A Review of Spike Lee's Bamboozled"
Directed by Spike Lee
Maison Blanche Means "White House" and Black Face
A Review of Spike Lee's Bamboozled"
by Melanie M. Goodreaux
Once I heard that Spike Lee's latest work was a film about black face and minstrel shows it brought me back to just 5 years ago in New Orleans when a white coworker of mine casually told me a racist story in the lunchroom. According to the story, when she was a young woman, her summer vacations to Florida afforded her tans that made it possible for her to play the "high yellow" characters in Maison Blanche's minstrel shows without applying any paste to her face. I was stunned at the slip up, and even more duped that Miss Trudy didn't see what she had said as revealing one of those "white folk secrets" we were all afraid existed and obviously do. I caught the slip up, choked on my cafeteria lasagna, shared the story with my coworkers and laughed at how dumb Miss Trudy was for being so grossly "politically incorrect." Sometimes ignorance and arrogance can be painted on so thick it seems senseless to try and wipe off the masquerade. Anyone who doesn't appreciate Spike's latest wake up call to the culture is as astute as Miss Trudy and not quick enough to catch an onslaught of heavy- handed, strategically- placed, Spike-styled images meant to disillusion the culture and poke fun at everyone. As writer and director of Bamboozled, Spike is nothing like his main character, Pierre Delacroix, a television executive and a "Negro" according to Spike's script, who only daydreams of punching out the egotistical, money hungry, white producer Dunwitty who uses the word "nigger" with Delacroix like he's telling him what he ate for breakfast. When Spike punches, he punches hard. And the bigger they are the harder they fall. The characters of Bamboozled are exaggerated themselves which, stylistically is much like historical black face performance. The characters are created to mock. And mock Spike does. Spike is a genius at manipulating these metaphorical layers. The Dunwitty character, a white man who believes he has the privilege of using the word nigger because he's married to a black woman and keeps his office decorated with African sculpture and blow ups of great black athletes, is a mockery of those whites who feel they empathize with the black struggle so much they feel black themselves. Mike Tyson, who is known for being the kind of violent and "crazy colored" white America is most afraid of, is the sports figure Spike focuses on in Dunwitty's office. Spike plays on this unspoken fear again when he gives the audience a scene with all white writers trying to get inspiration to begin writing the scripts for "ManTan: The New Millenium Minstrel Show." Delacroix, who creates the show's concept, urges them to remember how they felt when the O. J. Simpson verdict came out. Spike compounds on the "white- boy -wants -to -be -a- black -boy -syndrome" with Paul Mooney's comedian character, Delacroix's father. The comedian cracks on "how everybody wants to be black, but nobody wants to be black" and wonders if America started lynching blacks again how many of these "Timmy Hilnigger" wearing white young, rap free- stylists would want to be black then. "Hilnigger" is Spike's renaming of Tommy Hilfiger. No one can say they haven't met Spike's characters before. Spike loves to exaggerate reality in his films. It's just funny to watch Spike work his genius-- showing us ourselves in a mockery, by making a mockery of the mockery itself. Spike's opening shot is of a huge window shaped like a clock in Pierre Delacroix's office. Spike's clock image lets viewers know that the timing of a millennial turn over is ripe for a rush to "get revenge," teach a lesson, and expose everyone in the entertainment industry that has anything to do with misrepresenting the African American culture before we head into a new age. From Stevie Wonder's music for the movie that proclaims messages about not letting anyone "misrepresent you" and how "today its okay to play with the word "nigger," to close ups of the thick black paste applied to the present day minstrels "Sleep and Eat" and "Man Tan," Spike keeps the images going relentlessly. It is as if he had to make this film, strong and unapologetically controversial to prevent any further humiliation and misrepresentation of the race. It is as if Spike were afraid that if he didn't bring up the past one more time, we could still bend easily towards the sometimes misguided sensationalism presented by money making media hype. We, like the audiences within the film, would react at first to a "millenium minstrel show" with looks of distaste and gasps of surprise. We, like them, might shift uncomfortably in our seats at first. But we, like them, after being taken in and wooed by a great song and tap dance number, would forget what is humiliating and undercut by the images of blacks in black face, lips swollen with red paste. We could be swayed and taken under the eerie hypnosis of television and the images of the Internet. But Spike doesn't stop with poking fun at white folks. We all get kicked. The Maus Maus, a militant gang of rappers who talk of revolution and don't really have a solid clue at who or what they are revolting against end the movie with the same mode of operating as many of our black gangster rappers do in real life-an enemy is sighted, someone who differs ideologically, and then everyone ends up shot and bloodied. Ironically the gangster rappers stage their revolution on the Internet. Man Tan, exploited by both black and white, is murdered by the bloodied hands of the angry and misguided gangster rap mentality and dies tap-dancing. Tap-dancing-- that's how he "wins" a part in the minstrel show. Man Ray, turned "Man Tan" literally tap dances on the desk of Dunwitty to get the part in the minstrel show. The show grows in its popularity so much so that the audience starts to wear black face as well. Spike graduates the exaggeration in the film with a crescendo. At first Delacroix seems like a genius who is using his creation of the minstrel show to expose the ulterior racism that exists beneath the surface of the white run entertainment industry. By the end of the movie , Delacroix's genius vision is blurred by money and the "success" of his creation. Sloan, Delacroix's assistant, gives him a black faced caricature that happens to be a bank. When the Sambo-- looking bank opens his mouth you feed money into him. The image is fed by money and after Spike begins heightening the crescendo of exaggeration, the image starts to move by itself. Symbolic of Delacroix's creation going out of control. It has a mind of its own. Delacroix's office is overcrowded with black face memorabilia from the past that look like Rastus, Aunt Jemima, and Sambo.Get the hint? Spike continues to bombard the audience with television and film images of Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Al Jolson and others in black face. Spike gives Bill Clinton a cameo appearance where even he is taken under by the comedy of "Man Tan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show." Spike even throws a punch at Ving Rhames for giving up his academy award for Rosewood to Jack Lemmon by having the Delacroix character give away his award for the popular minstrel show to a white man in the film. And one would have to ask if Spike's biggest bamboozle is having Damon Wayans play Pierre Delacroix. Isn't Spike's message anti- In Living Color? I felt embarrassed for Damon Wayans who seems to be subliminally scolded by the James Baldwin quote at the end of the film which says we will all pay for what we do, and more for what we have done to ourselves and we pay by the life we live. The quote accompanies a full frame shot of the Pierre character played by Damon Wayans. The camera shot seems to corner Damon Wayans. If arriving at the east village cinema ready to see Bamboozle with my popcorn and Miss Trudy's Maison Blanche Minstrel Show story in my mind wasn't enough, I left the flick with an even more disturbing image from real life. The black couple behind me slept through most of the film and continued to snore well into the credits. How could they miss the full color cartoonish Alabama porch monkeys? How could they miss Pierre scrolling the web for images of middle passage slave ships before he totally sells out? Weren't they awake for the clock at the film's beginning reminding us of a time factor? Whereas Spike had written a movie about black face meant to expose, teach, and entertain-- middle black America had fallen asleep through it. I was waiting for Larry Fishburne or Wesley Snipes' characters to be resurrected like angry ghosts from Spike Lee joints of the past yelping painfully into the screen with one of Spike's renowned messages, "WAKE UP!" They continued to snore while those of us who were awake caught yet another glimpse of Spike's original style, historical importance and artistic genius.