[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a House feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Ed Howard: Towards the end of Spike Lee's viciously funny media parody Bamboozled, there's a shootout between the police and a militant rap group in which all the black members of the group are quickly killed, leaving behind the one white guy (played by MC Serch of real-life hip-hop outfit 3rd Bass). As the cops put him in cuffs, this one survivor repeatedly cries out to them, "Why didn't you shoot me?" It's such a poignant moment because he seems to be pleading with them, begging them to treat him the way they'd treated the black members of the group, demanding that he not be spared because of the color of his skin. He's so upset, not only because his friends are all dead, but because he's realized an essential truth that Lee is getting at in this movie: no matter how well he'd fit in with his black peers, no matter how fully he'd been accepted by them and participated in their work, he was still separated from them, cut off from their experience of the world at a very basic level over which he could have no control.
Throughout the film, Lee has multiple characters try to take on the attributes of a race other than the one indicated by the color of their skin: black people trying to sound white, white people trying to sound black, and of course many people of various races donning blackface as a TV-inspired fad. For the most part, Lee has nothing but contempt for these characters; MC Serch's character is the one arguable exception, and in the end he can no more escape the color of his skin and what it means than anyone else in the film. I'm starting at the end, to some degree, because this sequence is so suggestive of the film's themes, and also because we should probably admit up front that we're two white guys about to discuss a film that has a very provocative and challenging view of race and racism. It's a film that's at least in part about how it's all but impossible for one race to understand the experience of another—especially whites thinking they understand what it means to be black.
Bamboozled follows the black TV executive Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) as he develops a blackface minstrel show that he thinks will expose the racist attitudes of the media but only winds up feeding into and inflaming that racism. I didn't entirely know what to make of this movie when it came out in 2000, but I've come to believe that it's one of Lee's best, right up there with Do the Right Thing. A bold satire that doesn't pull any punches, Bamboozled is a deeply discomfiting film that's purposefully exaggerated and outlandish and yet is packed with real-world references that ground its satire—even that shootout with the white survivor is based on real events. Lee is exploring the history of racist entertainment in the US, and as the closing montage makes clear, he's suggesting that the same forces that made Birth of a Nation and the vaudeville caricatures of comics like Mantan Moreland so popular are still very much present, in a more covert way, in the modern American entertainment industry. As a result, Bamboozled does what great satire always does: it takes a scenario that should seem ridiculous—it's hard to imagine an actual blackface variety show being aired on American TV today—and uses it to explore the submerged but very real racial attitudes that underpin all sorts of entertainment that only seems less racist than Delacroix's Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show.
Jason Bellamy: This was my first time watching Bamboozled, which I'd only known as "Spike Lee's blackface movie," and while I have mixed feelings about Lee as a filmmaker, and I have somewhat mixed feelings about Bamboozled itself, this might be my favorite Spike Lee joint, and I don't mean that as some kind of backhanded compliment designed to disparage his other movies. Although I haven't seen all of them, Lee's films are typified by their outbursts of awkward blatancy, moments when the action stops so that two or more characters can engage in on-the-nose dialogue that either explicitly analyzes a social issue (think: Mookie challenging Pino about his hatred of "niggers," even though all his favorite athletes are black, in Do the Right Thing) or represents it (think: the Sikh character in Inside Man complaining about all the "random" searches he's been put through since 9/11). What's different about Bamboozled is that the entire film is one giant outburst of awkward blatancy, which over time makes it seem not awkward at all. From the opening scene, in which Wayans' Delacroix defines satire, Bamboozled presents itself more as a hypothetical thought exercise than as a drama, comedy or otherwise more conventional narrative, to the point that the movie seems awkward when its sociological experiment isn't in the foreground, such as the brief, lovely scene in which Delacroix has a backstage conversation with his comedian father Junebug (Paul Mooney) and the emotional distance between them is so poignant that the stuff of their conversation seems momentarily trivial.
If Bamboozled does pull any punches, it's due to the blatancy of its hypothetical design. It's a challenging film, sure, and it never implies that there are easy answers, but because the film is literally announced as a satire in its opening seconds, and because the thought of a modern blackface minstrel show is so outlandish, and because the thought of an audience in blackface is even more outlandish than that, it's easier to keep Bamboozled at arm's length, because we instantly recognize it as an intentionally exaggerated editorial cartoon. Compare that to Do the Right Thing, which despite its own flourishes of caricature was packed with enough realism that some critics feared it wasn't just an accurate depiction of real-world racial tension but a fuse for it, too.
I find it interesting that you think Lee might have less contempt for MC Serch's character than others, because one of the things that I most admire about Bamboozled is the way it makes almost every character a clown, a culprit and a victim all at once. Lee's contempt, in my opinion, isn't for the characters. It's for the whole fucking system, by which I mean not just the entertainment industry but the societal structure, too, which of course is borne of America's shameful past. Lee seems to recognize that some of the things people do in an attempt to correct the record only end up creating new problems. A great example would be the character played by Mos Def, who insists that even his sister, Jada Pinkett Smith's Sloan, calls him by his chosen name, Big Blak Afrika, and not by his "slave name" of Julius (given to him by his parents). In his attempt to reject the expectations and/or demands of a mostly white society, Big Blak Afrika manages to reject his parents, without even fully realizing it, and then he rejects his sister, inadvertently calling her a "house nigger" because she has aspirations within that mostly white world. From Big Blak Afrika's perspective, he's keeping it real. From his sister's perspective, he's clowning (she calls him "ignorant," "retarded" and "embarrassing"). Lee never suggests that only one of them is right, because the point he's trying to make is about perception, and what's clear is that one black person's black pride is another's pathetic acceptance of buffoonery.
EH: That ambiguity is one of the most interesting things about the film, and it's especially apparent in any of the scenes involving Big Blak Afrika's rap group, the Mau Maus. It's hard to know what Lee thinks about them, which is curious because they're the characters who come closest to articulating Lee's own ideas, the ideas of the film. They're all about black pride and black consciousness, about making art that deals with serious issues and confronts prejudice rather than trying to fit into a racist system. To some degree, they're contrasted against Delacroix, who's increasingly absorbed by the white system, and Manray/Mantan (Savion Glover), who shrugs off whatever compunctions he might have for the chance to make some money. It's obvious that Lee sympathizes with Big Blak Afrika when he complains about a famous rapper, saying, "That motherfucker's a millionaire, grunting on record." He's lamenting the fact that black entertainment that enforces negative stereotypes—"bling" and gangstas—is so successful while more politically, racially and socially conscious art is, in Sloan's word, just thought of as "embarrassing." And yet Lee often seems to be mocking the Mau Maus as well, for having a political consciousness and then being unable to articulate their ideas except with empty posturing and, ultimately, useless violence.
In one key scene, Delacroix and Sloan are auditioning various black performers for the Mantan show. They see a parade of comics, singers and performers, mostly validating Big Blak Afrika's complaint, since Delacroix is delighted by anything crude and abrasive, while looking on with bafflement at the musician who plays the didgeridoo, because his beautiful, melancholy music doesn't fit at all with the image of blackness that Delacroix is envisioning here—anything that displays black people as capable of grace and beauty is out. And then the Mau Maus themselves come out, rapping and shouting, delivering their in-your-face aggressive style of performance, and Delacroix seems physically disgusted. Because of the rest of the sequence, one might think that Lee is once again showing Delacroix missing the point, but it's hard to tell, mainly because after all the rhetoric delivered by the Mau Maus throughout the film, their actual performance is incoherent and empty, their presumably political lyrics entirely indecipherable amidst all the shouting.
This impression is confirmed by the finale, in which the Mau Maus simply wind up conforming to—and broadcasting through the media—the black stereotype of the violent gangster that they'd claimed to oppose. Ultimately, these activists have nothing to offer but guns and senseless death. How Lee feels about them, in the end, is suggested by the scene where they're killed by the cops. They're celebrating their murder of Mantan by drinking big bottles of Da Bomb, the malt liquor that Lee had earlier lampooned in a sequence parodying advertising targeted at black people. This film, for all its humor and outrageousness, is ultimately extremely bleak, because this ending suggests just how difficult it is to escape the expectations and stereotypes of a predominantly white society. Society expects black people, and especially black men, to be either buffoons or killers, and almost everyone in this film is all too eager to feed into that system, on the air or off.
JB: To rewrite your last sentence a bit, I think the larger issue is that blackness is often closely associated with violence and thuggishness (be it substantive or merely stylistic), which creates that "house nigger/field nigger" division exemplified by the relationship of Sloan and Big Blak Afrika, in which a black person who takes a white-collar job and speaks in grammatically correct sentences is regarded as somehow faux black while a black person who embraces baggy jeans and rap is regarded as accepting, and furthermore perpetuating, the larger society's lowered expectations. Exactly what Lee thinks about the Mau Maus is unclear: are they genuinely violent thugs all along, or does the system force them to fulfill the stereotype? What is clear is that the Mau Maus' determination to exhibit their blackness renders any deeper intentions moot, at least to the white-dominated entertainment industry, exemplified by Delacroix, who recoils in horror at their audition and then says, "It's frightening; I don't want anything to do with anything black for at least a week."
Delacroix is the movie's whiteface performance. Not literally, of course. But almost. Wayans' portrayal is dominated by a pinched, nasally voice, a rigid stick-up-the-ass posture and frequent hand gestures. It's a performance that suggests the absurdity of white people "acting black," and beyond that the extremeness of it implies that there's a lot of room between succeeding in a predominantly white man's world (in the United States, I mean) and actually trying to become white. Wayans' Delacroix is pure caricature, obviously, and I'm impressed at the consistency of the performance throughout, but even more I'm intrigued by the character's contradictions.
In a piece for his Black History Mumf at Big Media Vandalism, Odie Henderson points out that Delacroix's motivations often turn on a dime. "First, Delacroix wants to do the show to get fired, then he wants to do it to prove a point, then he's happy about the show despite several scenes of him being upset by what his White writers are putting into the mouths of his characters. Then we see him laughing at some of the Mantan show. When he wins awards, he dances around like the coons on his show. Why?" The answer, I think, is this: Delacroix creates his minstrel show as an attempt to be the tail that wags the dog, but somewhere along the way, and without him entirely noticing it, the system reasserts its dominance. Maybe it's fame that corrupts. Maybe fortune. It doesn't really matter. To swap metaphors, the bottom line is that the house always wins.
EH: Odie sees that inconsistency as a sign of the movie's script weaknesses, but I think you're on to something there. Delacroix's motivations are constantly changing because the character isn't quite sure what he wants, which makes him an easy target for assimilation by a system that can absorb and appropriate pretty much anything to its own purposes. Bamboozled shows a process that's been going on in the entertainment industry at least since the industry figured out that they could even market punk rock, a music ostensibly defined by rebellion, political engagement and non-commercialism. Delacroix's initial subversive agenda, like the Mau Maus', is very poorly defined—because the character is confused, I think, not because of a failure of the script—and Delacroix, who should understand all too well how the media works, is kidding himself that he can get any of his ideas across in his show.
Not that Delacroix has many well-defined ideas, really. Lee mocks almost everyone in this film to some extent, but he's most unsparing of Delacroix and his boss, the white Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport). That's because they're the characters who are most strenuously trying to deny their respective races and act like something they're not. That seems to be the biggest crime for Lee. Delacroix's exaggeratedly nasal elocution is the kind of voice that Lee has always used to signal a character, generally a villain, who's trying to pretend that he's white—in that respect, Wayans' Delacroix is a descendant of Giancarlo Esposito's Julian in Lee's sophomore film School Daze, though Wayans' performance is far better. Delacroix is also the counterpart to Dunwitty, a white Irish guy who speaks with what he imagines to be a black dialect, and who thinks he has the right to say "nigger" because he has a black wife and "biracial kids." He gets a great meta line that signals Lee's contempt for this kind of cross-racial acting: "I don't care what Spike Lee says, Tarantino was right, it's just a word."