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Damon Wayans (#110 of 3)

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).

Summer of ‘87: Roxanne: Smelling the Coffee in Brazil

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Summer of ‘87: <em>Roxanne</em>: Smelling the Coffee in Brazil
Summer of ‘87: <em>Roxanne</em>: Smelling the Coffee in Brazil

Steve Martin’s Rostand adaptation, Roxanne, came out the year after I read its source material. During my senior year of high school, my English teacher, Mr. Kilinski, assigned us Cyrano de Bergerac. Some of my classmates opted instead to watch 1950’s Oscar winner Jose Ferrer as Cyrano. Most of us knew by now that our teachers asked exam questions designed to trap students who substituted film for book. I’ve never seen Ferrer’s version, so I can’t vouch for its faithfulness, but I’d warn any student reading this against using Roxanne as a substitute for Rostand. Mr. Kilinski’s test asked us “what is the eventual fate of Cyrano?” If Roxanne were your only brush with de Bergerac, you were about to fail this exam.

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.