this film perfectly because we had a lot to do on this shoot and we needed to move."
Move they did, with Lee overseeing as many as 15 simultaneous cameras sometimes, looking at the world of television writer Pierre Delacroix from many, always sharply satirical, angles.
Equally key to the production was a versatile, willing-to-experiment cast. "I've always felt that Damon Wayans is very talented and I needed someone with his great comedic sense for the role of Pierre Delacroix. Savion Glover is a genius with what he can do with movement and dance and I've long been looking for a way to incorporate him into a feature. Jada Pinkett Smith is another person I've wanted to work with because she's a very fine actress and Michael Rapaport is someone I see at Knicks games and we've always talked about working together. I was pleased to have such a great cast," summarizes Lee.
The Director struck a raw nerve among the comic actors who read his searingly satirical script for Bamboozled, especially because so many have experienced the real-world equivalent of his spoof: the stunning lack of rich, three-dimensional roles for minority actors in quality television shows. Damon Wayans had an immediate reaction. "I said this is some dangerous stuff and I want to be part of it," he recalls. "I've always wanted to work with Spike and this was clearly going to be his most controversial project ever. I saw that this movie had a chance to be hilariously entertaining but also therapeutic at the same time, letting us face up to the past and the present, while keeping us laughing."
Wayans, noted for his own right-to-the-edge style of comedy, was immediately drawn to the idea of a take-no-prisoners film that skewers everybody on all sides of the racial divide equally. "This film is going to be controversial to both whites and blacks," he notes. "It's potentially explosive but that's what makes it so original. It's sort of a Frankenstein tale set in the world of network television: all about a guy who accidentally creates a monster. It's about how sometimes you do things for the wrong reasons and how it always comes back to haunt you."
Like Damon Wayans, Jada Pinkett Smith jumped off her chair when she read Bamboozled. "My first reaction was 'right on, Spike.' This movie takes on an issue, that especially right now, really needs to be looked at. An issue which no one has been willing to start talking about. What I hope is that more than anything else, this movie will create a great platform for conversation. It's not about whether you agree with the angle that Spike has decided to take - it's enough that people start talking. There's definitely going to be a lot of laughter in the audience, but you're gonna have some real food for thought to take home with you, too."
In addition to the controversy, the actors were excited by Spike's stand-out characters. Wayans was amused and intrigued by Pierre Delacroix, a Harvard educated man who wants desperately to be taken seriously. The actor quickly developed his own vision of Delacroix's mannerisms. "I saw him as a guy who maybe read a few James Baldwin novels, took a few trips to Europe, and then decided to effect an elite accent," comments Wayans. "He likes to think of himself as very grand and every word he chooses is very important to him."
"But beyond the surface, I thought this was a very complicated character," adds Wayans. "He's a guy dealing in self-hate. He looks like he has his act together - he's dresses to the nines, he's manicured. But inside he's seething."
A veteran gladiator of network television's homogenous, ratings-first mindset himself, Wayans related fiercely to the story of Pierre Delacroix. "This is satire, but for me, a lot of it gets truly real," says Wayans. "I look at some of the stuff on television right now and I say, 'how did we get here?' You know, how did we get from 'The Cosby Show' back to this? And why is it that white people still control what gets on the air?"
"I've always thought it was because television is solely focused on the bottom line, because the only thing that matters is dollars," continues Wayans. "But when I told Spike that, he said 'no, we are partly responsible because we create shows like this. At some point we embrace it, and we participate in the writing and acting.' Ultimately, there is a choice to be made."
Damon Wayans and Spike Lee spent the early days of pre-production shooting the breeze - engaging in lengthy conversations about the story of Bamboozled and why Pierre Delacroix makes the choice that sets off a cascade of comic controversy. "What Spike wanted most from me was to bring out the truth of the television world," suggests Wayans. "Because I'd been in it, I'd seen the mentality. I could help lend credibility to the way it really happens."
Later, the character was refined during an intense, two-week rehearsal. "After talking about everything, it was all very clear and very personal," says Wayans. "But at a certain point I had to reconnect with being funny. I had to detach myself from all this drama and start being the clown." Lee gave Wayans free reign to explore the comedy moments with the broad, farcical strokes for which he is beloved. "One of my favorite moments is when Pierre starts to fantasize about winning awards and finally being accepted, and he goes up on stage and starts break dancing a la Cuba Gooding. I just had a blast going over the top in those scenes," comments Wayans.
Wayans also felt that Spike Lee's use of digital video - using many hand-held cameras all at the same time perfectly matched the style of the comedy. "What's wonderful about digital video is that you move so fast," observes the actor. "When it comes to comedy, spontaneous is better."
As part of his own research for the role, Wayans accompanied Lee into black memorabilia shops looking for the relics of the black-face era. "We found all sorts of things, like a black-face doll with a hole in the mouth where you can hit him with a ball, and real shackles from slavery days," recalls Wayans. "We found things like a pen shaped like an alligator with a little black kid in his mouth. Its just shows you how deep and how entrenched the hatred must be in order for people to create things like this. It's scary. I felt like I needed to show my kids all this stuff so they would be aware of their past."
Once on the set, Wayans was thrilled to be part of an extremely talented, energetic and diverse cast. "What Spike does is cast people who can just be themselves," observes Wayans. "And in this case, I couldn't think of a better group of people to put together." He was especially pleased to have an opportunity to work with Jada Pinkett Smith, who plays his loyal but skeptical assistant. "Jada's smile is just like coffee," says Wayans, "it'll perk you right up. She's also very playful which was great because with subject matter this sensitive and heated, if people weren't having fun on the set, it would be way too intense."
Perhaps the most intense person on the set was 25 year-old Savion Glover, the astonishingly accomplished dancer, choreographer and Tony Award winner for the smash Broadway hit "Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk," who plays Mantan, the homeless street performer who becomes an overnight sensation in black-face. "Savion is a man of even fewer words than Spike," notes Wayans. "But the brother is deep. He is on a whole different level - his feet talk for him, you know? He's always thinking about what he's going to say next with his feet, because to him, words are useless."
Wayans also had a chance to reunite with comedian Michael Rapaport, with whom he worked in his early stand-up improv days. "I remember Michael as this angry little white kid who sounded like a brother if you weren't looking at him," he laughs. "But he's become an incredibly intense actor and he was perfect as Dunwitty. Pierre doesn't respect Dunwitty but he wants and needs his approval because he has dreams that go way beyond what his boss can see. Pierre sees the potential of the network, of what it could do, but he tolerates Dunwitty because he's conditioned to think that you have to let white people feel their power. And he doesn't see where it's leading to until it's too late."
Personally, in the wake of Bamboozled, Damon Wayans was left with some very strong opinions about the future of diversity on television. "I think we have the foundation to do some amazing things, but we have to really start controlling our own destiny and our own images," he summarizes.
"I do think this film is going to conjure some heated debates," continues Jada Pinkett Smith "Because basically this film points the finger at ourselves and says we need to be responsible for what types of things we write and what types of roles we take. Not everyone is going to agree with that point of view."
Smith plays one of Bamboozled's most conflicted characters - Sloan Hopkins, Pierre Delacroix's ambitious assistant who is hungry for success . . . but not necessarily at any price. "She is really torn," explains Pinkett Smith. "She knows right from the beginning that the minstrel show isn't right, but at first she's seduced by the success, by the fame, by the status, by Mantan himself."
Sloan is also being bombarded on the other side by her militant rap artist brother, Julius (played by Dante Beze 'aka' Mos Def), who has changed his name to Big Black Africa - but she doesn't see hip-hop as the answer. "Sloan basically sees the hypocrisy in these guys who are 40-ounce drinking, weed smoking, righteous militant rap artists," she says. "She sees them rebelling but her idea is 'man, the only demon you're fighting is the demon within yourself'.'"
Because Sloan's job is to research the history of minstrel shows for new ideas, Spike Lee wanted Jada to become extremely familiar with the legacy. "He had it all laid out for me," she recalls. "He had all types of television shows and cartoons and magazines and even the sheet music from the original minstrel shows. This was a real revelation because it had never really dawned on me what it was all about before. It was very enlightening, but very sad."
Despite the seriousness of her discovery, part of Pinkett Smith's challenge was to keep Bamboozled light and funny. "Spike always was saying that it was very important that this be a real comedy," she explains. "Luckily, he brought in Damon Wayans, who's a wonderful fool. He made it a lot of fun - and he also found a way to incorporate some hilarious action without taking you out of what the movie is about."
She also enjoyed the chance to work with rising talent Savion Glover, a performer unlike any other. "He's so talented and so young," offers Pinkett Smith. "He's just not your ordinary 25 year-old. He's already doing his own thing, bringing his own vibe to everything he does
Pinkett Smith also enormously enjoyed collaborating with Tommy Davidson, who co-stars as Mantan's side kick Sleep N' Eat. Perhaps no more than Sloan, Sleep N' Eat is torn apart by participating in the Minstrel mayhem and ultimately decides he must be loyal to his conscience and protect his dignity.
At the end of the day, though, Pinkett Smith hopes people will laugh their way right into deep conversation. "There's always been a separation between social politics and entertainment in Hollywood," she notes, "but we don't have that luxury in these times. It's a critical situation right now and it's time to get the family together and say 'what's up?,' 'what are we doing?,' 'where are we going?" And that's what Bamboozled does."