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Doing the Right Thing? Not Yet

Black comic actors have never been more popular, but they continue to spread stereotypes, argues Spike Lee.

September 10, 2000|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer. He can be reached

Spike Lee says an East Coast magazine reporter recently informed him that he'd done a poll of people in his office--"white people in his office," Lee pointedly adds--who were asked what they thought of the world's most outspoken black filmmaker. The unanimous verdict: Hey, Spike, we don't like you.

"They all said, this guy's got an Upper East Side townhouse, courtside tickets to the Knicks, he sends his kids to private school," says Lee, who's telling the story on the phone from his vacation home in Martha's Vineyard. "And yet he's still mad. They all go, 'What's Spike Lee got to be angry about?' "

If you did a poll of people in Hollywood, where Lee is equally unpopular--he's viewed by most executives as a self-aggrandizing bomb-thrower--you'd hear a similar refrain: After a summer that has been celebrated as a major box-office breakthrough for African American comic movie stars, most people's reaction in town is, what has Lee got to be angry about?

Among today's burgeoning ranks of teen moviegoers, black comics have as much heat as Eminem, Jay-Z, Wyclef Jean or any other reigning hip-hop star. "Scary Movie," directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans and co-starring his brothers Marlon and Shawn, has grossed nearly $150 million. "Big Mama's House," starring Martin Lawrence, topped the $115-million mark. Eddie Murphy's "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps" did $115 million in six weeks of release. Even "The Original Kings of Comedy," a low-budget concert film directed by Lee that features four lesser-known black comics, has done surprisingly well, grossing almost $30 million in its first three weeks of release.

Black comedy has turned green, as in the color of big-time movie star salaries. Murphy makes up to $20 million a film. Lawrence is getting $16 million for the upcoming "Black Knight." Chris Tucker, who co-starred in "Rush Hour," a $145-million hit, is being paid $20 million to star in the sequel. Marlon and Shawn Wayans are being wooed all over Hollywood and are getting a big salary hike for committing to a "Scary Movie" sequel.

Black comics have become so popular that when studios put together a wish list for youth-oriented comedy actors, the talent pool of African American actors is now deeper than white ones. The long list of black comics includes the Wayanses, Jamie Foxx, Orlando Jones, Chris Rock, Eddie Griffin, Dave Chappelle and "Saturday Night Live's" Tim Meadows, who has what could be a breakthrough role in "The Ladies Man," due in October from Paramount


But Lee believes this success has come at a steep price. In fact, his new film, "Bamboozled," is a blistering satire of the very broad, below-the-waist buffoonery that has made many young black comics such hot new stars.

Opening here Oct. 6, the movie stars Damon Wayans as a Harvard-educated black TV writer at a floundering, UPN-style network. When his white boss, a self-styled hip-hop smoothie (played by Michael Rapaport), demands that Wayans create an urban hit, Wayans seeks revenge by hiring a homeless tap dancer to star in a wildly stereotypical blackface minstrel show set on a 19th century Southern cotton plantation. Instead of being shelved as an embarrassment, the show turns into a runaway hit with both black and white audiences.

The ad campaign for "Bamboozled" emphasizes the minstrel theme and is sure to draw attention and controversy. One poster for the film, designed by Lee, features a stereotypical grinning, red-lipped "tar baby" standing in a field of cotton, holding a slice of watermelon. A similar poster, featuring a grinning minstrel performer, recently ran in some publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly and the Hollywood trades. However, New Line says the New York Times has refused to run either the minstrel or the "tar baby" ad.

The film poses an especially thorny question: As young white fans appropriate black culture in comedy, hip-hop and other pop culture arenas, are African American audiences willing to accept the most demeaning, stereotyped images to achieve mainstream success? Lee cites classic social commentaries like "A Face in the Crowd" and "Network" as influences. But "Bamboozled's" minstrel TV show is also inspired by such lowbrow TV fare as the short-lived "Secret Life of Desmond Pfeiffer" and "The PJs," an Eddie Murphy-created animated TV show set in the inner city that features such characters as a slow-witted building superintendent, a Haitian voodoo princess and a crackhead who lives in a cardboard box.

When "The PJs" first aired last year, Lee blasted it as "demeaning and hateful toward black people, plain and simple." The show's defenders have fought back, saying it's no more insulting to blacks than "The Simpsons" is to dim-bulb white folks. They also point out that while Lee often denounces others, he is quick to take offense when his films are the target of criticism. But black comic buffoonery--that minstrel factor--has clearly struck a nerve with culture watchers.

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