- Spike Lee
- Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tommy Davidson, Michael Rapaport, Mos Def, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Paul Mooney
- 136 min.
- Release Date
In both intention and meaning, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled begs the question: When does artistic representation stop being a creative force and become destructive? In the past, the prime text for this discussion has fallen on the extreme example of Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Triumph of the Will, and whether her piece of Nazi propaganda nullifies its credibility as a work of superbly crafted art because it originated in support of a fascist regime. Lee’s picture, released in 2000 to divisive assessments from both critics and audiences, sets a new, certainly less extreme precedent for this discussion. Bamboozled concerns the representation of African Americans in the media, which Lee deems harmful, but to a greater extent, the film explores how the media shapes our cultural identities. To illustrate the dangers of the media using such representations without due consideration of their potential intellectual and cultural influences, Lee dreamt up a controversial satire wherein a provocative new cable television variety show—called Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show—featuring both black and white actors performing in blackface, becomes a pop-culture phenomenon.
Bamboozled is a satire wrapped in irony, with more satire piled on for good measure. Sifting through the influx of fast-paced stimuli, the director’s self-referential and self-critical humor, and the packed layers of satire proved a challenge for many. Some critics, notably Roger Ebert, found the image of blackface alone so offensive that, despite it being used in a satiric format, he wrote in his review that he “had a struggle” to see beyond the image itself to find the satirical purpose underneath. “To ridicule something, you have to show it,” Ebert wrote. “And if what you’re attacking is a potent enough image, the image retains its negative power no matter what you want to say about it.” Critics other than Ebert called Lee’s approach to the material “unfocused” and “heavy-handed” and deemed it an “intriguing failure.” The message of the film, although interpreted as a commentary on race in the media, was often misunderstood. Writing in the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris missed the sweeping commentary in Lee’s film and speculated, “If Mr. Lee meant to bring back blackface entertainment as a metaphor for the current black performers he finds obnoxious, he has miscalculated.” Only a rare few judged Bamboozled to be one of Spike Lee’s very best and most thought-provoking pictures.
Bamboozled follows Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a Harvard graduate with a forced, inflected accent of superiority with which, in traditional film noir fashion (specifically Sunset Boulevard), he narrates the tale of his own demise. The sole black television writer for cable network CNS, Delacroix has been reprimanded for writing material that is “too white” and therefore charged—by his white, heavy Ebonics-speaking boss Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), who says “I’m blacker than you”—with creating a new show that represents the racier side of race. In retaliation, Delacroix dreams up Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show. Along with his assistant Sloan (Jada Pinkett Smith), he hires two homeless street performers, Manray (Savion Glover, from Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk) and Womack (Tommy Davidson), as his stars. Delacroix renames them “Mantan” and “Sleep-and-Eat,” after black vaudevillian actors Mantan Moreland and Willie Best, and insists that the show’s all-black cast perform in blackface. Aside from Manray’s tap dancing, Mantan will feature a litany of racist imagery, including pickaninnies, Aunt Jemimas, Sambos, and watermelon patches. Content notwithstanding, Manray and Womack just want to perform despite some initial objections. After all, Delacroix knows no one in their right mind would approve such an over-the-top racist and politically incorrect program.
But, in hoping to make a point about how the white public only wants to see black people portrayed as buffoons, Delacroix’s hypothesis ironically proves true when instead of rejecting Mantan, CNS executives, critics, and soon audiences embrace the show. When it’s picked up, Delacroix can say nothing except, “There must be some mistake.” In fact, Dunwitty, along with his blond-haired, Swedish-born director Jukka Laks (Jani Blom), insists on injecting “funnier” material—comedy even more offensive than Delacroix conceived. A gaggle of white writers who embrace black stereotypes all too much carry the material even further. Before long, Mantan has top ratings and race-unspecific live audiences who show their affection for their favorite show by wearing blackface. As the creator of “the newest sensation across the nation,” Delacroix’s fame is boundless, yet he cannot control his “Frankenstein’s monster” creation. Not unlike Max Bialystock in The Producers—the Jewish stage producer whose intended failure, the Nazi-themed musical Springtime for Hitler, becomes a sensation—Delacroix’s guaranteed failure becomes a hit at considerable personal expense. However, he’s not above enjoying the spoils of his efforts most opportunistically, accepting awards for his writing and becoming what he calls “Hollywood’s favorite Negro.”
With Delacroix’s love of success and gradual defense of his show, he begins to shield the racist images and discount their power as modes of strengthening a white supremacist worldview through negative African American stereotypes. He adopts a “just go with it” attitude and concerns himself more with the humor and sensationalism of the show. Sloan argues that he cannot afford to deceive himself into ignoring their history as if it doesn’t matter, as it’s a form of soul-crushing self-hatred. At one point, Delacroix dismisses the significance of racialized slavery, which he claims ended “400 years ago,” as insignificant in the modern world. “We need to stop thinking that way, stop crying over ‘the white man this, the white man that… This is the new millennium, and we must join in.” Sloan refuses to forget, soberly reminding Delacroix, Manray, and Womack about the history of such imagery by showing them clips from The Birth of a Nation (1915), The Jazz Singer (1927), Gone with the Wind (1939), Holiday Inn (1942), Ub Iwerks’ cartoon Little Black Sambo (1935), the “Merrie Melodies” short All This and Rabbit Stew (1941), and the sitcom Amos ‘n Andy (1951-1953). The list goes on and on. Later in the film, Sloan gives Delacroix a toy from the turn of the twentieth century called a “Jolly Nigger Bank” to remind him “of a time in our history in this country when [African Americans] were considered inferior, subhuman, and we should never forget that.” Sloan wants Delacroix, who is so filled with self-hatred that he has changed his name from Peerless Dothan to the more “white-sounding” Pierre Delacroix, to look at the toy and ask, “Whose puppet are you?”
Sloan is Delacroix’s conscience and, therefore, the moral center of Bamboozled. She’s suspicious of Mantan from the start, and questions any representation that could become a form of minstrelsy or contain racist overtones. Lee’s greater argument in the film is how blackness itself has become a pop-culture gimmick and warns of the dangers of falling prey to this sales pitch. Consider Sloan’s critical attitude toward her brother (Mos Def), a rapper nicknamed “Big Black Africa,” and his black-obsessed radical outfit called the Mau Maus, named after the Kenya uprising. They wear all black and produce a new album called “The Black Album,” but they also support detrimental stereotypes by drinking 64 oz. malt liquor called “Da Bomb” and wearing “Timmy Hillnigger” fashions—two products which Lee’s film presents in faux commercials that demonstrate a modern form of stereotyping evident in advertising and media. Lee argues that the popularization of African Americans in pop-culture has resulted in “blackness” having a new set of cultural signifiers, which is another, somehow socially acceptable form of racism. Saying “I’m black” no longer refers to race or color; blackness has become less a cultural identity and more a pop-culture phenomenon. When the Mau Maus are shot down by the police in the third act of the film, the sole white member remains standing, shouting in desperation, “Why didn’t you shoot me too? I’m black!”
In spite of the harm Mantan and programs or advertisements like it causes, Bamboozled contains several scenes in which not just whites but members of many races find the minstrel show funny. Just like countless Tyler Perry movies, In Living Color (as referenced in the film and, curiously enough, in which Wayans and Davidson used to star), or the oft-scandalous Chappelle’s Show, Mantan loses its satiric intent by reinforcing African American stereotypes. In the case of Chappelle’s Show, Comedy Central’s sketch-comedy hit, the show’s trajectory mirrored Bamboozled when it famously ended at its height after star Dave Chappelle left the production, questioning if his show was making fun of stereotypes or reinforcing them. In the cases of both Delacroix and Chappelle, when they embrace their respective shows’ racial material, they both forget that such racist presumptions about African Americans exist and conveniently ignore that fact for the sake of humor and entertainment. Anything to “feed the idiot box,” as Delacroix reminds himself. Harsher critics of Bamboozled might argue that Lee engages in the same irresponsible form of representation in his film; however, Bamboozled is not a pure comedy for the masses. It recycles what is appealing about minstrel shows—such as the talent required to carry out “coon” routines, as they’re referred to—and through them represents and opens up a discussion about their dangers in the film’s violent third act.
As a satire, Bamboozled exists in the same world as Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), both examples about an unbelievable cultural phenomenon that sweeps through America like a plague. The ignorant masses eat up the absurd, whereas a few characters in the picture see the extent of what they’ve done. Womack, who went along with Mantan to get off the street and earn some money, finally leaves the show: “It’s the same bullshit,” he says, “Just done over.” When Manray too realizes the extent of what he’s done by “This buck dancing, this blackface shit,” he makes his way to the stage free of blackface and announces, “Cousins, I want you to go to your window, yell out, scream with all the life you can muster up inside your bruised and battered and assaulted bodies, ‘I’m sick and tired of niggers and I’m not gonna take it anymore!’” This clear nod to Peter Finch’s pronouncement in Network, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” implies that minstrelsy allows the audience to take pleasure in white-comforting racial stereotypes which by extension assumes the inferiority of another race of human beings and denies their equal share of humanity. But it’s also this moment where Bamboozled forgoes sending up these images and routines and transforms itself into a powerful melodrama.
Had Bamboozled only represented the outrageous and absurdly comic success of Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, Lee’s goal with the film may have been more confused, and the film’s harsher critics justified. But mid-film he takes a stark tonal shift from satire into melodramatic stakes, a turn which often loses viewers who begin to feel at odds with the no-longer-funny material. After making his speech, Manray is kidnapped by the Mau Maus and executed on live television, a broadcast no one can look away from. Delacroix and the Mau Maus meet similarly violent ends. Lee’s rather classical approach here, harkening back to film noir again, punishes the wicked for their misdeeds in perpetuating racist stereotypes. The ruthless violence with which he excises the film’s evildoers who have contributed to demeaning minstrel images is grandiose and arguably excessive, but nothing about Bamboozled is anything less than heightened, and the punishment in this context seems fitting for the crime. As Delacroix observes after he’s shot in the gut by Sloan (an action for which he immediately forgives by telling her “It’s okay,” as if he now recognizes why he must die), “As I bled to death, as my very life oozed out of me, all I could think of was something the great Negro James Baldwin had written. ‘People pay for what they do and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become, and they pay for it very simply by the lives they lead.’” By conforming to pop-culture demands, Delacroix bamboozled himself into carrying on harmful traditions by his distancing himself from his own race and refusing to acknowledge the power of the imagery he resolved to employ.
Until now, this essay has reflected on the meaning and intention of Bamboozled, but let’s pause for a moment to mention Lee’s methods. Shot fast on cheap, consumer-grade digital cameras in a period before digital was the industry standard, Lee and cinematographer Ellen Kuras saturated the Bamboozled set with multiple cameras for maximum coverage, which in turn reduced this low-budget production’s cost to $10 million. The approach is most evident through Sam Pollard’s kinetic editing, a style that often repeats a particular moment two or three times for emphasis. Extreme low angles, conversely muted and color-saturated palettes, and a pointedly digital look give the entire film the suspicious quality of home-movie reality. And yet, the exaggerated situations and performances (most expressly Wayans and Rapaport), present a juxtaposition that forces the viewer to think about how Bamboozled is a reflection of today’s representations of African Americans in entertainment and advertising. All the while, the forlorn music by Terence Blanchard imbues the material with weighty, melodramatic implications far removed from satire alone.
Bamboozled houses a passionate investigation into the issues presented, provoking an outbreak of responses ranging from outrage to laughter, empathy to sadness, anger to acknowledgment. Though a controversial choice, Lee allows his audience to experience first-hand the appealing nature and humor derived from minstrel acts, and through his investigation demands that his audience reflects on the consequences of such representations of race. Just as Delacroix intended for Mantan, Lee wants to offend; he argues that if you’re offended or questioning the material, there’s something very wrong. Lee told Cineaste in a 2001 interview, “I want people to think about the power of images, not just in terms of race, but how imagery is used, what sort of social impact it has… I want them to see how films and television have… produced and perpetuated distorted images… and a lot of that madness is still with us today.” Although no certainty or universality will ever be reached about what representations should be considered “politically correct” or how far is going too far, discussion about these issues are crucial to understanding our feelings on the subject. If Lee’s only intent on Bamboozled was to ignite fiery discussions about race representation in entertainment, then his film is a rousing success as both art and glaring commentary.
Flory, Dan. “Bamboozled: Philosophy through Blackface.” The Philosophy of Spike Lee. Ed. Mark T. Conard. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2011.
Ebert, Roger. “Bamboozled Movie Review & Film Summary.” RogerEbert.com. October 6, 2000.
Sterritt, David. Spike Lee’s America. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.