"Bamboozled"Directed by Spike Lee
Review by Seneca Turner
When Steve Cannon suggested that I review the movie"Bamboozled by Spike Lee, he reminded me that we (he and I) lived through that period in American history. So it was from that perspective and in that context that I approached it, remembering when I grew up in the 1940's all of the Saturday afternoon nickel movies with Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland, Amos and Andy, Kingfish, Rochester, etc. Those racist demeaning images remain vivid in my mind. Spike Lee, indeed, served up a dish of irony, social and political bitter satire, in his latest work, that takes that same period in American history and throws its contents in our face. He has carefully included all of the racist stereotypes of past and present. This blatantly demeaning entertainment with its corked black face, exaggerated eye rolling, and fire engine red lips, its coon and mammies is a source of embarrassment for most older Black Americans. However, when one dares to move beyond that basic gutteral reaction, and remember that those Black pioneers, especially Bert Williams, were comic geniuses and had to be subjected to such ridicule in order to create, you realize the price they paid. For they went through that"fire" to pave the way for such matinee idols as Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes. The fact that Savion Glover has brought his legendary artistic integrity and knowledge of the history to the film places it on another level in terms of its significance. Spike Lee's attack on US electronic media, or what Jeffrey Scheuer, in his book The Sound Bite Society refers to as a medium that is"flooded with images and slogans, bits of information and abbreviated or symbolic messages" is best illustrated when he targets hip hop. Here, Lee suggests that this"entertainment" is in many ways the new minstrel act because of its tendency to reflect negative images of Black folks. He further satirizes US media by showing that it will do anything for a profit, including, I might add, recent evidence that children as young as two or three are targeted as subjects for lifetime consumers of whatever pablum is created in the studio. Perhaps one of the most provocative and powerful scenes in the film is when the entire audience is in black face and the Abraham Lincoln character (Thomas J. Byrd), complete with stove pie hat and beard, roams through the audience like a contemporary talk show host asking random members,"Are you a nigger?"
Given Spike's tendency to overstate (which seems to be a characteristic of the NYU film school alumni) this scene spoke volumes in the context of America's social and political history. In this instance his craft was apparent and it"worked" here. This irony is further underscored when the revolutionary group"mau mau" shoot and kills Mantan (Savion Glover) for his black face transgressions when in fact he is being paid by a white man who acts black and a Black man who acts white, both see themselves as a color they are not. Spike has given us a classic example of"Black folks turning on each other, rather than to each other," as Jessie Jackson frequently says. Moreover, the filming of the shooting scene is reminiscent of the old "Wild Bunch" Peckanpau orgy of gunfire, as well as reminding us of the Diallo killing of 41 shots. Later, when the police arrive and gun down all of the Black mau mau, with the exception of the one white member, who begs to be shot like his Black"brothers," Spike reminds us of this salient reality. The viewer is also reminded of the place that the gun occupies in America, especially as regards Black and white America in particular and US media in general. Indeed, it is a gun culture, a violent culture. In raising the issue of minstrelsy and daring to project it in all of its provocative dimensions, and turning it"on its head," Spike has taken us to another level, thus forcing us to confront this part of our history that we would like to forget. The title"Bamboozled" was made famous by Malcolm X in a speech to Black America in which he reminded us that we have been"had," tricked by white America. The question is, who is being bamboozled by whom? With hip hop rising up through the effluvia of pop culture, permeating white middle class suburban youth life styles, just as Al Jolson was made rich and famous doing black face, the question may answer itself.