I first saw Bamboozled as a 15-year-old, in April 2001, at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, south-west London, and it threw me for a loop. Written and directed by Spike Lee, the film is an intense satire about a frustrated African American TV executive, Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), who creates a contemporary version of a minstrel show in order to purposefully get himself fired, and expose the commissioning network as a racist and retrograde outfit. However, the show, which features its black stars wearing blackface, becomes a huge hit, prompting Delacroix’s mental collapse, and an explosion of catastrophic violence, the effects of which are felt far and wide.
When, in October 2014, I saw footage of freshly signed rapper Bobby Shmurda literally dancing on a table in front of a group of executives, exactly like performer Manray (Savion Glover) does in Bamboozled, I began to wonder whether Lee was in fact a secret soothsayer. Not even he, however, could have predicted the transcendentally weird tale of Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP leader in Spokane, Washington, who was revealed to have been white, and posing as African American all along. At the time of the incident, many wags on social media suggested that Lee would be the ideal man to direct Bamboozled 2: The Rachel Dolezal Story.
Bamboozled’s shrewd commentary on the lack of behind-the-scenes diversity in mainstream entertainment is also especially relevant today. The presence of figures like Robin Thede – head writer on The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, and the first black woman to hold that position on a late-night network comedy show – and Shonda Rhimes, the powerful showrunner behind Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder, is heartening. Yet a report released in March 2015 by the Writer’s Guild of America West revealed that minority writers accounted for just 13.7% of employment: a dismal statistic. Moreover, Rhimes’s success didn’t insulate her from being disrespectfully branded as an “Angry Black Woman” – that most pernicious of stereotypes – in a rancid, supposedly flattering article by Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times.
While most of us can cheer the incrementally increasing diversity on our film and television screens, Bamboozled forces us to question the quality and progressiveness of these roles. Ostensibly it’s great that talented actors such as Mo’Nique (Precious, 2009), Octavia Spencer (The Help, 2011) and Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, 2013) are winning Oscars, but isn’t the shine taken off somewhat by the fact they were rewarded by the establishment for playing, respectively, a psychotic “welfare queen”, a neo-Mammy in a white savior period picture, and a chronically abused slave? Why don’t black women win Oscars for playing complex heroines or crotchety geniuses like their white male counterparts? Because old stereotypes die hard within an industry that prefers stasis over change. Perhaps even more disturbingly, there’s something inherently soothing about such stereotypes for mass audiences – a point particularly relevant to the wild popularity of Bamboozled’s own minstrel show.
And how far have we come, really? Ridley Scott cast a host of white actors (including a fake tan-enhanced Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton) in his Middle Eastern epic/flop Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), but his response to complaints was both flippant, and distressingly matter-of-fact: “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.” The best riposte to Scott and his film came from independent black film-maker Terence Nance, who wrote that “[l]ike The Birth of a Nation before it, [Exodus] traffics in absurd cultural appropriation and brown-faced minstrel casting/makeup techniques to rewrite African history as European history, and in so doing propagates the idea that European cultural centrality is more important than historical fact and the ever-evolving self-image of African-descended people as it is influenced by popular representations of people of color in Western media distributed worldwide.”
Nance, however, is just one talented black film-maker among many (Dee Rees, Tina Mabry, Haile Gerima, Julie Dash, Barry Jenkins et al) who have struggled to attract funding to tell artistic and personal stories outside of the monolithic, corporate world of mainstream entertainment which Bamboozled so acidly depicts (even if it is set in the world of TV rather than film.) Lee has long been vocal about the struggles he’s faced in raising funds to tell black-focused stories, and even he had to go cap in hand to fans on Kickstarter to crowd-fund his idiosyncratic, low-budget vampire movie Da Sweet Blood of Jesus(2014). Da Sweet Blood is his most excessive, least easily readable work since Bamboozled, but it can’t match his earlier film for sheer visceral impact.
Bamboozled, then, is a genuine one-off, but I can detect traces of its relentless, irritable, questioning approach in a variety of contemporary art. I see it in Justin Simien’s excellent college-set satire Dear White People (2014), which was inspired by horrific, real-life blackface parties at universities across America. I see it in the antic situational comedy of Key & Peele, whose best sketch, musical spoof “Negrotown”, compresses the madness, pathos and insight of Lee’s film into four-and-a-half harrowingly hilarious minutes. I see it in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins thrillingly audacious play An Octoroon (2013), which reconfigures blackface tropes in daring ways. Most of all I see it coursing through the veins of Paul Beatty’s scabrous satirical novel The Sellout (2015), about a shiftless young black Angeleno who hatches a plot to reintroduce racial segregation, and takes an elderly slave – a disturbed former “pickaninny” star of Little Rascals films – while he’s at it. Like Lee’s film, it plays as a shotgun blast to the face of formal convention, it’s stubbornly resistant to a single concrete interpretation, and it has a lot of very painful things to say about America today.
ABC’s enjoyably gentle sitcom Black-ish (2014-), meanwhile, simultaneously echoes Delacroix’s crisis – with its premise of a middle-class black ad executive (Anthony Anderson) jockeying for position in a white corporate space – and feels like the kind of show Delacroix, free of Dunwitty’s pressure, might have concocted himself.
Lastly, I couldn’t help but think of Bamboozled while poring over Ta-Nehisi Coates’s epic essay in the Atlantic, The Case for Reparations, which uncovers, in forensic detail, the institutional plunder of black Americans from slavery to redlining to mass incarceration and its destructive impact on families. Coates’s fury is more controlled than Lee’s, but it’s equally sincere, and his essay shares with Bamboozled the central imperative to look directly into the heart of past racial sins in order to plot a productive way forward.
It is time, then, to take a close look at Bamboozled, which deserves to be respected as much more than a mid-career oddity in Lee’s filmography. It is a vital work that’s equal parts crystal ball and cannonball: glittering and prophetic, heavy and dangerous.
This is an edited extract from Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled by Ashley Clark, published by The Critical Press. Pre-order the paperback edition from The Critical Press here, and the Kindle version from Amazon here.
Bamboozled screens at BAMcinématek, Brooklyn on Wednesday 28 October as part of Behind The Mask: Bamboozled in Focus, a film series curated by Clark.