The ''Bamboozled'' star talks about racism in movies and why hip hop should get smarter

By Liane Bonin
Updated October 06, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT
Jada Pinkett Smith
Credit: Pinkett Smith: John Spellman/Retna
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As the wife of ”Men in Black” star Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith has racked up more headlines for being part of a cute Hollywood couple than for her screen credits, which include ”Woo” and ”The Nutty Professor.” But that may change with Spike Lee’s controversial new movie ”Bamboozled.” Lee takes jabs at white television executives, clueless black rappers, and slap happy audiences of all races in this story of the rise and fall of a modern day minstrel show. Pinkett Smith, who plays a fledgling executive trying to follow her conscience, is already bracing for the backlash. The 29 year old actress, whose second child is due this fall, talked with about blackface, ”Big Momma’s House,” and hip hop’s new lows.

Were you surprised that some newspapers refused to run print ads for ”Bamboozled” because they featured cartoon characters in black face?
I’m not surprised at all. It’s difficult when you don’t know the content of the movie to see these images on the poster and not go ”What the hell is this?” Some of the images are very offensive. So from that point of view I can kind of understand. At the same time you still need to be able to advertise material that you think is important. It’s a catch 22, because if you don’t see the movie then you don’t understand why the ad is like that.

”Bamboozled” makes fun of how ignorant white TV executives and writers are. Was that your experience working on ”A Different World”?
That was a long time ago, but let’s just say it was very familiar. Seventy-five percent of television writers are white, and it’s a known fact that there aren’t enough black executives, black producers, or black writers. So what you see in ”Bamboozled” is pretty much what’s out there.

We saw a lot more multiracial programming in the ’70s. Why have we seemingly taken a step backwards?
I think the era was just so different: peace, love, and happiness. And black people were mobilizing themselves then, which I think inspired all people. But we as a community just got content with our circumstances and laxed. The climate changed and we slipped into a slumber. So it’s hard (for executives) to look out for the best interests of a group of people who don’t even have their own best interests in mind.

The movie sharply criticizes black performers who clown around for mainstream approval. Where does that leave people like Martin Lawrence or the Wayans Brothers?
I think there’s room for ”Big Momma’s House.” What makes a stereotype is when there’s only one perception of blacks out there. You have room for what Tommy Davidson does and you have room for some of the projects I’ve been involved in. But what makes it difficult is there’s such a lack of diversity. The black experience is so much broader than what we see in film, television, and music today. That’s the issue. It’s not really the specific projects themselves, necessarily.

So why do we keep seeing the same African American stereotypes in the media?
It’s really up to us as entertainers to decide that. We are really in control of that. We have to say, ”Now I have box office appeal, and you know what? We did ‘Big Momma’s House’ last year, let’s try something a little different this year.” That’s real — because at the end of the day once you prove that you can make some money, then you’ve got some influence. So its really up to us to take some responsibility about the images that we project. I’m very careful about the projects that I pick right now.

Do you think it’s harder to be a black woman in this industry than a black man?
The problem for women in this town whether you’re white or black or Asian or whatever is that there’s no substance in the roles we’re offered. You’re the girlfriend, you’re the wife. It’s so hard to find movies that subjectify you and don’t objectify you, that give you a real presence and a real purpose.

What did you think of Mos Def’s character in the movie, which is a parody of a hard living, tough talking rapper who uses violence to make a point?
I think it was important to show that Mos’ character had the opportunity to get educated and get himself together, but chose not to take that route. Instead, he becomes a pseudo revolutionary who drinks and smokes weed. He wants to mobilize black people, but how are you going to do that smoking weed and drinking alcohol every day? What are you contributing to your community?

Though your husband has been wildly successful emphasizing good clean fun in his records, hip hop still has a bad rep. Do you think it’s deserved?
Hip hop has taken a very critical turn. Where once you had Public Enemy and KRS-One pushing intelligence and the idea that you have to be conscious and aware and hip to the social politics of what’s happening to your people, now the message is pretty much that ignorance is cool. I think we just have to bring it back around.

But there are critics who say hip hop only reflects the reality of today’s youth.
It is what’s going on in the street right now, which is scary. We don’t realize the disservice we’re doing to ourselves by acting out in this way and then justifying it by saying, ”I’m keeping it real.” You have people preaching this whole thug life but for real, when push comes to shove, there aren’t any real thugs. That’s the hypocrisy. We have two rappers who are superstars, Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, slain in the street [Shakur was murdered in 1996, Smalls in 1997], people trying to kill one another at the Source Awards, and all over some insignificant bull crap. It’s like Malcolm X said: You put two rats in a cage and don’t give them any food, and they’re going to end up killing each other. And that’s what’s happening in the black community, but in this case the food we’re talking about is education. Ignorance is killing us.


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