"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“As the most prominent black director in the American movie industry,” critic Terrence Rafferty once wrote about Spike Lee, “he probably feels as if he were sprinting downcourt with no one to pass to and about five hundred towering white guys between him and the basket.”
This was in 1989, at the time of “Do the Right Thing.” A dozen years later, Lee hasn’t tamped down his provocative public blend of cockiness and earnestness. Yet he has displayed new sides to his creative personality.
He checked his tendency to showboat and extended his powers of empathy for the heartbreaking 1997 documentary “Four Little Girls,” about the Civil Rights-era bombing of a black church in Alabama. And a gift for expressing undiluted joy suffused his 1997 book “Best Seat in the House: A Basketball Memoir” (written with Ralph Wiley) and exploded on-screen in his hit comedy-concert film, “The Original Kings Of Comedy.”
In that film, four black comics — Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac — take the stage in spiffy ties and jackets and prove that grass-roots comedy can be devastating when presented with old-fashioned style. The movie builds to multiple crescendos of earthy parody and farce. It climaxes with Bernie Mac’s audacious chronicle about life with his sister’s disruptive kids: Everything that W.C. Fields suggested about the horrors of living with children Mac makes painfully and uproariously explicit. Along the way, these four musketeers don’t just entertain two sold-out crowds at the Charlotte Coliseum — they involve them in riffs, ad-libs and entire musical numbers.
The absence of that organic connection between performer and audience is part of what Lee bemoans in his prickly new movie. “Bamboozled” takes place in the lily-white corporate halls of our mainstream media. It begins with Damon Wayans reading a dictionary definition of satire and ends with a montage of black and white minstrelsy from the dawn of Hollywood through its heyday.
The title comes from a Malcolm X speech: “You’ve been had. You’ve been took. You’ve been hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray, run amok.” Wayans plays Pierre Delacroix, the one black executive in a fledgling, WB-like network. Jada Pinkett-Smith plays his smart, well-meaning assistant, and Michael Rapaport his repulsively crude boss.
The network chief orders him to deliver a show as black as Amos ‘n’ Andy; Delacroix decides to produce the most monumental racial throwback he can think of — “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show,” starring tap-dance wonder Savion Glover and comic veteran Tommy Davidson as a pair of prancing plantation darkies named Mantan and Sleep ‘N’ Eat. Delacroix hopes that he will be fired and the show will be a cautionary flop. Instead it boomerangs into a hit — and wounds the soul of every character.
“Bamboozled” has received wildly diverse reviews, and I thought it far more effective as a conversation piece than as a movie. Luckily, Lee was visiting San Francisco and willing to talk all about it — even when I admitted that the movie lost me. A couple of days after we spoke, Lee announced that he had made a deal with Studios USA (the company behind the enduring hit “Law and Order”) to develop TV series of his own.
It’s fascinating that you’ve had “The Original Kings of Comedy” and “Bamboozled” coming out so quick …
Back to back!
Were issues surrounding black entertainers percolating in your mind, or is it just happenstance that the films came out this way?
“The Original Kings of Comedy” fell out of the sky. We had shot “Bamboozled” already and I was approached by Walter Latham and David Gale/MTV Films, who asked me: Would you want to direct this?
“Bamboozled” protests the paucity of blacks in mainstream media, while “The Original Kings of Comedy” shows that talented black performers can operate beneath the radar of mainstream media and still be huge.
The gatekeepers were not paying attention. I mean, the Original Kings of Comedy were selling out arenas, not little dumpy comedy clubs; they were filling 20,000 seats. And they still weren’t even being reviewed. They were totally ignored.
But isn’t that a hopeful thing? You watch the movie with this incredible parade of talents and part of the fun is that the audience has come to embrace them and share in the act — literally when they join in with the comics’ singing. It makes you feel that audiences don’t have to be attracted with big studio or big network hype.
Well, nothing stopped their tour, which is the all-time top grossing comedy tour ever.
How conscious were you of these guys before you made “The Original Kings of Comedy”?
I knew about them. But every time they came to New York I was shooting so I didn’t get to see them. The first time I saw them live was when we were taping them, in Charlotte, N.C.
Had you worked much with stand-up comedians?
“Do the Right Thing” was Martin Lawrence’s first film, and [the late, great] Robin Harris was in that movie too.
When Paul Mooney appears in “Bamboozled” as the antihero’s father, a nightclub comedian named Junebug, he seems to have stepped out of “The Original Kings of Comedy.”
Well, to me, Paul Mooney is really playing himself. You know, he wrote a lot of Richard Pryor’s standup material. He’s a great talent who could’ve maybe had a much bigger career, but just wouldn’t play along. He wouldn’t play the Hollywood game. And that’s who Junebug was.
And is he bitter about that?
He’s not bitter; he’s happy. He has his dignity. He has his self-esteem.
And the guys in “The Original Kings of Comedy” carry themselves like, well, kings.
But what’s really interesting — and I say this very respectfully — is to look at what they do on television and then look at what they do in stand-up. It’s like night and day. You know, they’re not writing that TV stuff. You only get the real them when they do their own material and it’s not filtered.
Do you relate to them when they talk about being from the “old school” in style and music, loving romantic songs from, say, Marvin Gaye, that get all the men and women in the audience to sing along?
Oh yeah. The funny thing about that was, the hip-hop kids thought it was funny too.
“The Original Kings of Comedy” gets you high and keeps you high; “Bamboozled” starts out in a comic mode then takes radical shifts.
Three-quarters of the way in, there is a tonal shift and it was deliberate. We wanted to change it up; we wanted the laughs to stop and get serious. And we felt it was time, you know, to pay the piper — let’s see what happens. What are the consequences going to be for the choices that people have made connected with this show?
And I have to say, I have a problem with that — not just in this movie, but in “A Face in the Crowd” [the scorching 1957 Elia Kazan satire on TV stardom] and “Network” and other, similar films. I guess I feel that if you grab audiences with comedy, you take them to other places by modulating the comedy, not detouring into whole other dramatic or melodramatic areas.
But I love films where you mix it up — where a film doesn’t really even keep the same rhythm, the same tone all the way through. I mean, it’s hard to do, but when it’s successful I think it works very well.
You took on the subject of “Bamboozled” because it’s become so woefully apparent that the African-American presence in the decision-making halls of network TV is minimal.
And it’s the same for the studios. There is not one African-American executive in Hollywood that can green-light a picture. I’m not talking about Wesley [Snipes] or Will [Smith] or Denzel [Washington] or Chris Tucker or Chris Rock. I’m talking about suits. These are the people who are called the “gatekeepers.” I think we have to gain access to those positions.
So then you decided on a strategy for combining that cause with your knowledge of movie history and the African-American part of our film heritage. And you came up with what I would call an industrial-strength satire.
I got to write that down; can I steal that from you?
Sure. I took it from some commercial.
What was that, Mr. Clean? I remember that, or something just like it, labeled “industrial strength” — it came in a plastic drum.
Do you think that Damon Wayans’ character, Pierre Delacroix — someone educated beyond any natural reflexes or connection to his heritage — is unique to the black experience? Or can he be compared to cultural bureaucrats from other racial and ethnic groups?
What makes Damon’s character unique is that Pierre Delacroix has a lot of self-hatred. Here’s someone who’s never been comfortable with his blackness: hence the name change and the diction and that type of stuff.
He seems to have stylized himself into a parody of white cultivation. How specifically did you and Damon work that out?
We talked about it. It was Damon’s idea for the diction. First he came up with a Cockney accent; we made a couple of changes on that until we agreed on what you hear in the film.
Was there a real-life model for Delacroix?
Yeah. Damon never told me the guy’s name, but it’s an African-American TV writer in Hollywood today. The sad thing about Delacroix is that he doesn’t gain knowledge of self until he’s getting ready to buy the farm. And that is something people haven’t really picked up on: We took the device from one of the great masters, Billy Wilder. It’s from “Sunset Boulevard,” where William Holden is floating in that pool and you hear his voice and it’s not until the end of the movie that you realize the voiceover is coming from a dead guy. In this movie, all the voiceover of Delacroix comes from after he’s gone to the “upper room.”
Well, I got that. But I’m not sure I picked up on every beat in Delacroix’s progress. I understood his opening tactic. Responding to the order to deliver what the top suit considers a real black show, he decides to develop the most awful stereotypical program he can think of — a blackface minstrel show. He wants to get fired. But after that the transitions got hazy for me.
Well, see, once they decide to do the show, he’s trying to make the best out of it. He knows that if this type of material falls into the wrong hands, he’ll definitely become a Dr. Frankenstein. So the film then becomes a struggle between Delacroix and [the white network boss] Dunwitty. Delacroix gets tricked into thinking he has some power on the show. And then once the show becomes a hit, he gets intoxicated like everybody else and therefore becomes protective of it. That’s the point when the downward spiral really begins.
For a portion of that descent, I thought Delacroix was sincere when he tried to make a post-modern, post-whatever argument: as if he believes he’s so ironic about this blackface stuff that he feels he’s a pioneer.
He’s trying to convince himself of that. It’s the standard defense for that type of stuff.
But in your mind there’s no validity to it?
No, I don’t think we can justify what he does. I don’t think we make any alibis for that.
The initial response of the TV studio audience to the minstrel show –
It’s the same response we get in the audience of people watching the film.
Right. And that, I think, is totally accurate. I imagined you throwing people into the seats of the TV studio set and watching them go into shock during the minstrel show.
They weren’t acting. Not everybody knew that Tommy [Davidson] and Savion [Glover] were gonna come out there in blackface. And we did that live. By live, I mean we had cameras on the audience and the performers at the same time.
Again, I understood the initial discomfort and disbelief of the audience within the film. But, for me, the build into audiences buying this TV show was blurry. How did you want us to respond to audiences ultimately going wild for it?
I think the initial break comes when the black people start to applaud. I know you remember the shot where there are a couple of white people looking around like, “Oh … ” and seeing whether it was OK to clap. Now, mind, if the black guy next to them is clapping, they feel it’s OK to clap — and then we see the applause signs and people respond and it just catches fire. I mean, who knew that “Survivor” or “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” would catch fire? You can’t plan that stuff. So in the world I created, we made blackface the rage. You know, it just [slap] catches fire and takes off.
Which is also what happens to the country singer’s TV show in “A Face in the Crowd.” And I see you dedicated this film to that film’s writer, Budd Schulberg.
Budd Schulberg and Elia, they had the crystal ball on this. Even the sponsor of the show in that film, Vitajex — what’s Vitajex but Viagra? And Budd wrote this back in 1956. The jingle went “Vitajex, what you doin’ to me?” — they really had the crystal ball on that, too. Budd told me a story that before “Network,” [screenwriter] Paddy Chayefsky called him up and said, “Look, we’re gonna try to leap-frog what you did with ‘A Face in the Crowd.’” That’s another film I’ve always liked. And that’s what Paddy told Budd.
So at that point in “Bamboozled,” blackface becomes part of a media steamroller.
Television is the opiate. The Opie-ate.
When you have the white people looking to the black people in the audience to see how to react, you also seem to be making an analogy to the way suburban white kids, looking for cutting-edge pop culture, go for hip-hop and gangsta rap and all that.
Yeah, and they might be looking in the wrong places. I think I’ve said this before: Culture is for everybody to enjoy. But if these young white kids want to emulate black people — I think there are better things that they could take from hip-hop than wearing their pants below their ass and calling each other “nigga.” You know, “Whassup, my nigga?” I mean, I don’t condemn all of hip-hop; I’ve used a lot of it in my films starting, back in ’89 with “Do The Right Thing” and Public Enemy. But I do feel gangsta rap has evolved to a modern day minstrel show, especially if you look at the videos. You ever watch BET?
I confess, I don’t watch a lot of music videos on TV.
When you get an hour, just turn on BET and watch these gangsta rap videos, for your own education. It’s sad.
When you make a movie like “Bamboozled,” are you particularly intent on addressing the African-American audience?
It’s for everybody. It’s for everybody. I think this film deals with our shared history. Earlier you used the word “heritage.” I mean, people can sing “Hooray for Hollywood” and talk about the “Golden Age of Television” all they want. But a large part of that stuff is what we put in the final montage of this film. Every year at the Academy Awards they have this guy Chuck Workman do these little [compilation] films. I say, at this year’s Academy Awards, get rid of Chuck: Show the final montage from “Bamboozled” instead. A lot of people don’t want to deal with the images in this montage. But we’re showing them. And we’re showing that these images didn’t just spring from the warped mind of D.W. Griffith, but reflected accepted behavior. Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Bing Crosby, they all did the black minstrel thing. This was accepted behavior. And people don’t want to deal with this as part of the legacy of these two powerful mediums — television and film. In both, people were doing this from the beginning — from the very beginning.
One of the most effective scenes in the movie comes when Mantan and Sleep ‘N’ Eat are at their minstrel peak. They do a bit where they anticipate each other’s moves without saying anything, and it’s so beautifully worked out between the two of them that you really do laugh, despite this terrible context. Even when you watch your montage at the end, you feel that there are these immense talents that are —
And I’ve always felt there should be a way of appreciating the artistry of black movie actors who had to play subservient characters or buffoons.
Yes. And what’s been great about this film for me, personally, is that I have a greater understanding of those giants, people I might have just totally dismissed as Uncle Toms. This film made me realize — I hope not too late — that they were great talents and they were doing the best of what was being offered to them at the time.
On one hand, we should have a greater understanding for those people in the past. On the other hand, it made me focus with much more scrutiny on my generation and the stuff we’re doing. Because we have choices –a lot more than they had.
In that vein, I was thinking about your credits and wondering what happened to Wesley Snipes, who worked for you twice [in "Mo' Better Blues" and "Jungle Fever"] and was consistently pretty wonderful 10 years ago; now he’s become this action figure.
That’s what he wanted to be. Even when we were doing “Jungle Fever” and “Mo’ Better Blues,” Wesley told me himself, he wanted to be the black Schwarzenegger. It’s not like someone pressured him to do that. He’s doing what he set out to do — to be a black action hero. But I love Wesley. I want to work with him again.
Because “Bamboozled” is so stylized, some viewers might think every character stands in for a whole social group. Dunwitty, for example, who’s so obnoxious, feels he can say whatever he wants about race because he’s in a mixed-race marriage.
Yeah, well, I really can’t do nothing about that. If someone’s gonna think that Spike Lee is saying all white males who are married to black women feel they can use the word “nigger” freely, that’s just idiotic to me.
Are you more ambivalent toward characters like those kamikaze rappers, the Mau Mau’s? They do react with proper outrage to the minstrel show, even though they’re clueless.
They’re definitely confused, but they think they’re profound. That’s the scene where they’re having a discussion about “how we’re gonna spell the word ‘black’” and it’s like a discussion of the theory of relativity or something. “B-L-A-K. Yes, let’s just drop the C.” You know, it’s crazy. And then they definitely do the wrong thing when they decide that they can play God and take a life.
In the movie, as Delacroix gets further and further into his minstrel show, he accumulates more and more of these “black collectibles.” I’ve read that you collect them, too.
A lot of that stuff in the film was from my own collection. It’s a reminder to me. It’s a reminder. In fact, when I was writing the script to “Bamboozled,” on my desk in my office I had my Aunt Jemima cookie jar to my left and my Jolly Nigger bank to the right. Every time I see that stuff I think about the depths of the sickness and the hatred behind it.
What’s up next?
Got to hit the frontier of television; got to try to get something done in television.
Any definite ideas?
But is that what networks still want?
The same with cinema: What do you got? You got another “Scary Movie”? I mean, what was this summer about: “The Klumps,” “Big Momma’s House” and, in a different way, “The Original Kings of Comedy.” Let’s keep it funny and light. What I want to do is a dramatic series.
Well, when black groups protested how few African-Americans appeared in last year’s new shows, you suddenly saw black characters in series like “The West Wing.” Is this something you can build on?
Wait and see. I’ve got that wait and see attitude.
Do you have any expectations for tonight’s third debate you’d like to share? Will you be watching?
What sane, red-blooded American would miss Game Six between the Yankees and Mariners to determine if there’s gonna be a subway series?! Miss that for the debate? Sheee … hell, no! I know who I’m gonna vote for. I’m watchin’ the game. If I was in New York, I’d be there.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)