Spike Lee: Bamboozled (2000) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Spike Lee: Bamboozled (2000)

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Pierre Delacroix needs a hit.  His boss has pestered him to create a television program which will connect with modern black audiences.  So Pierre, using satire as a cover, reaches back into America's racist cultural past and recruits some actors in need of a paycheck to create The New Millennium Minstrel Show, a variety program featuring performers in blackface.  The show's a surprise hit, but many people, from a militant hip-hop collective to Delacroix's coworkers, are angry with these images dug back up for a new generation.  Spike Lee writes and directs Bamboozled with stars Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Honorary black manFor my money, Bamboozled is the most interesting Spike Lee film we've discussed so far—that doesn't necessarily mean it's one of the best (though it might be). If there's any movie in Spike's filmography that has such a wide range of possible meanings between the two ends of the “what it's supposed to mean” and “what it actually signifies” spectrum, I don't know what it would be. That the use of blackface and the film's portrayal of the actual minstrel show its characters stage threaten to overwhelm the underlying critical message has been written about plenty already, but it's impossible to consider Bamboozled otherwise. We could talk about whether or not it's even possible to show what Lee shows without lending new and refreshed power to the racist images he wants to employ as a critical mirror to the current entertainment landscape, but for me the film's contradictions-within-contradictions-within-contradictions start before we even get to the show-within-the-show.

Central to what makes Bamboozled so often simultaneously fascinating and frustrating is the opening monologue by pro(/an)tagonist and creator of the show-within-the-film, The New Millennium Minstrel Show Pierre Delacroix, during which he, in the hilariously over-affected accent of an Ivy League academic, defines satire for the audience. This moment is funny on a superficial level because the character can't possibly realize what a joke he himself is—the audience's narrative distance highlights Delacroix's lack of awareness at how significantly (and poorly) he has compromised his own identity in order to fit in among the almost entirely white executives and writers at the TV station at which he works. That this assumed identity is one of broad-stroke satire itself—assuming all the cliché traits of the stuffy-old-rich-white-men establishment he will later try to fight—would seem to indicate that Lee wants us to be wary of “satire” as simply an excuse for neglecting deeper critical inspection.

The film goes on to criticize both its black and white characters for excusing the production of a new minstrel show—replete with portrayals in blackface and other iconic racist imagery—under the guise of satire. The white characters use this excuse as a thin veil for their gleeful enjoyment of the images and stereotypes being (re)produced, and the black characters claim that since it's in the name of satire, the program is gaining a critical, socially responsible function that is never articulated past this initial vague sentiment.

Then come the question of whether Spike, in resurrecting such imagery for his own film, is not doing at least a little of the same. The irony in Delacroix's opening monologue suggests otherwise—that in projecting the images of minstrelsy in the context in which he does so, he hopes to illuminate how racist imagery and stereotypes are so easily maintained in current media due to a lack of audience awareness and willingness to engage critically. Then again, he also said that this opening monologue defining satire was included “because motherfuckers are stupid.”

One of our common disagreements over the course of this project has been not necessarily Spike's messages themselves, but the degree of success with which he embeds them in his characters and stories. Often I feel like we're being lectured at, something I don't think you agree with typically, if ever, so I'm curious to get your thoughts here not just on the use of blackface (which has to be discussed), but on whether Lee maintains the integrity of his message in the first place.‏

Is this how we want to lookWhile we've had disagreements about the strength of the message, if not the message itself, then Bamboozled is the film where I believe we finally intersect on the strength and content of Spike's film.  This is an extremely difficult film for me to think about because the subject matter is so unique to an experience I can't even begin to imagine first-hand.  Harassment by the police?  Facing violence because of some perceived difference?  I can relate to those things, though not nearly to the extent any Spike character does.

But blackface?  I have no reference, and the way Spike goes about forcing us to think about the history of blackface and how it relates to current media consumption in Bamboozled results in a stylistic side of Spike we rarely see.  One of the trademarks of Spike's camera is how it subjectively grounds us in the experience of the characters.  The best example of this is the extensive tracking shot in Jungle Fever where Wesley Snipes' characters runs around the office screaming, "Mine!" at the designs that helped build the firm which won't reward him.

But Spike's camera in Bamboozled is still.  Almost all the shots are of static reactions either to the crowd, the performers onstage, or the various business meetings that fill up Bamboozled.  This forced me to do two things, the first was pay far more attention to the set design and props than normal, and second the subtle shifts from disgust, amusement, anger, indignation, and shame during every scene.  The only time that the camera is really in motion is when Delacroix introduces us to his world via one of Spike's famous double-dolly shots.  It screams "Look how great my world is!" right before going to work to a television executive who thinks that he's blacker than Delacroix because he has mixed race kids and fills his walls with photos of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson.

This is where talking about Bamboozled will get tricky.  The focus on the trinkets, the static shots of the characters behavior, speak to how Spike is rooting modern blackness (whatever the hell that may be) in easy to sell stereotypes rather than a shared history of pain and oppression.  One of the most affecting scenes in the film is when Delacroix finds out that his show is a success and he sits silently at his computer looking at a picture of how slave ships used to pack their human cargo, and here he is packaging another form of exploitation through television.  The rapper group that are the anarchists aren't better, rooting their actions not in an advancement of shared history but as a cliché of violence and consumption.‏

Africa-offTiny Kyle CommentaryOne of the funniest moments in the movie to me is when the Mau Maus stand around a table vaguely and aggressively discussing how something “must be done” about Mantan, falsely conflating the character with Manray the performer. The scene ends with a series of short jump cuts back and forth between the characters, all of whom keep asking and repeating “know what I mean?” We DO know what they mean due to the violence inherent in the stereotypical “scary militant rap group” image that Spike has them play into so simply and directly, and yet the repetition of the question, which begs actual clarification in the form of an answer that never comes, emphasizes a kind of herd mentality without a leader.

This is fitting considering that their course of action sees them playing directly into the benefit of the television network for which Delecroix works, broadcasting live the execution of Mantan/Manray—yet another event that offers Dunwitty and the other CNS execs a chance to rejoice in the profits of raw exploitation and controversy while putting forward a concerned face.

You hit on something I wondered about once the film was finished, though, which is the degree to which white critics' attitudes about Bamboozled at the time—many of which either decried the use of blackface or attacked it for being clumsy and heavy-handed—stemmed from an inability to deal with the uncomfortable resurrection of such historical practices and relics on-screen from any point other than that of the original (and current) perpetrators and cultural beneficiaries of such subjugation. Spike would argue I think that they're not really “historical” so much as older incarnations of practices and attitudes that have since evolved and changed form, so seeing these representations onscreen today recalls a past we too often want to consider done and over with, and in doing so it creates a dissonance for those who want to hold fast to this belief that the social forces underlying minstrelsy have vanished.‏

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryRoger Ebert struggled with the blackface when he reviewed Bamboozled and even though it's been years since I read the review, two statements (which I'll go back and quote directly) helped me as an early movie critic to watch films closely.  The first, "That's the danger with satire: To ridicule something, you have to show it, 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."  Second, "The power of the racist image tramples over the material and asserts only itself."

The first I completely agree with.  One of the things the Charlie Hebdo tragedy brought up is many people thought the images weren't successful satire despite their intention as extreme satirical versions of racist viewpoints.  They borrowed from racist ideology so thoroughly the satirical message was lost and the defense from a plethora of white cartoonists telling people to recognize the satire fell deaf on my ears because of how extreme the images sometimes were.  The second quote is where I disagree and where I think that Spike succeeds.

The montage at the end of Bamboozled is what really drives the point home and I'm surprised that so many white critics ended up missing the point.  Yes, Spike is reproducing a harmful discourse by bringing blackface back in this film.  There's really no "reclaiming" it, as seen by the audience reactions and the rap group aggression against the show.  But in that fantastic montage stemming from the dawn of cinema to slightly more modern cartoons and live action pieces we see how the racist attitudes of the past continue to haunt the way black performers are cast now.

Now that I've said that, I want to know what genre this film even comfortably fits in?  It has satirical bits, especially in the funny company scenes where a group of only white people talk about how the show should be run because of their specialties as negrologists.  Sometimes it's outright funny, like when we get a taste of the marketing of the products used during commercial breaks of the show.  Then there's the heartbreaking conclusion with Delacroix remembering the legacy he's perpetuating with this show.  Is Bamboozled more free-floating genre cautionary tale than straight satire or should we just shrug our shoulders sadly and say, "Forget it Kyle, it's Spike Lee?"  I don't love Bamboozled but it's essential Spike viewing, I just don't have the foggiest idea how to tell people about it (short of our discussion, of course).‏

Do you see what you're reproducing hereTiny Kyle CommentaryIn many ways I think it does fit more completely into the category of satire, if satire can (and I wholeheartedly think it can) also be tragedy. Lee goes to great lengths in the movie to ensure that the visuals reflect a constant conflation of media images and (at least symbolic) death. You've got the three mirrored falls of Mantan/Manray: first in the initial broadcast of The New Millennium Minstrel Show where, in character as Mantan, Savion Glover falls backward onto the stage, arms outstretched, his symbolic death for the benefit of the audience (it's played mostly as slapstick); second, Manray's more somber but almost physically identical fall later in the film, after he walks on-stage without the Mantan costume and recites a similar but more critical, anger-tinged version of Mantan's original dialogue—this time underscoring the effect that playing the character has had on Manray's own sense of self; and third, the literal death at the end of the film when Manray is shot on live TV by the Mau Maus.

Lee does a good job tracking the evolution of Manray in these scenes by positioning the audience's gaze in a way that parallels that of the in-film audience. In the first scene we see Mantan's performance—shot on film as opposed to digital like the rest of the movie, and with minimal cut-aways or interruptions—mostly as a TV audience would see it. The second scene is shot in digital, with various angled shots and even some repetition of footage as Manray falls, and Lee uses cut-aways to Dunwitty, Delacroix, and the film's crew interrupting the show and hauling Manray off stage. Here Manray is still embodying Mantan to some extent due to his dialogue and posturing, but we see him, as the studio audience does, primarily as Manray. In the third scene Lee makes an effort to show Manray not only in the background (either tied up in a chair or being shot at by the Mau Maus), but also frequently in the foreground on a TV screen playing the live feed that the group is broadcasting. We see Manray both present as himself and broadcast symbolically still as Mantan—emphasizing that TV audiences, like the Mau Maus, can't make a distinction between the two.

Going back to that monologue at the beginning, I think the film supports a tragic-satire reading even as Lee claims that it's more simple than that. Again, Delacroix's introduction via definition of satire is funny due to his own lack of self-awareness, but it can also be regarded as darkly ironic by the end of the film, where his final statement to “always keep the audience laughing” is played over images of Mantan performing that, if not tragic enough before, surely are now. Lee primes the audience to see his own film as satire in the same way Delacroix positions The New Millennium Minstrel Show, and then moves from this easier, broader version of satire into a nightmarish dystopia in the last scenes—during which nearly all the black characters are dead, dying, or have fled. Even Delacroix's final position is in a reclined fall backward, facing the images of historical minstrelsy that Lee delivers in montage.

It's precisely because Bamboozled is messy, refusing clear and distinct categorization or interpretation that I think it's one of Lee's most interesting films.

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