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Shelton Jackson (“Spike”) Lee (1957–) and his 40 Acres and a Mule production company have made thirty-five films since 1983. Two of his films—Do the Right Thing (1989) and Four Little Girls (1997)—have been nominated for Academy Awards (Best Original Screenplay and Best Feature Documentary, respectively). Lee’s films are known for their social commentary, sometimes presented in excessively didactic fashion, and their edgy exploration of recent developments in popular culture and politics. Extremely outspoken about social issues and public policy, Lee has made especially strong statements about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the U.S. government’s labored response to the impact of Hurricane Katrina on Gulf Coast communities. Indeed, his much acclaimed recent documentary, When the Levees Broke (2006), specifically addresses the failure of state, local, and federal authorities to address the needs of the citizens of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina flooded the city.
In 2000, Lee released the film Bamboozled, which tells the story of Pierre Delacroix, played by Damon Wayans. Delacroix is a black television writer who has grown frustrated with the business. Tired of repeatedly having his “best-foot-forward” black pilots rejected for less positive fare, Delacroix recreates “The New Millenium Minstrel Show” show in hopes of getting fired. He heads to the office of his white boss, Dunwitty (played by Michael Rappaport), accompanied by his assistant Sloan (played by Jada Pinkett) and Womack and Man Ray (played by Tommy Davidson and tap dancer Savion Glover, respectively), two homeless squatters he finds performing on the street. Dunwitty, whose office is a veritable museum of black sports history and whose wife is black, is the iconic, self-described white man who knows more about black people than black people know themselves.
After pitching his show as a satire and casting the pilot from dozens of actors who attend the audition, Delacroix shoots the pilot. To his surprise, despite featuring actors in blackface and scenes of chicken and watermelon stealing, the show is an immediate hit, much to the dismay of black activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who make cameo appearances as themselves. The show also angers the Mau Maus, a misguided group of militants led by Sloan’s brother, who make plans to sabotage the show after being rejected at their audition to serve as the program’s house band. As the show and Man Ray—now known as Mantan—grow in popularity at the hands of a stable of white writers, the Mau Maus plot to end his career by whatever means they have at their disposal.
Their goal comes to fruition as they succeed in kidnapping and killing Mantan on a live broadcast shortly before being gunned down by the police themselves. Only one-sixteenth black, the member of the Mau Maus who is phenotypically white is spared by the police despite his pleas for them to kill him also. Here Lee is evoking an actual event: In the early 1990s a California street gang was shot by the police and only two gang members survived, one emerging unscathed and the other suffering a leg wound. Both were white. The sight of her brother’s and his comrades’ deaths drives Sloan to enter a despondent Delacroix’s home and shoot him fatally. Delacroix’s final acts are to wipe her fingerprints off of the gun and lament his decision to develop the minstrel show that resulted in tragedy.
While Lee’s films Do the Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992) are more heralded, Bamboozled stands as his most shrewd social critique and, excluding the magnificent documentaries Four Little Girls and When the Levees Broke, his lone masterpiece. Disturbing, terrifying, and polarizing, Bamboozled opened to little fanfare in 2000. Early trailers for the film elicited uncomfortable squirms from audiences and prayers that the sight of black characters on screen in blackface meant that a hearty satire was in store. Lee even begins the film with a Damon Wayans voiceover reciting the definition of satire. What Lee has in fact constructed is a horror story.
In Pierre Delacroix, Lee creates a modern Dr. Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s allegory plays out as Delacroix’s creation—the minstrel show—spirals out of control and wreaks havoc. Delacroix even refers to himself as Frankenstein before the show’s premier. Lee has been criticized for the movie’s somber ending, but, in keeping with Shelley’s template, the monster and the monster’s creator must suffer. Both must be perpetrators and victims of the destruction that has been released.
The character Man Ray exemplifies this theme. Literally lifted off the streets, he and Womack are savvy enough to recognize that what they are doing is ethically wrong but hungry enough to ignore their reservations. Man Ray’s simultaneous status as victim and perpetrator becomes the metaphor for the general condition of the black artist in the entertainment world. Ironically, Man Ray accuses Delacroix of sounding like a packaged voice from the popular media without realizing that that is precisely who Delacroix is and who Man Ray himself is becoming. Indeed, it is Delacroix’s parents who expose Delacroix to the audience as a fake whose given name at birth was Peerless Dotham.
By naming Savion Glover’s character Man Ray and then renaming him as Mantan, Lee pays homage to black artists who were denied proper credit for their comic talents during their lives, like Mantan Moreland. Womack is called “Sleep ’n’ Eat” on Delacroix’s minstrel show. The character name refers to the billing assigned to Willie Best, who for a large part of his film career was called only “Sleep ’n’ Eat,” if he was listed at all. Moreland, Best, and Lincoln Perry (known widely as Stepin Fetchit) were gifted actors, but their comedic talents were devoted exclusively to roles in which they portrayed the most demeaning stereotypes associated with black men—lazy, foot-shuffling, slow thinking, cowardly, and wholly subservient to whites. They were consistently the “Uncle Toms” or “Coons” (Bogle 2001), posing no danger to whites no matter the magnitude of the latter’s acts of racist indignity.
The Mau Maus exemplify well-intentioned but misguided revolutionaries everywhere, and their behavior culminates in the killing of the target they can reach most easily. But, Man Ray/Mantan was really no more than a well-paid pawn in a programming venture executed by studio executives. As Delacroix’s auditions demonstrate, there is always a long list of actors eager to play any part.
Bamboozled actually resembles a documentary because its tiny budget resulted in the film being shot with fifteen MiniDV digital cameras. While the budget permitted only a relatively low-quality print, Lee and consultant Michael Ray Charles used this limitation to their advantage in creating the film’s motif. Visual artist Charles used his experience both as a historian and as an actual subject in a documentary to lend accuracy and a gritty, eerie look to the film. His artwork adorns Sloan’s living room, but that room, like the offices in Delacroix’s building, including Dunwitty’s office with its prints of black athletes, still seems lifeless and barren.
The film’s music also contributes to the chilling tone. The minstrel show’s theme song, “I Wish I Was in Dixie”—performed by the Roots—is obvious, but the smooth Terrence Blanchard horn riffs that play during Mantan’s death and Delacroix’s subsequent moment of shame and remorse are a sonic counterpoint to the horrific images on the screen. Delacroix chooses to black his own face in this moment of mourning. In contrast to the actors on his minstrel show or their audience, there is nothing celebratory about his act of blackface; it is, instead, an act of penance manifesting his spiritual and moral nadir.
If the film can be faulted, it is for being overly ambitious. Arguably, the film tries to skewer too many subjects at once. The commercials for “Bomb” malt liquor and “Timmy Hilnigger” jeans are overkill. However, Lee is not interested in subtlety. He has stated publicly that he believes the movie does not overstate conditions in the film or television industry and that the characters are the types of people he encounters daily in Hollywood. Furthermore, he says that the idea of a live prime-time snuff broadcast is not that far in the future, comparing it with graphic war or riot footage that is aired frequently.
Bamboozled grazes over the subject of gender inequality. Lee’s movies have often been criticized for their gender politics, but in this film Sloan is dynamic and complex, not just a victim or opportunist. Her initial objections to Delacroix’s plan are mollified by his caress on her shoulder. He refers to her as his “little lamb,” and it is only in the third act that the actual history of her relationship with Delacroix is made known.
Like all the characters in the film, Sloan raises the ethical question of how far a person will go and at what price. Is ignorance of the full consequences an excuse? Do black artists have a responsibility to be conscious of racial representation in everything they do? Are black artists during the first half of the twentieth century granted clemency because of the constraints of their times, and, if so, what is the point when forgiveness ends and pointed criticism begins? Womack/Sleep ’n’ Eat does leave the minstrel show, but only after he has made a substantial sum of money. Sloan also withholds her own moral concerns and personally teaches Man Ray and Womack how to black their faces correctly, voicing objections based only on the potential adverse community reaction.
When the film was made, Lee may have intended it to convey a dystopic vision of a not-so-distant future, but many viewers in the years following its release recognized familiar images in real-life entertainment. Created in a post–Rodney King, pre-9/11 era, the film shows how easily the public can become desensitized. The audience at the opening of the minstrel show moves quickly from appalled silence to reluctant nervous laughter to full participation in the racist skits. The transition is eased by the fact that the performers are talented (as were Moreland, Best, and Perry), and the skits are, despite their political and social ramifications, inspired and funny.
Ultimately, the film is an extended cautionary tale for the American media’s continuing to put forth images that are similar to the minstrel tradition. It serves as a warning to individuals who bear direct or proximate responsibility for perpetuating stereotypes. In Bamboozled Lee is confronting the actions of producers, directors, and established actors, not just the desperate dirt-poor squatters, represented by Mantan and Sleep ’n’ Eat, eager for a break.
- Bogle, Donald. 2001. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, 4th ed. New York: Continuum International.
- Bogle, Donald. 2005. Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood. New York: Random House.
- Morris, Susan Booker. 2003. Bamboozled : Political Parodic Postmodernism. West Virginia University Philological Papers 50: 67–76.
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