How Spike Lee’s ‘Bamboozled’ challenges Hollywood’s portrayal of black people on screen.

(Unfortunately condensed into a 10 minute presentation!)

Spike Lee’s satirical masterpiece ‘Bamboozled’ made in 2000, is a critical overview of the ridiculous way in which black people have been portrayed in cinema and television since its conception. It follows the story of Pierre Delacroix, a frustrated Ivy League educated African American TV writer who proposes a blackface ‘Twenty First Century Minstrel Show’ in protest towards his white American bosses racist conceptions of what people want to see from a black man on screen. He expects to get fired for this suggestion, that his boss will realise that he is being ridiculed, but to his horror the show is a massive hit, and he (along with those working with him) is forced into a moral battle with himself, torn between success and self-respect, racial oppression and corporate advancement, two things that unfortunately seem to go hand in hand when it comes to the film and television industry.

At the very beginning of the movie Delacroix gives us the definition of ‘satire’-

‘Satire. 1a. A literary work in which human vice or folly is ridiculed or attacked scornfully. B. The branch of literature that composes such work. 2. Irony, derision or caustic wit used to attack or expose folly, vice or Stupidity.’

When asked why these were the opening lines of the film Spike Lee stated that he knew this film could be grossly misconstrued, and he wanted to make sure from the very beginning of the film that people knew what they were watching, that this movie did intend on exposing folly, vice and stupidity. From there the film takes off as, in my opinion, one of the strongest satirical pieces I have ever seen. This film is so full of complex symbolic satire that it challenges every aspect of how black identity is construed on screen and stereotyped in reality. With examples from some of the films most crucial scenes I will explain why I feel this film is so challenging towards Hollywood’s portrayal of the black man, and woman, in film and television, or as Pierre Delacroix calls it ‘the idiot box’.

The character of Mr. Dunwitty, Delacroix’s white boss at the TV station is the first character I’d like to address. This character is riddled with racist flaws but the worst part, and the comedic part, is that he thinks of himself as a black man which in itself is so utterly demeaning, irritating and disrespectful to Delacroix. Dunwitty lectures De la about how he knows ‘niggers’ better than Delacroix does, and how he shouldn’t be offended by his use of the word because he’s ‘grown up around black people all [his] life’. The white man doesn’t even treat Delacroix with enough respect to understand how offensive the word ‘nigger’ is and has granted himself some kind of racial immunity that in truth he does not have, but Spike Lee turns this man into the stupid, ignorant and inferior character in this scene, subverting Hollywood’s portrayal of black people completely by making Dunwitty the intellectual underdog, whilst also showing how unfair it is that this ignorant man is the intelligent black mans boss, probably by virtue of his colour. He is also ridiculed by Dunwitty regularly who criticises his ideas for ‘Cosby Show’ type programmes about African American families. He says that they are too ‘white bread’ stating that Delcroix should be ‘keeping it real’ and basically insinuating that black people should be portrayed as comedic, silly negroes from ‘the hood’ or worse still the plantations, on TV because revolutionary shows like the Cosby show are in his opinion ‘over’.

Sloan, Delacroix’s attractive African American assistant is the voice of reason and morality in the film. When De La is pitching his idea for the minstrel show and agreeing to every racial-slur of an input that Dunwitty has at their meeting, Sloan is the only person who attempts to intervene and say how wrong this is, but no one listens to her. She is the face of African American pride, made submissive by her role in white Americas corporate world, but retaining her identity and taking great offence to the mocking of her heritage. She is the strong, independent woman who is neither Madonna or the whore, that Hollywood cant accept from a white woman on screen never mind a black woman.

The scene in which Sloan expresses her disdain towards the minstrel show is also one of the most poignant in the film. So many racist terms are used in this scene, with the stars of the show referred to as ‘real coons’, Manray (an impoverished street dancer, and perfect example of a Hollywood stereotype) being told to change his name to Mantan (the ‘uneducated negro with educated feet‘!), and Cheeba’s character (his friend) being called ‘sleep-and-eat’. Dunwitty, who of course represents Hollywood’s ideals, describes this treatment of black people on screen to be ‘exactly what he’s looking for’. This scene deals with almost every racist misconception of black people on screen, giving the characters such traits as being lazy, ignorant and dull-witted. Manray even gets up on the corporate bosses table, after agreeing to wear blackface and be made a fool of in the show and dances for his approval, with the backdrop of African American sports heroes on the wall. That image alone is almost like a microcosm of the entire film, a ridiculous image of a black man dancing for a white man to prove his worth, set against the faces of some of the greatest black men who ever lived, and showing Hollywood how insane it is to portray coloured people in that way when it is a known fact that these wonderful people exist and have already overcome every feeble attempt the industry and the world has made to subvert them. This scene is made especially poignant by its soundtrack, a sad and remorseful tune set against the tittering discussions between Delacroix and Dunwitty, and Manray and Cheeba’s acceptance of how they will be treated on the show. (watch scene from 2.30)

While Delacroix is doing research for his minstrel show, we are shown one of the most striking scenes of the film. A montage of clips from cartoons, films and newsreels that demonstrate and outline the horrific and upsetting way in which black people have been depicted on screen throughout history. I think this scene is paramount to the film because it is real footage of shows that were for the most part massive hits in America and their incredibly racist portrayal of African Americans is something that should strike shame into the hearts of American people, and something that cannot be denied. This montage makes the story that we are following in the film seem all the more upsetting, by setting this montage against the success of the ‘21st Century Minstrel Show’ Lee makes the point that where these shows found an audience before it’s possible that they always will because so many people in the world still think that this is all just a bit of fun, seeing nothing wrong with portraying black people in this way, and like to believe that their struggle for equality is over, rendering their history of oppression unimportant and almost trivial. (show scene)

There are so many more scenes in this film I would love to show and discuss because literally every scene has a message, and the message is – in the words of Public Enemy, who provide many of Lee’s soundtracks – ‘Burn Hollywood, burn’. This brave and highly intelligent protest from my personal favourite director is one of the most moving and eye-opening pieces of satire about Hollywood’s portrayal of African Americans that I have ever seen and I highly recommend watching it if you really do have an interest in watching a film that truly challenges Hollywood’s attitude towards black people on screen.


One thought on “How Spike Lee’s ‘Bamboozled’ challenges Hollywood’s portrayal of black people on screen.

  1. Pingback: Melissa Harris-Perry: Confronting Stereotypes of the Black Woman | National Radio Project

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