The days of blackface minstrel troupes may seem like ancient history to most Americans, but Spike Lee wants to refresh our memory. Spike Lee is onto something when he looks to the days of blackface minstrel troupes to help us understand race in today’s America. With Bamboozled, Hollywood’s most reliable provocateur is saying we haven’t come as far as we think. In Bamboozled, Damon Wayans plays well-mannered Harvard alum Pierre Delacroix, a black TV writer whose ratings-hungry boss (Michael Rapaport) delivers an ultimatum: give me a hit show or clean out your desk.
His response: “Mantan,” a revival one of the most popular and most degrading forms of entertainment in nineteenth-century America: blackface minstrelsy. Delacroix developed the program as a rage-driven stunt but it turns into an unexpected hit, apparently able to indulge a racist format largely because the actors using burnt cork to blacken their faces happen to be African Americans. In the movie, Pierre Delacroix is late for a meeting he wasn’t told about. He reprimands his assistant Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett-Smith), who hadn’t received any info about the meeting to begin with.
This scene makes clear that if one wants to succeed in that company, one can’t count on simple procedures like memos, but has to run after the info — that is if one happens to be black. Delacroix is the only person of color in the creative team of that TV station – unless one would count the Caucasian boss Dunwitty, who says, “brother man, I’m blacker than you”. Dunwitty thinks that his African-American wife and two biracial kids earn him the ability to be viewed as either white or black, depending on what is the most advantageous for him at any given moment.
He talks the talk, he knows the names of African American celebrities, and he’s decorated his office with pictures of black athletes. Shouldn’t that grant him “honorary blackness”? He wants to be black when he’s alone with “Dela” in his office, where he calls him “my most creative person”. In the presence of his white staff at the conference, he scolds him for his tardiness and Pierre takes it, knowing the rules of office politics that are firmly in place at this station.
Lee uses scenes like this to humorously address certain stereotypes and misconceptions, such as CPT (Colored People’s Time). Delacroix is tired of the pressure and the repeated rejection of both his numerous ideas for new shows centering on ethnic minorities and his request to hire at least one more writer of color. He won’t simply quit; he wants to get fired instead. In order to achieve this, he pitches his idea for “The New Millennium Minstrel Show” to the station. Dunwitty is enthused and Delacroix puts together the most outrageous variety show.
It’s setting is a watermelon patch, the black performers wear blackface and fire engine red lipstick, and there’s merriment and tap dancing. Aunt Jemima isn’t missing, either. In essence, this isn’t only a film within a film, but a satire within satire. Pierre hires the homeless tap dancers Manray and Womack, renames them Mantan and Sleep ‘N Eat, and makes their act the center of the show. He does a lot of research and Lee shows snippets of historical black and white footage. Though Sloan is initially opposed to the new concept, she adapts quickly.
The show becomes a hit and the problems start piling up. Lee shows us just what impact the portrayal of minorities in the media has on different individuals. Those who take part in the creation of those shows are sell-outs, no matter how guilty they may feel about their roles. Guilt doesn’t change a thing. In a recent interview on The View, Jada Pinkett-Smith pointed out that even at a time when she couldn’t really “afford” to turn down roles, she rejected many objectionable roles offered to her.
She furthermore stated that one isn’t forced to pay dues to an oppressive system, and her success is proof. Some viewers commented that they couldn’t suspend their disbelief regarding the success of the Minstrel show, they didn’t believe that blackface would have a chance to succeed nowadays. Blessed are the naive. Sure, one won’t see the literal burnt-cork-and-alcohol paste on African-American faces (though the Time Magazine cover with a blackened O. J. Simpson picture came rather close), but that isn’t necessary.
The blackface we see actors wear in the media is that they don’t play African-American characters, but rather characters that act according to white people’s perceptions and stereotypes of black people. Those blackface characters are re-enforcing stereotypes and give white audiences the entertainment they approve of while they still can feel that they are “politically correct” when they like those characters (simply because they like a black character). That is exactly what happens in Bamboozled with the Minstrel show.
Underlying are the questions: how many “black” shows do African-American writers write? How are African-Americans portrayed on TV? I’d say that stereotyping is the rule, not the exception. Moreover, the occasional alibi-minority (and minor) character in a white show can’t make up for the lack of shows with a truly diverse cast. The segregation and stereotyping in the media is a fate that minorities share. Another good example is the representation of the queer community. Queer characters still seem to be subject to a “production code” — they aren’t allowed a sex-life on screen, for example.
Just think about the controversy that came to surround the groundbreaking Ellen show as it became “too gay”, or the chronically single Will character in the super-mainstream (and therefore successful) Will & Grace. The second and most often criticized half of Bamboozled digs deep into the complexities of race and the media and personal choices. Certainly, there are minority gatekeepers (successful people of color in the media, who are far from being considered controversial), who function as poster children and alibis for the industry. They may have sold out in the beginning, and some may still do so.
The ones who didn’t sell out but instead pushed forward are still less successful commercially and most often labeled “controversial”. Spike Lee himself is the best example. In the film, he shows different characters with integrity, such as Delacroix Sr. a. k. a. Junebug, a stand-up comedian, who lives a rather unglamorous life, or hip-hop artist Big Black Africa (Mos Def), who gets tempted and auditions for Minstrel, but doesn’t make the cut. This fact doesn’t prevent him from sitting on the high horse, though, looking down on his sister Sloan.
It becomes clear that integrity most often doesn’t provide for a luxurious lifestyle. Dela, Sloan, and Mantan are conflicted and come to realize that at different times in the film. They also experience conflict with others. Lee closes with a quote by the writer James Baldwin: “People pay for what they do and for what they have allowed themselves to become. They pay simply by the lives they lead. ” As a spectator from the Spelman community, Bamboozled really gave me something to think about. I found it intriguing the various obstacles African Americans have to overcome in order to be successful in corporate America.
They are faced with ridicule and they are never given an opportunity to fully express themselves. There was one theme in particular, which reminded me of ADW. In the beginning of the film, Big Black Africa asks the question “Why I gotta be pseudo-revolutionary” after his sister Sloan referred to him in this way, and then question was answered in the end when Big Black Africa and his coterie killed Man Ray. BB Africa has no more integrity than the other characters because in the end he is the one who killed his own brother after he realized that what he was doing was wrong.
So not only was Man Tan thrown out by the white execs, but also killed by his own people. That’s what makes Big Black Africa pseudo. When his bother realizes his mistake he doesn’t lend a helping hand but adds to the statistics of black on black crime. I think that is a message that is being missed by many. We as African-Americans need to look out for each other, instead of being so quick to shoot each other down. If we did that we would be a much stronger and powerful race, but until people realize this we’ll just continue to choke ourselves to death.