Yale Bulletin and Calendar

March 2, 2001Volume 29, Number 21Two-Week Issue

Acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee criticized the way African Americans are portrayed in films and on television during his Feb. 21 visit to Yale. His latest film, "Bamboozled," is "about the power of images and how they hurt," he told the more than 200 students who listened to Lee talk in the Calhoun College dining hall.

Director Spike Lee slams 'same old'
black stereotypes in today's films

A new "phenomenon" has emerged in film in recent years, in which an African-American character is imbued with special powers, filmmaker Spike Lee told a student audience during a campus visit on Feb. 21.

But this new image is just a reincarnation of "the same old" stereotype or caricature of African Americans as the "noble savage" or the "happy slave" that has been presented in film and on television for decades, contended Lee.

During a master's tea with an audience of more than 200 students in the Calhoun College dining hall, Lee cited four recent films in which there is a "magical, mystical Negro" character: "The Family Man," "What Dreams May Come," "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and "The Green Mile." In the latter film, Lee noted, a black inmate cures a prison guard of disease simply by touching him; in "The Legend of Bagger Vance," a black man "with all these powers," teaches a young white male (played by actor Matt Damon), how to golf like a champion.

The film director, who frequently inspired the laughter of his audience as he peppered his talk with expletives, was unreserved in his criticism of this new characterization of blacks, posing to his audience the question: "How is it that black people have these powers but they use them for the benefit of white people?"

Noting that "The Legend of Bagger Vance" takes place in Depression-era Georgia, a time when lynching of blacks in the South was commonplace, Lee stated, incredulously, "Blacks are getting lynched left and right, and [Bagger Vance is] more concerned about improving Matt Damon's golf swing!

"I gotta sit down; I get mad just thinking about it," continued Lee, standing before his audience wearing a black leather jacket. "They're still doing the same old thing ... recycling the noble savage and the happy slave."

Lee said his latest film, "Bamboozled," a controversial satire dramatizing the popularity of a modern black minstrel show, deals precisely with such misrepresentations of African Americans. "It's about how film and television have been used to denigrate certain groups of people," commented the director. "It's about the power of images and how they hurt."

While he acknowledged a rise in the number of African-American actors and noted that such film stars as Will Smith and Denzel Washington can now command more than $20 million per movie, Lee said that the television and film industries think they "just have to have black people on the screen, and don't care about the images."

In order for the characterizations of African Americans on television and film to change, he told his audience, blacks need to achieve positions of power in those industries, where they can have some control over the images that are produced.

Saying that he never watches the African-American-geared BET network, which he described as "terrible," Lee noted that there are few television programs on any network where young black children can find positive influences. "I don't know what you can tell [young children] to watch to see African American scientists at work," he said. "The majority of African American males think they have to be a rapper, play ball or sell drugs. They have very limited options."

Since the release of his critically acclaimed first film "She's Gotta Have It" in 1986, Lee has confronted the issue of race in all of the 15 films he has done since then. His 1989 movie "Do the Right Thing," about urban racial tensions, earned him an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, and Lee was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for his 1992 film "Malcolm X." In 1998, his film "4 Little Girls," about the racially motivated bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church in 1963, was nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar.

This year, Lee noted, not one African-American person has been nominated for an Academy Award for a major role in a film or its making. Asked how blacks can improve the chances of such recognition, Lee said, "It's a waste of time trying to strategize how to get on a list. Why validate them [the Academy Awards]?" He noted that in spite of the acclaim he received for "Do the Right Thing," the film was not nominated for an Academy Award in 1989; that year, "Driving Miss Daisy," about the relationship between an elderly white woman and her black chauffeur, won the award for best movie.

One of his own goals as a filmmaker, Lee told his audience, is "to portray different images of black people." He has long hoped to make a film about baseball legend Jackie Robinson but has been unable to get financing for it. He said he is currently thinking about doing a movie about boxer Joe Louis.

Lee spent most of his hour-long visit answering questions from members of his audience, sometimes challenging students to defend their arguments in support of certain films and other times asking them about their own opinions on the subjects they raised. During his talk, he also staunchly denied that he was anti-Semitic, a charge made against him after the release of "Mo' Better Blues," in which Jewish businessmen exploit black musicians, and for the content of some of his other films.

"If you have any character that's Jewish who's not 100 percent angelic, you're anti-Semitic," Lee said sarcastically. "I refuse to be put in that straitjacket." He went on to describe how Michael Jackson had to re-make a song with the word "kike" in it, but noted the white rap singer Eminem has never been stopped from using derogatory lyrics in his songs to describe women and homosexuals. Furthermore, he said, in the last episode of "Seinfeld," the characters were seen burning a Puerto Rican flag, and no one was critical of their actions.

"We [African Americans and other minorities] still don't have power," Lee averred, adding, "You're not going to see the Star of David in any television show or movie; it's just not gonna happen. But we can burn the Puerto Rican flag on the last episode of 'Seinfeld.'"

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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