- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Uniquely in U.S. cinema, Spike Lee has never shrunk from tackling racial issues head-on. And it hasnt made his life easy.
"We went to everybody," says Spike Lee. "All the studios: majors and independents. No one wanted to deal with the subject matter." Mr. Lee is explaining why his new film, "Bamboozled," was made on digital video, using cheap cameras designed for home use. "We just didnt have the budget for 35 mm film. Thats the only reason we used digital."
The budget he wanted, and could not raise, was $18 million hardly a huge sum in todays Hollywood. But, although the 44-year-old is a well-established director with a proven following, his career is not where it might be.
Only a decade ago, it looked as though he was going to be huge. Young, gifted and black, he pulled in critics prizes and cleaned up at the box office. His films were stylish, popular, full of music and energy, but he used them to explore big, thorny subjects most of all, race. This is what made "Do the Right Thing" (1989) such a key film of the 80s, graphically tackling the issues that fueled the Los Angeles riots.
As Mr. Lees profile rose, his projects became bigger. He fought for the right to make "Malcolm X" (1992) earmarked for Norman Jewison arguing that only a black director could do justice to the controversial community leader. What he delivered, amid storms of fierce debate, was a film that divided America down the middle, black and white, just like the O.J. Simpson trial.
Since then, although he has racked up a consistently profitable, thought-provoking body of work, he has never gotten near the big projects again. He was desperate to direct the forthcoming Will Smith movie about Muhammad Ali; it was handed to Michael Mann. He has been trying for years to raise the money for a film about Jackie Robinson, baseball star of the 40s and 50s; it looks unlikely to happen.
One explanation might be the discomfort that Mr. Lee still causes simply by continuing to address race issues head-on. In 1989, overlooking the political and cinematic intelligence of "Do the Right Thing," the Oscar for best picture went to "Driving Miss Daisy," a movie in which Morgan Freeman played a loyal black servant.
"When that won best picture," Mr. Lee recalls, "it really made it clear to me that Hollywood is much more comfortable with the character Morgan Freeman played than with any of my characters."
If this is the case, it is unsurprising that he struggled to secure funds for "Bamboozled." Its the story of an black TV executive whose attempts to make serious drama about black people are rejected in favor of the thinly veiled caricatures of situation comedy. Disillusioned, determined to get fired, he proposes the most outrageous idea imaginable: a revival of the minstrel show, with old-style "blackface" make-up, and characters who nakedly represent the crudest stereotypes. To his surprise, the proposal is gleefully picked up by his rap-loving white boss, and The New Millennium Minstrel Show becomes a massive hit.
"Its a satire," says Mr. Lee, "but theres nothing in this film that I think is really exaggerated. This is still the place of African Americans in the film and television industries of the USA. Name one show on network TV about African Americans thats a one-hour drama. You cant. Its all sitcoms."
"Bamboozled" has angered some American critics, who believe it suggests there has been no progress in race relations since the original minstrel shows were swept away by protests during the Civil Rights movement of the 60s.
"Im not saying there has been no progress," Mr. Lee counters, "but I could give you examples of recent films that would make you think theres been no progress. Look at the black characters in "The Green Mile," "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and "The Family Man." One has to understand that racism is interwoven into the very fabric of American society why should film and TV not be affected by that?"
Two startling nonfiction sequences at the end of "Bamboozled" eloquently support his argument that institutional racism is reflected in the images produced by Americas mass media.
The first sequence traces representations of black people in film and TV clips. Starting with the foundations of Hollywood D.W. Griffiths Ku Klux Klan epic "The Birth of a Nation" it charts the rise of devices such as blackface and minstrel shows, a history that proves surprisingly all-pervasive, including the likes of Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Bing Crosby.
"We even found a cartoon where Bugs Bunny was in blackface," says Mr. Lee. "Warner Brothers refused to let us use it. If you see any of those films today, they cut these clips out but I dont think they should be buried. Its important that theyre seen. Theyre historical evidence of the misrepresentation of a people; these are very hateful, damaging images."
Even more disturbing is the second sequence, which shows toys, genuine artifacts made for children. They are typified by a grotesque "Jolly Nigger Bank" that gobbles coins into its leering mouth.
"A lot of that stuff is from my own collection," says Mr. Lee. "I collect it because its a reminder. I keep it in my office."
Is there any hope of escape from such images? "I dont know why we should try to escape them. I think we need to acknowledge them. Once we do that, well be free to move forward but we cant run around acting as though this stuff never happened."
As well as a cinematic treatment of these arguments, "Bamboozled" could be read as a comment on Mr. Lees own career.
The black TV executive never achieves his ambitions, and his desire to work within the mainstream leads only to compromise.
Has this been Mr. Lees experience?
"If youre dealing with those structures," he says, "the lower the budget, the more autonomy you have. Thats the way Ive been operating. My films have a price that is relatively small, so I have final cut."
With the same pragmatism that led him to make "Bamboozled" cheaply rather than not at all, he shrugs off his disappointments. Instead of the big Jackie Robinson film, he is making a documentary on Jim Brown, the American-football legend of the 50s and 60s. Putting the lost Ali project behind him, his next feature will be about the 1938 boxing match between Americas Joe Louis and Germanys Max Schmeling.
He is also now moving into TV production. "Were not going to do any situation comedies," he promises.
It may not be going entirely according to plan, then, but one gets the sense that Mr. Lees story is still very far from over.

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