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The Controversy of Race in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled

The Controversy of Race in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled

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Feature by: Marcus Gilmer

Posted on: 17 July 2004

Over the past three decades, American pop culture has presented us with varying depictions of black figures, families, and lifestyle. Some have been met with harsh criticism while others have been heralded as groundbreaking. In the 1970’s there was “Sanford & Son,” “Good Times,” “What’s Happening?,” and “The Jeffersons.” The 1980’s saw “The Cosby Show” shake up the way in which blacks were presented on television by giving us a middle class, educated black family. Ultimately several clones diluted the effect “Cosby” had. During the 1990’s, the portrayal of blacks on television entered a dismal wasteland of bad sitcoms (“Homeboys in Outer Space,” “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer”) where blacks were reduced to goofy sidekicks. This is where revered director Spike Lee, no stranger to race and controversy, takes his aim in Bamboozled. In the movie, Lee satirizes the entertainment industry and their tactics as well as the portrayals and perceptions of blacks in entertainment. Lee’s Bamboozled is an attempt at satire that misfires in the eyes of critics and, as a result, is a piece that is viewed as racist.

The Movie

In Bamboozled we follow Pierre Delacroix, portrayed by renowned actor Damon Wayans. Delacroix is a Harvard graduate and an executive at a large television network, CNS. The network is under pressure to produce a hit and Delacroix is pulled aside by his boss, Mr. Dunwitty, who is blisteringly portrayed by Michael Rapaport. Dunwitty points out that he, though a white man, is more in touch with the black community than Delacroix. At one point, he says, “I have a black wife and two biracial kids. Brother man — I’m blacker than you.” In truth, with his education, speech, and diction, Delacroix is portrayed as a black man who least fits the image of a black man in popular culture. Dunwitty further criticizes Delacroix for the shows he has proposed, calling them warmed-over Cosby rip offs. He pushes Delacroix to create something cutting edge.

Taking Dunwitty’s criticism, Delacroix decides to produce a show outrageously controversial and intends to be fired from CNS. Harkening back to the technique used by the main characters in Mel Brooks’s The Producers, Delacroix recruits Manray, a homeless street performer, and his partner Womack to star in “Mantan-The New Millennium Minstrel Show.” The show is a modern-day minstrel show, set on an Alabama plantation circa the time of slavery with black actors wearing even blacker makeup.

In a recognized nod to Mel Brooks’ Broadway satire The Producers (in which a musical named “Springtime for Hitler” becomes unexpectedly popular) and to Delacroix’s dismay, the show, despite (or, perhaps, because of) controversy, becomes a hit. Delacroix loses his sight on why he created the show in the first place. At this point, the movie loses its satiric edge and meanders into a darker territory of self-destruction. In the end, however, one is left with some images of blacks as represented in American pop culture that still provoke much thought. The barren landscape of representation of blacks on television should be examined further to understand Lee’s point in Bamboozled.

Life after Cosby

Surveys of shows have shown that there is a very small number of black characters. When there are shows with black characters, they are nearly always central characters in sitcoms. Rarely is there a drama that focuses on a black character or characters. If there is, it is often a critical success but a commercial failure and therefore languishes in poor ratings and sporadic time slots. Even when blacks are the central characters in sitcoms, they are sometimes depicted as bumbling idiots. Witness Steve Urkel and Carl Winslow in the warmed over, mediocre Cosby carbon copy “Family Matters.” Even Damon Wayans’s younger brothers perpetuate this stereotype in their show “The Wayans Brothers.” On the rare occasion when dramas do depict blacks, even then they are stereotyped as overly aggressive. Eriq La Salle’s Dr. Benton in NBC’s “e.r.” is always aggressive and very rarely smiling. On NBC’s “Homicide,” black actor Andre Braugher’s character was so high strung, he suffers a stroke in one pivotal episode. The point is that there are few, if any, positive portrayals of blacks on current television programs.

Television is but one of Lee’s targets. Throughout the film, Lee takes on representations of blacks in the fashion world, the music industry, and culture in general. What is even more interesting is his view that it is members of the black race that continue to help portray and perpetuate these stereotypes.

Lee’s Thoughts

Spike Lee’s commentary, available on the DVD edition of Bamboolzed, offers the director’s insight. The movie starts with Delacroix giving the definition of the word satire. Lee hoped that such an action by the movie’s main character would allow viewers to “make no mistake what its about” (Lee). Despite these efforts, the satirical nature was still lost on many critics and viewers who attacked Lee for his negative portrayals. Throughout the film, Lee points out, Delacroix is a character who thinks he has control over his own life, but in reality is simply a puppet. He even changed his name from Pierce Dothan to the more dignified Pierre Delacroix.

As for the character of Dunwitty, Lee is particularly clear in his satiric aims. Dunwitty is a white man who claims to know black people better than Delacroix does. His speech, heavy with black slang, as well as his general attitude create quite a paradoxical character. While Dunwitty believes his actions endear him to his black coworkers like Delacroix, his reaction to stereotypes of blacks only alienates the black coworkers he is trying to impress. Lee claims that Dunwitty is not merely a figment of his imagination, but rather a reality. He points out that there are several white executives in entertainment that claim to “know black people.”

As for Dunwitty’s alleged embracing of black culture, as illustrated by African sculptures, paintings, and pictures of black athletes on display in his office, Lee is quite cynical and pointed. “There’s a difference between liking a culture, appreciating that culture, and bogarting that culture, taking over that culture” (Lee). When the show “Homeboys in Outer Space” is mentioned, Lee can only refer to it as “a terrible show.” In reference to “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer,” a comedy that followed the exploits of Abraham Lincoln’s black butler, Lee could only call it “a fiasco.” He ads “How can you make comedy out of a holocaust. Let’s make no mistake. Slavery in this country was a holocaust.” In the end, Lee says that “Dunwitty is definitely a wigger,” a slang term for a white person who portrays himself to be black. Dunwitty also reflects the desires of many executives, according to Lee: “They want coons and buffoons on TV.”

“‘Nigger’ is just a word.”

During the conversational exchange between Dunwitty and Delacroix at the beginning of the film, Dunwitty repeatedly uses the word “nigger,” long since seen as a racist term. Despite Delacroix’s protests, Dunwitty insists on using the word. He argues that “Quentin Tarantino was right. ‘Nigger’ is just a word,” and follows this up by repeating the word several times. Lee gives us Delacroix’s deep feelings on the issue via a quick dream sequence where Delacroix repeatedly punches Dunwitty. At the conclusion of the film, Lee makes a comment on the nature of the word in the context of the movie. In the scene, members of the studio audience, who of are various racial make-ups, use the word freely. Lee makes a comment that the word is now “acceptable” despite it’s historical and racial connotations. Lee claims that he is “not making an editorial comment. It shows how whites think they know blacks.”

“Gangsta Rap is the 21st century minstrel show.”

Television is not the only industry that is targeted by Lee in Bamboozled. Lee is also critical of the music industry, specifically gangsta rap groups. Lee likens gangsta rap’s over-the-top theatrics to minstrel shows. “Gangsta rap is the 21st century minstrel show. They think what they say is so profound.” In the movie, Lee uses the group the Mau Maus to satirize gangsta rap.

The group is made up of several militant rappers who come to strongly oppose the “Mantan” show, claiming it’s continuing to stereotype and oppress blacks. This representation is thick with irony. Even though they are accusing the “Mantan” show of maintaining the stereotypes, the rap group themselves embody what Lee claims is wrong with current rap figures. According to Lee, most of the current figures in rap and hip-hop just serve to maintain the stereotypes while those trying to move the genre in a more uplifting direction are too few in number. Lee cites rapper Mos Def as one of the few who is attempting to do so. Coincidentally, that’s Mos Def playing the character “Julian,” or “Big Black Africa,” head of the Mau Maus.

During the final minutes of the movie, the Mau Maus kidnap Mantan, who has just quit the minstrel show. They take him to an undisclosed warehouse where, as they alert the media, they plan to execute him live via the Internet. The story gets full television coverage and the Mau Maus succeed in executing Mantan after shooting bullets at his feet to force him to tap dance. Lee points out that though they think they have just saved their race, all they are really doing is degrading the images of gangsta rappers and, to a larger extent, blacks to a lower level. Following the execution, the police track down the group at their warehouse and proceed to kill all of the members except one during a shootout. Sure enough, the lone rapper left standing is one that, despite his claims (“Why didn’t you kill me, too? I’m black!”), appears white. Lee says pointedly, “Yes, we were making a point.”

The Big Picture

Lee’s satire envelops a larger scope, as collective black pop culture is also targeted in Bamboozled. Commenting on the current trends in motion pictures, Lee cites the “Super Magical Nigger,” exampling “The Green Mile” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance” as support. These “Super Magical Niggers use magic to help white people but can’t help themselves.” Later, in a dream sequence, Delacroix wins an award for the show and proceeds to do a dance on stage, a parody of Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s dance after his famous Academy Award win for Jerry Maguire. Lee addresses blacks in entertainment in general by saying, “It’s the same bullshit. They bring us back, dress us up differently. Same old, same old. Like we made progress. Everything’s alright.”

The sponsors of the show are also wonderfully satiric. First, there is the “Timmy Hillnigger” line of clothing, a blatant parody of Tommy Hillfiger. The Hillfiger line of fashion is noted for being created by a white designer and aimed at a black market. Thus, the easy parody. Lee even relates a story of how Hillfiger himself approached Lee following the film’s release and complained to Lee about how he, Hillfiger, has done much for the black community. Lee punctuates the story complete with an unflattering imitation of Hillfiger’s voice, illustrating his apparent disregard for the clothing designer. The other main sponsor for the show is “The Bomb Malt Liquor.” This commercial plays up on the stereotype of blacks drinking large forty ounce bottles of malt liquor. Both commercials are laden with stereotypical images of blacks: clothes, dance moves, slang. The conclusion of the “Timmy Hillnigger” ad has Mr. Hillnigger saying, after mispronouncing words like “Negro” and “ghetto,” “So authentic, we include the bullet holes.” Throughout the movie, there are references to other fads, like the yo-yo, the hula-hoop, and Pokemon that Lee uses to show how black face has become a trend within the context of the movie.

The names of the characters on the show are indicative of the stereotypes of blacks. The main character, Mantan, may be too obscure for younger viewers to understand. Mantan was the name of a black minstrel performer back at the turn of the century. Less obscure is the name of the second character: Sleep’n’Eat. The obvious reference here is that blacks do nothing all day but sleep, eat, and collect their welfare checks, as Dunwitty alludes at one point.

Throughout the film, Delacroix’s office becomes more and more littered with antiques from the turn of the century, serving, in Lee’s words, as “a reminder.” The film closes with a series of shots from various television shows, cartoons, and movies that demonstrate “the most racist, horrific images in television and film.” Not even Hollywood’s cherished actors are safe. Actors like Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby are shown applying black face makeup. Not to be outdone, the credits roll over shots of some of the antique toys in action. In this manner Lee’s satire is completed with poetic gravity.

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Critics of the movie Bamboozled struggled with finding any satiric element in the character of Mantan. Ebert referred to the infamous Ted Danson Friar’s Club blackface appearance at a dinner in honor of Whoopi Goldberg. Though the idea was Goldberg’s, Danson was still attacked for being racist. A fellow actor asked Danson, “Jesus Christ, Ted, what were you thinking of? Do you think black people think blackface is funny in 1993?” Ebert answers in an eloquent way, and even references back to one of Lee’s inspirations, The Producers:

“No, and white people don’t, either. Blacks in blackface eating watermelon and playing characters named Eat ‘n Sleep, Rufus and Aunt Jemima fail as satire and simply become — well, what they seem to be. Crude racist caricatures. I think Spike Lee misjudged his material and audience in the same way Whoopi Goldberg did, and for the same reason: He doesn’t find a successful way to express his feelings, angers and satirical points. When Mel Brooks satirizes Nazis in the famous “Springtime for Hitler” number in The Producers, he makes Hitler look like a ridiculous buffoon. But what if the musical number had centered on Jews being marched into gas chambers? Not funny. Blackface is over the top in the same way — people’s feelings run too strongly and deeply for any satirical use to be effective. The power of the racist image tramples over the material and asserts only itself.” (Ebert)

Likewise, Lively attacks Lee for the minstrel show images:

“I admire Spike for doing his own thing and doing it his own way, but I kept asking myself as I sat through a continuous barrage of painted black faces, bucked eyes and big red lips, why? I found myself mad, disappointed, embarrassed, and empty… It’s an attention-getter.” (Lively)

Like Lester, these critics miss the point. Lee claims that the reason the film opens with Delacroix giving the definition of satire is so there would be no question about whether or not the film was meant as racist or satirical. In effect, however, Lee’s satire suffers from misinterpretation.

Bamboozled is certainly not a total failure as far as satire goes. In my opinion, the film is dead on in its depiction of the portrayal of blacks in entertainment. It is the critics who fail to see the success of Lee’s satirization. Lee’s critics, such as Ebert, at least recognize that Lee is attempting satire. Says Ebert of the rap group the Mau Maus in the movie, “when Lee says the modern equivalent of a blackface minstrel show is the gangsta-rap music video, we see what he means: these videos are enormously popular with white kids, just as minstrel shows were beloved by white audiences, and for a similar reason: They package entertainment within demeaning and negative black images” (Ebert). In the end the racial images crowd the satirical images, to such an extent that all effects of the satirical elements are unseen.

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