Such mordant humor inspired Lee's caustic satire Bamboozled, which arrives in theaters tomorrow starring Damon Wayans as Pierre Delacroix, the token African American writer at a TV network not unlike UPN. Under pressure to boost ratings, Delacroix makes a proposal even more degrading than Deep-Dish American Pie: a black minstrel show set in a watermelon patch where darkies tap-dance in blackface.
Certain that the idea will get him fired, Delacroix is horrified when his disgrace to the race is greenlighted, and crushed when it becomes a runaway success. No one ever lost money underestimating the insensitivity of the American public.
"It's no coincidence that three of the most popular American films of all time are Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer and Gone With the Wind," observes Lee, 43, over coffee in a Philadelphia hotel room last week. "Images of barefoot blacks eating fried chicken, whites in blackface, and blacks as domestics are part of the wallpaper of our lives." Those images, he says, and their modern counterparts bamboozle whites into seeing African Americans as second-class citizens.
An ambush on the entertainment industry that takes no prisoners, Bamboozled flays everyone, including designer Tommy Hilfiger (for being a hip-hop wannabe), actor Cuba Gooding Jr. (for his obsequious Jerry Maguire Oscar acceptance), and Lee himself (for being a humorless guardian of black political correctness). The film, the writer-director's 15th in 17 years, gets its title from a Malcolm X speech exhorting his followers to resist the white man's negative stereotypes of blacks.
Lee deploys those offensive images of yassir-servile blacks in order to explode them. If Bamboozled - which recalls Mel Brooks' 1967 satire The Producers, in which a musical comedy about Hitler becomes a Broadway smash despite its creators' determined attempt to fail - aims too wide, it still hits more targets than it misses. Indelibly, the film heightens our awareness of how deeply embedded minstrel imagery is in contemporary pop culture.
Ask Lee to cite a contemporary equivalent of blackface and before you finish the question he interrupts, "gangsta rap."
"What's the recipe?" he asks. "Throw in some Bentleys, some platinum jewelry, ho's and bitches, a couple of 9mms, Kristal champagne, and the singer throwing money at the camera. Voila!" For Lee, the greenback- and gun-waving gangsta is just as offensive a caricature as the shucking and jiving Negro.
Lee champions Allen Iverson, hoops star, but he doesn't like what he hears about Iverson, rapper. "A 21st-century minstrel show" is Lee's first take on the shooting guard's hard-core debut. On second thought, the director couches his criticism more constructively: "I would hope that Allen would be more conscientious about the lyrical content of his rap."
Lee may shoot from the lip, but no one else scores more points as a social critic.
Scoping out the movie industry, Lee sees the glass half-full and half-empty. The summer of 2000 gave new meaning to the definition of black comedy, with the commercial success of such African American written or directed laughfests as Scary Movie, Big Mama's House, The Nutty Professor 2 and Lee's own concert film, The Original Kings of Comedy.
But "these are safe comedies," he observes, just as on TV, where the vast majority of black actors are employed on sitcoms. "We're still not at a point where audiences, black or white, want to see serious black-themed television or movies."
In the United States, "we'll go see black actors when they make us laugh, but not when they make us think," he says. Even black audiences shy away from demanding fare: About the commercial failure of dramas such as Amistad, about a slave uprising, or Beloved, about the aftermath of slavery, Lee speaks in the cadences of a preacher: "I think it's a shame, it's criminal, a sham, a fiasco, a mockery, a travesty that we don't want to see movies about the black holocaust.
"And I praise my Jewish brothers and sisters for dealing with [their] Holocaust on film."
He thinks he knows why it's so hard to sell tickets to films about slavery: "The feeling is, it happened so long ago - Lincoln set them free. But maybe we can't get past slavery because we haven't really dealt with slavery."
Lee shopped his Bamboozled script to 11 studios. "It was 'no,' 'nuh-uh,' or 'get Will Smith and Leonardo DiCaprio to work for scale and we'll make it for $8 million" - a pittance by Hollywood standards. (The picture, shot on digital video to save money, ended up costing $11 million.)
Lee offered Smith the Damon Wayans part, but the actor passed in order to play a mystical caddy in The Legend of Bagger Vance, the Nov. 3 movie costarring Matt Damon. (Lee does not comment on the implications of that choice.) But Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, was fascinated by Lee's screenplay and took the important role as Wayans' assistant, the conscience of the film.
(While Lee auditioned Will Smith for Bamboozled, the actor auditioned Lee to direct him in Ali, about the life of boxing legend Muhammad Ali. The two declared a mismatch: "We didn't want to make the same film," says Lee, who refuses to elaborate.)
So who in Hollywood are the bigger opportunists: the cultural gatekeepers who produce less-than-challenging fare aimed at African Americans, or the African Americans who direct and act in them? "Everybody's bloody. Everybody's in cahoots," Lee replies crisply.
In his perfect world, a quality series is one that everyone would watch. But year in and year out, he points out, the most-watched TV shows among blacks are the least-watched among whites.
"I don't have an answer for that," Lee reflects. "But it's to no one's benefit that the audience is divided. We all lose out."
Of course, programming to a specific demographic benefits advertisers hoping to reach a niche market, as Lee - a prolific director of ads (Jaguar and J.C. Penney are recent clients) - well knows.
The most painful sequences in Bamboozled are those in which Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson smear burnt cork on their cheeks and foreheads to get into blackface. For Lee, creating audience discomfort is the most effective means of discrediting blackface in its modern form.
"I see blackface as a metaphor. Here we are in the year 2000 and you don't need to cork up to be a minstrel act," he muses, the implication being that whites who play at being black are just as offensive as black actors who accept roles in dumbed-down sitcoms such as UPN's unlamented Homeboys From Outer Space. As the wisest character in Bamboozled points out, "Everybody wanna be black but, when the lynching starts, they don't wanna be black anymore."
These days, America's most outspoken social observer has his own in-house critic. "Last week, my 5-year-old daughter, Satchel, asked, 'Daddy, when are you going to make a movie we can see?' "
Maybe when Satchel is a little more mature, she'll appreciate that the R-rated Bamboozled makes her laugh and think.
Carrie Rickey's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org