revisiting bamboozled, spike lee’s satire on race and representation
As it turns 15, we take another look at Spike Lee's most contentious and prophetic film.
As Spike Lee's latest release Chi-Raq, a musical about guns and gangs in Chicago, marks cinema's sharpest social critic's return to form, the director's searingly divisive 2000 film Bamboozled remains unsung. At the turn of the millennium, many critics and audiences thought Lee was letting hysteria and bitterness overspill into his work when he put black actors in blackface to comment on racism in American media, but now on its 15th anniversary, Bamboozled's complicated reflections on representation, free speech and cultural appropriation feel more prescient than ever.
In the "joint", Pierre Delacroix, a high-minded black screenwriter objecting to the two-dimensional characters he's paid to write - and wanting to get fired - ramps up the racism and devises a modern-day millennial minstrel show starring two singing, tap dancing black buskers. When it fails to disgust people and instead sparks a trend for blackface, the irony collapses into violence. Lee relentlessly disturbs the boundaries of reality and satire with appearances from the Rev Al Sharpton, a theme tune by Stevie Wonder, The Roots cameoing as the Alabama Porch Monkeys, and Mos Def playing the leader of rap terrorist group the Mau Maus, a dumb hybrid of Public Enemy and the Black Panthers.
With Hollywood increasingly under fire for facile mainstream non-white male roles, Spike Lee explained to Ashley Clark (author of Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee's Bamboozled) at a screening of the film at New York's BAM cinema, "The thing about Bamboozled which a lot of people didn't get is you could make the same film about women, gay people, native Americans and Hispanics, about how people have been dehumanised in cinema and television."
i-D caught up with Ashley Clark to talk about Lee's overlooked masterwork, a stand-out study on the pains of representation and performance in modern cinema.
What led Spike Lee to make Bamboozled?
When it came out, in 2000, Lee had had a huge wave of early success in the mid-80s and early-90s and Bamboozled was an expression of heaped frustration he felt with the film industry and the outrageous criticism he'd received in the media. He'd been cast as an angry black man and this film was also a very considered reaction against the negative representation of black people on screen and television. It's a feel bad movie and I'm not surprised that it failed to find an audience because it's a film that implicates everyone in this problem: the studios, white executives, black executives, and the performers that opt to be represented in such a way. In interviews at the time he said that black performers have a choice now: we don't have to do clownish or cartoonish portrayals in sitcoms or "magical negroes" like in The Green Mile or Legend of Bagger Vance. In 2000, with the turn of the millennium, the 100th anniversary of cinema and the 50th anniversary of television,he was thinking how far have we come and how far do we need to go?
Why is the film so relevant today?
So many themes in the film made me think it could have been made today. A lack of diversity in media organisations, debates over the representation of black people on screen - the fact actors like Lupita Nyong'o and Mo'Nique win Oscars for roles as a slave and a welfare queen, or in the case of Octavia Spencer in The Help, as a maid. It also touches on excessive police force against black people, and cultural appropriation foreshadowing the bizarre story of Rachel Dolezal the woman who headed the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in Washington by claiming she was black but wasn't.
How does Lee use humour to make viewers uncomfortable?
After a point, the film ceases - as you would expect of a satire - to be funny, and becomes - as Lee escalates its racist imagery - more like a horror film. If it were white performers in blackface it would have been easier to stomach, but by putting black performers in blackface - which is something that historically happened - Spike Lee complicates viewing by daring you to laugh at the jokes.
Would you say the film is a tragedy or satire?
There is an echo of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man in Delacroix, as a character who at every stage thinks he's ahead of the game, whereas Delacroix's tragedy is his lack of self-knowledge and his belief that he has transcended the limitations of the industry, racism and expectation. I believe it seems to be in dialogue with the idea that became popular in 2008 after the election of President Obama, of America as a post-racial society. But, now, seven years after Obama's election, in a time of increasingly open racism and insane levels of police violence against black people, we couldn't be further away from that.
With a provocateur like Spike Lee there's always an underlying sense of losing it?
People have always said that about Spike Lee. He makes films that seem on the verge of collapse, that are often narratively unsatisfying, and full of contradictions that deliberately provoke. I believe he is one of America's greatest living filmmakers and unbelievably underrated as an artist, in that you can watch one or two frames and recognise exactly who it is.
Has the film had significant impact on subsequent filmmakers and artists?
How we talk about race publicly has changed with comedians like Key & Peele pushing the boundaries, making way for more flexible discussions through sketches like Negrotown, a satirical musical number that shares a direct lineage with Bamboozled. You can certainly see traces of the film in the work of Dave Chappelle, while Justin Simien who directed Dear White People says Bamboozled was a huge influence.
What can we learn from it?
In England it's considered indelicate to have an active and uncomfortable discussion about race, so we don't talk about it openly, however social media has helped get people discussing identity in terms of activism and awareness. Moving away from blackness specifically, there are high profile shows coming out that progress the representation conversation like Master of None, Fresh off the Boat and The Mindy Project.
In the 15 years that have passed, how does Lee respond to the film now?
Lee is very proud of it. Also, his latest film, Chi-Raq, is his most formally interesting, unorthodox and controversial work since Bamboozled. There's an incredible, coincidental parallel between the films: Delacroix explains the definition of satire at Bamboozled's start, and after an outraged online response to Chi-Raq's trailer, Spike Lee had to cut a new one in which he did the same thing!