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Bamboozled (#110 of 6)

Redeeming a House of Fire Ashley Clark’s Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled

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Redeeming a House of Fire: Ashley Clark’s Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled
Redeeming a House of Fire: Ashley Clark’s Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled

Spike Lee’s filmography is littered with films maudits, but perhaps none of his works have been as disrespected, shrugged off, and unjustly neglected as Bamboozled, a ferocious, free-range satire of race, media, and misrepresentation that landed with a thud of confusion and indifference upon its release in the fall of 2000. The film is currently out of print on DVD, has never received a Blu-ray release, and is unavailable to stream on any VOD platform. But in Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, a brief but perspicacious monograph on Lee’s most incendiary “joint,” author Ashley Clark reclaims the reputation of Bamboozled as “a vital work that’s equal parts crystal ball and cannonball: glittering and prophetic, heavy and dangerous.”

Lee’s Network-derived satire tells of Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a buppie TV executive who, in an attempt to torpedo his own career, creates a sure-fire flop: Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, a “coon show” featuring black performers in blackface shucking and jiving on a watermelon plantation. The show, naturally, is a huge hit. Despite protests from the black elite, white and black audiences alike delight in the show’s retrograde racial stereotyping, as well as in the genuine talent of its lead performers, Mantan (Savion Glover) and Sleep n’ Eat (Tommy Davidson).

Review: Todd McGowan’s Spike Lee

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Review: Todd McGowan’s Spike Lee
Review: Todd McGowan’s Spike Lee

“In 1989, 10 films got awards [at the Cannes Film Festival] and Do the Right Thing wasn’t one of them. I don’t use awards as validation, but when all is said and done, if the choice is between a director like Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee, they’ll give it to the golden white boy every time.” These words were spoken by Spike Lee following the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, where his new film Jungle Fever had just lost the Palme d’Or to the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. Several writers, including Gene Siskel, weren’t fans of Lee’s “straight talk,” which led Siskel to ask: “Does [Lee] stop to think before he speaks?”

Todd McGowan’s new book remains largely inconsiderate of Lee’s public persona, instead focusing the analysis exclusively on the director’s films, seeking a link that unites them. For McGowan, excess and its negotiation is the defining unity of Lee’s filmmaking—an excess that “draws the spectator’s attention to form” and “disrupts the smooth functioning of society and makes evident the failure of all elements to fit together.” However, McGowan seeks to move past prior understandings of excess and claims that a new theory is needed to understand Lee’s films, “one that focuses on the intimate link between excess and passion.”

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot R. Kurt Osenlund’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: R. Kurt Osenlund’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: R. Kurt Osenlund’s Top 10 Films of All Time

The highly subjective task of compiling a list of the 10 best films of all time is nearly as daunting as the thought that plagues every film completist: How on earth will I ever catch up with more than a century’s worth of cinema? The answer, of course, is that nobody really can, and in a sense, surrendering to that truth offers a kind of liberation. We all want to devour as many great movies as possible, but there comes a time when we have to accept a certain morsel of defeat. Which is basically my disclaiming way of saying that I came at this project with a highly personal and minimally authoritative approach, selecting a group of favorites instead of stamping my feet and declaring history’s 10 best films. Contributors were encouraged to tackle their lists however they saw fit, and some have certainly delivered what they regard as the definitive cream of the crop. More power to those folks, and to those whose picks are far less populist and more Sight & Sound-friendly than mine. Ultimately, while I gave much consideration to artistic influence and chronological diversity (and winced at the snubbing of films like The Red Shoes, Pulp Fiction, My Own Private Idaho, and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), there were really only 10 titles I ever could have chosen. Quite simply, these movies changed my life.

The Conversations: Bamboozled

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The Conversations: Bamboozled
The Conversations: Bamboozled

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.

Shifted Images

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Shifted Images
Shifted Images

“The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible.” Umberto Eco

From a Spiegel magazine interview:

Q: You include a nice list by the French philosopher Roland Barthes in your new book, The Vertigo of Lists. He lists the things he loves and the things he doesn’t love. He loves salad, cinnamon, cheese and spices. He doesn’t love bikers, women in long pants, geraniums, strawberries and the harpsichord. What about you?
Eco: I would be a fool to answer that; it would mean pinning myself down. I was fascinated with Stendhal at 13 and with Thomas Mann at 15 and, at 16, I loved Chopin. Then I spent my life getting to know the rest. Right now, Chopin is at the very top once again. If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing. And if nothing changes, you’re an idiot.

Here are the films with images that shifted around most in my mind throughout the aughts. Not the best or worst, but the most enduring:

White Power: Ten Armond White Quotes that Shook My World

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White Power: Ten Armond White Quotes that Shook My World
White Power: Ten Armond White Quotes that Shook My World

“That man is an artist,” Wendell B. Harris once said to me, of film critic Armond White. I was trying to set up an interview with Harris about his long-neglected film Chameleon Street, the 1990 Sundance Grand Prize winner that should have led to a brilliant career. The film, and Harris, virtually disappeared in the 1990’s, his brief appearances in Out of Sight and Road Trip notwithstanding. Critics mostly saw in Chameleon Street a colorful but fumbling amateur effort. White saw a masterpiece, championing the film in the Film Comment essay “Underground Man” and referring to it as a measure of artistry in other reviews. So perhaps Harris had self-serving reasons for calling a mere film critic an artist—one hand washing the other. I would be inclined to agree if I didn’t see what White saw in Chameleon Street (basically, a low-budget peer to Orson Welles) or what Harris sees in White (a film critic as influential as his mentors, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris). Armond White counts as an artist to me because his best work carries the power of art. It teaches audiences and artists how to see, feel and imagine more deeply.

Of course, anyone familiar with White’s column in the NY Press (and the hate mail it regularly generates) knows that he is more often described as stone crazy. Or, “batshit crazy.” Or simply, “insane.” Just as often, exasperated readers and colleagues refer to him as “contrarian for the sake of being contrary.” He does position himself in diametric opposition to virtually every film critic on earth. But does that make him crazy? A rebel for the hell of it? No: The best White writings agitate, scold, flail, balk, intimidate, insult and weep for the state of the world. But they’re not an act. They give movies and pop culture a messy, personal reaction. (Hence this messy, personal appreciation.) Though he writes in a kind of crisp, omniscient-sounding voice, White’s work expresses heartbreak at most folk’s refusal to make/let culture enter their hearts/minds and change their lives/worlds. He’s a grandiose dude.

Here are ten fragments from White’s writing that I’ve wanted to frame and hang on a wall—and which make him count as something greater than a successor to Kael and Sarris. Sarris imported and bottled French auteurism for American cineastes. Kael humanized film criticism and brought filmmakers down to earth while proselytizing movie love. Both changed Eurocentric film culture irrevocably. White is out to change the world. Embedded in his reviews are the means to topple Ho’wood hegemony and the critical orthodoxy that keeps audiences expecting so little of movies these days. That’s crazy. That’s art.