Spike Lee has been a ‘controversial’ director since his first film, She’s Gotta Have It (1986). Nearly all of his features have focused on African-American culture and identity. Lee trained at New York University film school, following Martin Scorsese as a contemporary of Jim Jarmusch. His first film was an independent feature, but he soon attracted the attention of the studio majors and has since been an uneasy bedfellow for a number of studios. At the same time, Lee has promoted himself and his company very effectively, courting controversy, not only for his own films, but also through his interventions in public debates about other high profile films which address African-American cultural issues.
Through his public appearances and statements, Lee has gained supporters and detractors in equal measure, both within the African-American community and across American society as a whole. Bamboozled can be seen as Lee’s strongest statement about the issue of identity, with its direct references to arguably his most successful previous films Do The Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992) as well as its biting satire on contemporary culture.
These notes explore the following aspects of the film.
- the history of black representations in American cinema and television
- satire as a narrative form
- music and visual style and the aesthetics of Bamboozled
- Spike Lee as auteur.
First, an outline of the film’s premise:
Pierre Delacroix (Damon Willans) is a highly educated African-American employed as a producer on a TV channel run by a young white guy, Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport). Dunwitty commands ‘Dela’ to come up with an idea that will attract a black audience. Feeling undervalued and patronised, Dela comes up with the idea of reviving the ‘minstrel shows’ of the past, expecting to create controversy and expose the institutional racism in US television through biting satire. His assistant Sloan (Jada Pinkett Smith) is sent out to find some performers and she returns with Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson) who are busking outside the studio. But Dela’s plan fails when the show is a big hit. Then there are a whole range of unexpected outcomes . . .
‘Minstrelsy’ and black performers
The central idea of Bamboozled is the recreation of a ‘blackface’ minstrel show with the intention of exposing the hypocrisy of the US television industry in its representation of black issues.
Minstrel shows developed in the pre Civil War United States. Originally they comprised white performers wearing ‘blackface’ (burnt cork) who created a set of stereotypical characters such as ‘Uncle Tom’, ‘Mammy’, the lazy, chicken stealing ‘Rufus’ or ‘Rastus’ etc. The first of these performers was Thomas D. Rice who appeared as a crippled old black man named ‘Jim Crow’ in 1828. The term ‘Jim Crow’ later became shorthand for the whole edifice of institutionalised Southern racism that oppressed African-Americans even when slavery was ended – thus the so-called ‘Jim Crow Laws’ that underpinned segregation in the South from the late nineteenth century right up to the 1960s. These laws supported segregation of black and white people in public places and denied voting rights and equality before the law.
After the Civil War, black performers themselves began to use ‘blackface’ with its obscenely exaggerated features as an entry into performances for white audiences (including audiences in the UK and mainland Europe). Minstrel shows as live performances began to lose some of their popularity at the start of the twentieth century, but they swiftly moved to the new forms of cinema and radio, where they proved popular as the basis for enduring stereotypes.
Black performers from the 1920s through to the 1960s had two choices. They could appear in small independent films, made for the so-called ‘race’ market – black audiences in the South and in the major urban areas (the ‘race music’ market targeted black consumers in the same way). Some of these films were produced by black entrepreneurs like Oscar Micheaux. Mainstream Hollywood also made the occasional all black film, usually a musical, but mostly, black performers were restricted in Hollywood to specific roles as high class entertainers (such as Duke Ellington) or in the stereotypical supporting roles as ‘Mammy’, ‘Uncle Tom’ or ‘Coon’ (the lazy and cowardly Rastus type character). Gone With The Wind (1939) is a good example of a major film with two star turns by Hattie McDaniel as the Mammy and Butterfly McQueen as the childlike maid with the high-pitched voice.
All these roles were demeaning, none more so than the ‘coon’. Hollywood paid better and made some performers into stars, but the antics of the coon were less noticeable in the all black films where such stars would just be seen as a ‘funny man’ amongst a range of black character types. As the sidekick to a white protagonist in a range of ‘B’ pictures, the coon character would widen his eyes and run as soon as danger threatened. One of the most popular performers was Mantan Moreland who played the ‘scared to death’ chauffeur Birmingham Brown in the Charlie Chan series in the 1940s. The name ‘Sleep ‘n Eat’ was associated with another coon figure, Willie Best. Both these actors were seen as successors to the earlier star, Stepin Fetchit.
The ‘high class entertainers’ were associated with the intellectual and artistic movements of Harlem that also produced poets and writers in the 1940s and 1950s. Reference to these movements comes in Bamboozled via Pierre’s use of the term ‘negro’ and his quotation from James Baldwin at his death. Although the entertainers in this group were wealthy and widely admired in white America, they were still ‘kept in their place’ by entertainment institutions. Lena Horne and Nat King Cole were just two performers who found themselves restricted at various times. Lena Horne’s performances in MGM musicals were edited so that they could easily be cut when the films were shown in the South (see Bogle 1992). The singer Nat King Cole was the first black star to have a networked television show (and the problems that went with it).
The most popular radio act was ‘Amos and Andy’, a pair of clowns who transferred to television in 1951 and became instantly popular portraying uneducated Southern black men. The racism of the 1820s reached television almost unchanged. The success of the show and its subsequent demise a few years later in the face of the Civil Rights movement, scared television producers and black shows were largely absent from television until the emergence of a new generation of shows in the 1970s, which again drew criticisms of ‘one dimensionality’ in terms of African-American representations. This in turn produced ‘safe’ ‘middle-class’ sitcoms such as The Cosby Show. Given the enormous number of television channels in America (over 900), remarkably few address the range of different black audiences. Breaking through the barriers of history and still extant institutional racism is the problem that confronts Pierre Delacroix in Bamboozled. It’s worth noting that in Britain The Black and White Minstrel Show (white performers in blackface) was still the centre of BBC Television’s Saturday night entertainment in the 1960s.
One of the striking aspects of the mise en scène of Bamboozled is the deployment of numerous artefacts that depict the standard stereotypes such as the Mammy figure, ‘Little Nigger Jim’ etc. The characters on stage in the minstrel show are duplicated around Dela’s office and home as he begins to acquire figurines and posters, mirroring the activities of many contemporary African-Americans who now collect such items (including Lee himself). The moment when the savings bank seems to animate itself is a startling representation of Dela’s breakdown. These artifacts were common in North America up to the 1960s (and they existed in the UK as well). Some were associated with particular products such as Uncle Ben’s Rice, Aunt Jemimah’s Pancake Mix etc. and these kinds of associations are satirised by Lee through the reference to ‘Tommy Hilnigger’ clothes and Da Bomb malt liquor.
Another Hollywood film in 2001, Ghost World, also picks up on this phenomenon. A young high school graduate played by Thora Birch discovers an original 1950s poster for ‘Coon Chicken Inns’ and enters it in an art competition as ‘found art’, hoping to cause comment and to raise questions about institutional racism – she succeeds in creating a controversy.
The complexity of representations
There isn’t space here to do justice to the development of racial stereotypes throughout the Hollywood studio era and into television. Bogle points out that the later characters were gradually ‘humanised’ into likeable personalities – but perhaps this makes the type even more dangerous?
What is certainly true is that many of the leading black performers were supreme entertainers who gave audiences immense pleasure in viewing performances. The racism from which they suffered didn’t negate the power of their performances and this is something that Lee clearly recognises and celebrates. Savion Glover who plays Mantan/Manray is one of the foremost performers in contemporary dance and a star of international reputation – when in Bamboozled he is presented with the shoes owned by Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, it is an intensely moving moment.
1. (a) A literary work in which human vice or folly is ridiculed or attacked scornfully.
1. (b) The branch of literature which composes such work.
2. Irony, derision or caustic wit used to attack, expose folly, vice or stupidity.
These dictionary definitions of ‘satire’ are Pierre Delacroix’s first words in Bamboozled. From the outset, Spike Lee sets out his intentions. His film is clearly not going to be a ‘realist’ account of goings-on in an American television company. From this opening we should expect that the characters in the film will be broadly drawn with names that refer in some way to their role in the satire (as in Thackeray’s nineteenth century take on English manners, Vanity Fair).
This is certainly the case with the names chosen for the performers, referring directly to stereotypical characters or black performers of the 1930s. The lead character has changed his name from ‘Peerless’ (his given name – reflecting his mother’s attempt to strive for a more dignified future?) to the pretentious ‘Pierre’, more suited to his new ‘buppy’ (‘black upwardly mobile professional’ – the equivalent of ‘yuppie’) identity. His father is ‘Junebug’ a more ‘down home’ name for a performer who is something of a ‘gadfly’ with barbed attacks on white society for his predominantly black audience.
The other name change comes with Sloan’s brother, ‘Big Blak Afrika’ who explains that he is not ‘Julius’ any more. His exchange with Sloan explains the whole business of dispensing with ‘slave names’ that began with the Black Muslims in the 1950s. Sloan and Julius both carry the name ‘Hopkins’. This is one of the oldest names in American history, traceable back to a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and one of the first families of settlers in Massachusetts.
In a satire, we can expect that few characters will be ‘sympathetic’ in the usual sense. Some will be clearly misguided or villainous, others will be dupes in the exaggerated story. Thus Pierre’s mother, an otherwise ‘real’ character, represents the over protective mother who is ‘disappointed’ in her son. In Bamboozled, the most seemingly sane and rational character is Sloan – does she in some way represent us, the audience? In the end, she too is implicated in the madness.
“[Jada’s] really the conscience of the film, the character the audience feels for. And despite that, her hands are bloody too, as are Delacroix’s. Everybody’s bloody in the film, everybody’s in cahoots, and she knew about it from the beginning, but like everyone else in the film, she wants to see how it’s going to work out.” (Spike Lee in Fuchs, 2000)
Because the aim of satire is ridicule, we can’t expect a satirical film to conform to narrative conventions as such. The ending of Bamboozled is rushed and ‘over the top’ (‘melodramatic’ perhaps – this particular satire draws on family melodrama for some of its effects). By contrast, the coda – the compilation of clips from Hollywood films and television shows – is given more prominence than usual and earlier narrative sequences, such as the audition scenes for the minstrel show, are given extended coverage when conventionally they would be presented in a montage. Lee’s main purpose is to expose and ridicule, not to tell a conventionally ‘satisfying’ tale.
The major problem with satire for audiences is a tendency towards incoherence. This comes from the lack of conventional narrative structure and from the ‘scattergun effect’ of raising a wide range of issues, none of which will be ‘resolved’ as such. Lee’s aim is to make audiences think, to carry on the debate outside the cinema, rather than to feel that there is a ‘right’ answer.
“This film is really an exploration of the history of racism and misrepresentation of African Americans and people of color since the birth of film and television. This film shows how racism is woven into the very fabric of America: when you think of America, you think of Hollywood, and this wasn’t just D.W. Griffith. This was Al Jolson, and “wholesome” performers like Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Bing Crosby. It was like, the sky was blue, just accepted, an accepted view of black people.” (Lee in Fuchs op cit)
“I want people to think about the power of images, not just in terms of race, but how imagery is used and what sort of social impact it has – how it influences how we talk, how we think, how we view one another. In particular, I want them to see how film and television have historically, from the birth of both mediums, produced and perpetuated distorted images.” (Lee in Cineaste interview)
Bamboozled also emphasises its satirical roots through references to two earlier satires on American media. Spike Lee has discussed his own admiration for A Face in the Crowd (1957) written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. In this film an ‘Arkansas nobody’ becomes a major media star when his personality is promoted by television. His ego takes over and eventually he is found out. References to a later film, Network (1976), written by Paddy Chayevsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, are evident in the pilot minstrel show in Bamboozled when Manray/Mantan urges viewers to go to their windows and shout out that they are “not going to take it any more”. This is a direct reference to the newscaster played by Peter Finch who gains a huge television audience by becoming an evangelical figure: his ravings against the media are turned into high ratings by the network. Something similar (i.e. the cynical manipulation of the truth) is evident in the speeches made by Warren Beatty in the political satire Bulworth (1998).
The pilot minstrel show does seem to be more directly ‘political’ in content with Mantan’s rant referring to the problems of urban America and Womack pointedly referring to a gentler time when there were fewer problems and black people ‘knew their place’. This irony is much diminished in the later shows.
Whatever else we might think about the presentation of characters in Bamboozled, we can be sure that all the stereotypical characters are based on historical evidence. It may be difficult, and painful, to stomach, but Hollywood did create such representations.
The aesthetic of Bamboozled
Spike Lee and his cinematographer Ellen Kuras (a regular Lee collaborator and one of the very few women to succeed in Hollywood as a cinematographer) devised an approach to the ‘look’ of the film using digital video and Super 16. In fact, Ellen Kuras used several ‘mini-DV’ cameras working on the European PAL standard rather than American NTSC (since it gives a slightly higher resolution that is noticeable when blown up to 35mm for cinema projection.) Video is used throughout the film in all scenes except those depicting the stage performances, which are shot on film.
The deliberate move from one format to another might be seen as a ‘distancing’ device such as those associated with the German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Such devices serve to break up the easy identification with characters or the flow of the narrative and ask audiences to question the way in which the narrative is being constructed. Lee uses a ‘Brechtian’ approach in several of his films. Other examples in Bamboozled might be the ‘fantasy’ moments such as Pierre thinking about slapping Dunwitty and later when the savings bank is animated.
There are several different ways to approach the choice between digital video and film. On the one hand, video might be thought appropriate for the ‘story’ scenes if they are being equated with the feel of ‘reality tv’ – handheld, grainy, muted colours with plenty of blue. Equally film might suit the ‘fantasy’ of performance. But the opposite could also be argued – film is an ironic medium to use for material that would be viewed as ‘live television’, but film would be the expected format for the fiction narrative of the ‘story’ scenes. This confusion adds to the distanciation effect. Ironically, also, ‘Super 16′ is a film format that uses the whole of the film area to record the image (i.e. sound must be recorded separately) and in the UK it is only used for shooting film for television.
In her contribution to the Cineaste symposium, Zeinabu Irene Davis points to the striking colour scheme in the film with blue the predominant colour in the cold ‘white’ scenes (the network offices, Pierre’s apartment etc.) and orange in the warmer ‘black’ scenes – Junebug’s performance, the focus on Da Bomb malt liquor. Davis points out that blue is a difficult colour to remove from digital images, but film allows the vibrant colours of the minstrel show, none more so than the deeply moving sequences in which Manray and Womack apply the burnt cork of ‘blackface’, finishing with the ‘fire truck red’ lipstick.
As a final comment on the technologies used, the budget for Bamboozled was $10 million. This is significantly more than might be available for a ‘black independent’ production, but only about 20% of the budget of a mainstream Hollywood feature. The film was eventually financed by New Line Cinema, a Time Warner company, so it is ‘independent’ in name only. Lee has criticised the company for its failure to distribute the film properly.
Music is crucial in Spike Lee’s films and in Bamboozled he worked for the ninth time with Terence Blanchard. The music performs two different functions. In the Stevie Wonder songs, the lyrics provide a direct commentary on the themes and issues of the film, whereas in Blanchard’s score, the music serves to add intensity to the emotional underpinning of key scenes.
The performances by the artistes at the audition are more problematic. The key performance is by the Mau Maus, all of whom were played by hip-hop performers from the more politically conscious end of the music. Lee wanted to present both the politics of rap and it’s excesses:
“I think their intentions are honorable but, but they’re misguided. I think a lot of this is because they don’t read. If you don’t read then you’re going to be ignorant, and you’re just going to be making up stuff as you go along. I like rap music, but I’m not a fan of a lot of gangsta rap. I think it’s obsessed with the ‘bling bling,’ with the gold chains and diamonds and Bentleys and all other trappings – you know, the titties and the butts shaking and jigging into the camera. I don’t think that’s uplifting, not at all. It’s all about massive amounts of consumption.” Spike Lee interview in Cineaste.
Spike Lee as auteur
Several references have already been made to Spike Lee’s output via his company ‘40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks’. The company title refers to the (unfulfilled) promise made to freed slaves after the Civil War. In reality not only were blacks in the South not supported by the Federal government, but as already noted, the ‘Jim Crow’ laws reduced them to second-class citizens. Lee’s intent in controlling his own work is clear.
Bamboozled refers directly to several of Lee’s other films. The title itself comes from the term used by Malcolm X to describe the state of mind of black people in the 1950s (“to be deceived, confounded or mystified” is the dictionary definition of the word). Denzel Washington is seen in a clip from Lee’s 1992 film. The history of Southern institutionalised racism is explored in Lee’s critically acclaimed documentary Four Little Girls (1999), which investigates the death of the girls in a bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 during the Civil Rights struggle.
The most striking reference is to Do The Right Thing (1989). This was the film which brought Lee to a wide audience. It concentrates on an incident in the predominantly black neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York on the hottest day of the year. A confrontation begins when a politically conscious young man challenges the owner of the neighbourhood pizzeria over the the issue of the portraits of the ‘heroes’ on the walls of the pizza parlour. They are all Italian-Americans, but most of the customers are black. Why can’t the owner put up portraits of black heroes? He refuses and tension grows. Lee himself plays Mookie, the pizza delivery man – caught in the middle of the conflict. The film explores all the ethnic communities in the area and the different positions they take up.
In Bamboozled, Dunwitty has his office decorated with African-American sports stars in order to prove how ‘black’ he is. But he also smooths his hair and makes a reference to the Rev. Al Sharpton in exactly the same way as the racist son of the pizzeria owner in Do The Right Thing. Lee seems to be saying that the debate has moved on or become more complex. (In Do The Right Thing, the young man who calls for portraits of the ‘brothers’ is clearly right to be asking the question, but is shown to be inept in political strategy – Dunwitty is a target for satire). Lee himself does not appear in Bamboozled. Does he place himself outside the arguments? He is clearly implicated in the issues. D’Arcy (2001) suggests that Lee is a collector of ‘black Americana’ and that some of the figurines that decorate Pierre’s apartment are from Lee’s own collection. Lee would argue that preserving such artefacts is important in keeping the evidence of what happened in front of people. But how does he refute the charge that in promoting his own brand of ‘designer clothing’ he is as culpable as ‘Tommy Hilnigger’ of being an entrepreneur in league with corporate white America in separating urban black youth from their money? The issues are complex and, again, Lee would argue that by earning the money to give him the freedom to make the films he wants, his commercial ventures are ultimately subsidising more important political and cultural work.
Ideas and values: Lee and his critics
Bamboozled was not a box-office success and it attracted plenty of negative reviews to put alongside some glowing endorsements. Almost all critics are agreed on one point. There are possibly too many ideas to fit in one film. The issues are complex and can’t be contained within a single narrative. Lee’s strategy of playing the film as a satire and therefore presenting ‘broad brush’ characters in a didactic and ultimately melodramatic mode then divides the audience. Those who are happy with the satirical mode find the film invigorating and important in stirring up a debate that should be heard. The detractors feel that it simply means that the film is incoherent – a mess.
Lee’s most consistent critic has been Armond White of the alternative weekly New York Press. White sees Lee as making ‘big budget agit-prop’ movies that please the ‘white liberal press’ and take up the space that might be used by more radical and more important black filmmakers such as Charles Burnett (see below). More acutely, White asks whether or not Lee is patronising his audience in not recognising the sophistication with which black audiences read contemporary images and also in not considering how audiences ‘read’ such images in the 1930s.
White’s attack is important and it is supported by Ray Carney, an academic at Boston University:
The presence of racially- or sexually-based characters, settings, and references is no guarantee of minority imaginative content, in this sense, and is in fact irrelevant to it. That is why Spike Lee’s films can be judged to be far more mainstream, middle-class, middlebrow, and ‘Hollywood’ in their point of view than Cassavetes’. While Lee merely recycles standard Hollywood melodramatic conflicts, formulas, and clichés (in Minstrel Blackface, as it were -suburban, Yuppified versions of Cabin in the Sky [a Hollywood musical with an all-black cast, made in 1943]), the stylistic experiences of Cassavetes’ or Burnett’s works provide the viewer with the opportunity to participate imaginatively in truly alien and unconventional forms of knowledge. (Carney 1994)
Carney is writing about the New York independent filmmaker John Cassavettes, but again he mentions Charles Burnett. Burnett is a genuine independent filmmaker who works on miniscule budgets and has produced a handful of films over a twenty year period. Only two of Burnett’s films have been released in the UK, the most recent being a family melodrama set in Los Angeles, To Sleep With Anger (1990). Burnett’s films are characterised by the absence of stereotypical black characters and a much more realist presentation. It is this realism that is seen as radical given that other black films (Lee’s included) are seemingly pre-occupied with violence, drugs and popular entertainment.
Questions for discussion
1. Is Bamboozled a ‘radical film’?
2. Pierre Delacroix is the leading character in Bamboozled. What kind of a journey does he take in terms of understanding black representations?
3. What is Spike Lee suggesting in the way in which he tells the story of Manray/Mantan and Womack/Sleep ‘n Eat?
4. Are the criticisms of Spike Lee justified in presenting him as a middle-class African-American filmmaker who takes the focus of attention away from more radical black filmmakers?
References and further reading
Don Bogle (1992) Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, New York: Continuum
Ray Carney (1994) The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism,
Modernism, and the Movies, New York and London: Cambridge University Press
Cineaste Vol XXVI No 2 features a Spike Lee interview and a critical symposium on the film.
David D’Arcy (2000), ‘Black market’, Guardian March 30
John Kisch and Edward Mapp (1992) A Separate Cinema: Fifty Years of Black Cast Posters, New York: Noonday Press
Cynthia Fuchs (2000) interview with Spike Lee on http://www.nitrateonline.com/2000/fbambooz.html