For once, the ever-present blue Yankees cap is (albeit temporarily) at Spike Lee’s side. Still, the director looks monochromatically stylish as he sheds his black leather jacket to reveal a thick ribbed black sweater and white pants. The West Coast circuit to promote his new movie, “Bamboozled,” is almost at an end. He’s due to leave for the airport soon to head back to New York, the Subway Series and his children, Satchel and Jackson.
Of course, since Satchel is 5 and Jackson only 3, they’re far too young to have seen their father’s latest project. When they visit his office, though, they see the props he amassed for the film: A jar featuring a beaming Aunt Jemima, a sexless plump mammy happy to serve up a cookie. The donkey that forever turns around and kicks the unfortunate black man who will never learn how to get out of the way. The alligator, jaws cracked wide open, for the young black baby, the gatorbaby.
“They never ask about it,” Lee says, and he figures he has time if and when they ask about his newly acquired collection.
Not even the bank that sits on top of Lee’s desk has triggered any youthful inquiries. It’s one of the uncredited stars in the film. The bank is made in the shape of a black man’s head and arm. The upturned palm awaits a coin. When the crank in the nape of its neck is turned, it thrusts the coin into the smiling, grotesquely huge red-lipped mouth.
The movie was just an idea in the back of Lee’s head when he purchased the bank at a store that sells such black collectibles. He bought it despite his reaction when he saw it: “Anger. Sadness.”
The bank sat on his desk every day as he wrote “Bamboozled,” a satire that savages the predominantly white-run television industry; lawless, angry rappers who are fuzzy about their “cause”; and the sitcom buffoonery of black actors. “It just needed to be there,” Lee says calmly.
The grinning black head also becomes a desk fixture for the character Pierre Delacroix (played by Damon Wayans), a television writer who vengefully dreams up a modern-day minstrel show to defy his white boss’ demand for “truly” black, Bill Cosby-free programming. It is a grossly perfect symbol for the movie, the degrading image of black people perpetuated.
Although “Bamboozled” is a comedy, Lee wants it to make people angry. As is his habit in his storytelling, Lee frequently interrupts the narration, this time with flashbacks to television and film clips featuring whites in blackface, bug-eyed black comedians, little girls with exaggeratedly kinky hair and watermelon contests.
“I tried to see everything that had been done,” Lee said. “It’s an impossible task, but that’s what I told my research assistant. I want to see everything, everything.” Although he knew what was out there, he was still surprised by what he came across, such as Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney slathering burnt cork on their faces. That scene made it into the montage of clips that runs in “Bamboozled”; Warner Bros. didn’t grant permission for the other sight that stunned him: Bugs Bunny in blackface.
“I think what should make people mad is about the history of stereotypical images, the misrepresentation of people of color and the television and film industry,” he says. “People should be very mad about that.”
Lee doesn’t think those kinds of images should be buried, or that they’re a past America has long left behind, because he sees it happening today. Lee would have included gangsta rap videos and the Eddie Murphy cartoon series “The PJs,” but he didn’t bother to make requests he figures would have been denied.
“Bamboozled” itself had been denied by the studios, except one. “New Line was the only studio willing to step up and finance this film for a price,” Lee said. The budget wasn’t massive under $10 million, actually which partly explains why he resorted to cheaper digital video. But he likes the medium’s gritty, televisionlike look, and the variety of camera angles he could use to present his story.
It’s a tossup as to whether other studios declined to greenlight the movie because it skewered its own surroundings or because of general Hollywood conservatism. But subject matter and controversy aside, the theatrical fare of late has not exactly demanded full, undivided brain matter. That might also have played a part in the lack of studio interest.
“I know there are other filmmakers trying to get thought-provoking films made also, and there’s no climate for it,” Lee says. “They feel audiences don’t want to see that stuff, which I disagree.”
If he believes movie audiences aren’t getting in enough deep-thinking, then he should really enjoy the challenge of the other medium he wants to dabble in the one he mercilessly flayed in his movie. “I hope to start doing some stuff in television,” he says. “I would like to have the platform that James Cameron has.”
But instead of science fiction, like the “Titanic” director’s series “Dark Angel,” he’d like to try drama. He won’t be more specific, only that he wants to put out “quality work. Quality material I don’t really want to deal right now with the sitcom genre. I think there’s more than enough sitcoms.”
He is also playing with the idea of focusing on heavyweight boxing champion Joe Lewis, “the Brown Bomber.” The next pressing project, though, will probably be helping plan out the Halloween costumes. Jackson likes Pokmon. As for his daughter, Satchel, she likes Barbie but, Lee says, “she’ll probably be a princess.”
* WHO: Spike Lee
* WHAT: Director of “Bamboozled”
* WHERE: Now playing at area theaters
* RATING: R