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'Bamboozled': Spike Lee's pertinent masterpiece


Starting almost 200 years ago, the racist and barbaric practice of ‘blackface’ used to mock enslaved black people in minstrel shows was phased out toward the end of the 19th century. Whilst these remorseless physical performances lost popularity, the dawn of cinema in the 1910s and 1920s allowed blackface to transition into cinema with D. W. Griffith’s notorious The Birth of a Nation in 1915 depicting white actors in malicious blackface.  

This continued through the 1930s as blackface began to be used exclusively for ‘comedy’ with the likes of Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Buster Keaton, Judy Garland and Orson Welles each adopting the racist method of mockery. As the civil rights movement began to grow in the mid-20th century, these attitudes began to change, with blackface finally becoming considered to be racist and bigoted. Yet still, the tradition continued, sometimes veiled with racism, other times being overtly obvious. 

The deep-rooted, complex emotions associated with this racist practice is explored in Spike Lee’s underappreciated satire Bamboozled, released at the turn of the new millennium as one of the most pertinent films of contemporary society. Telling the story of a television executive who creates a modern version of the minstrel show in order to be purposefully fired and to ridicule his racist boss, Bamboozled becomes a fascinating expose of the hidden prejudices of modern popular culture. 

“I want them to be offended, I want to wake America up,” the uptight, Harvard-education protagonist Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) announces during a creative meeting of white screenwriters. Shocked at his bosses delight at his proposition of a modern-day minstrel show, Delacroix finds himself facing a boardroom of spunky writers each with enthusiastic ideas about how to make the new show a success. Knowing that they will not be able to recreate his satirical vision, he decries the lack of black writers as the white faces shuffle uncomfortably in their chairs, with one even announcing, “Maybe they couldn’t find any people with experience or they wouldn’t work for the pay”. 

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Awkward and sharp, the scene is prophetic of the very conversations the entertainment industries have been forced to finally consider, with a board of un-diverse individuals simply unable to translate universal experiences. “I think we should look back at those ‘70s shows, which were groundbreaking…and my first experience with the black people of Africa is those shows like The Jeffersons and George and Wheezy,” one writer expresses as Delacroix rolls his eyes to his assistant Sloan (Jada Pinkett Smith). 

Pulsing with rage as it represents decades of industry practice, this scene in isolation embodies the true greatness of Spike Lee’s urgent film that forces its audience to consider the complexity of media representation and question the true progression of contemporary entertainment. Damaged and contorted over years of racist stereotyping, Bamboozled lambasts the treatment of black actors and creatives by Hollywood, explaining how their public identity has been detrimentally impaired due to systemic abuse of anti-black stereotypes. 

Such damaging and racist caricatures are present throughout the television and cinema of the 20th century in the aforementioned programme The Jeffersons as well as Good Times and in Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar-winning performance in Gone With the Wind. Though it would be short-sighted to suggest such stereotypes aren’t also prevalent in today’s society too with anti-black stereotypes also perpetuated in the likes of the 2000s TV show Little Britain, the popular comedy Saturday Night Live and Australian show Angry Boys. 

The shocking murder of George Floyd at the hands of police violence would significantly shake the foundations of the industry in 2020, with the Black Lives Matter movement demanding structural and institutional change in Hollywood. The likes of HBO Max, Netflix, Disney scrambled to remove any suggestion of racism from their streaming sites, evaporating all evidence of wrongdoing as the likes of Gone With the Wind from HBO were removed along with Little Britain from Netflix.

As Alfred Martin, the assistant professor of communications at the University of Iowa states, “Since 1939, Black folks were saying that Gone With the Wind was a harmful depiction of Black folks, and nobody wanted to listen to us”. Continuing, the professor adds, “All of a sudden, in 2020, when this movie is almost 100 years old, now you want to pretend like it’s a problem?”.

Sweeping issues of racism under the rug and ignoring the fragile American psyche that preferred to disregard the truth, it is this exact problem that Spike Lee’s Bamboozled probes and mocks with mighty wit and heavy judgement. In a time of complex media sensitivity, the critical analysis of Lee’s 2000 classic has an urgency that has remained pertinent for 22 years, it remains essential viewing.

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