Laugh at the Idiot Box
directed by Spike Lee
April 17, 2021
In Bamboozled, the history of black representation in film is brought to the forefront of a modern audience, a glaring spotlight shone on all its stereotypical dehumanization, filtered through the guise of a cable show. Like Network and A Face in the Crowd before it, Spike Lee’s film satirizes contemporary television with scathing prescience. The entertainment business has never been so unentertaining to watch; Lee’s deliberately non-Hollywood style is imperative for the message to be made clear: we must be reminded, if not made aware, of the subhuman portrayal of black people in America and its lingering effect on commercial leisure. As the title of “auteur” indicates, Lee manages to work within and against the very industry he seeks to criticize. He understands the authority which images hold over the public, how easy it is to fall under the comatose spell of what Pierre Delacroix refers to as “the idiot box.” Using specific counter-cinematic techniques such as breaking the fourth wall via direct address, engaging with stereotypes in a radically self-reflexive manner, and refusing to provide a neatly resolved, satisfying conclusion, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled jolts viewers into an uncomfortable state of awareness, drawing their attention to the troubled history (and corrupt present) of the same medium they so hungrily rely on for escapist diversion.
The film opens with our anachronistic lead Monsieur Delacroix providing a dictionary definition of the word “satire.” Immediately, there is no room for guesswork; we are told that what we are watching is a critical parody. The explanation of the term comes in the form of narration as Delacroix shaves his head in an outrageous penthouse suite with a window the shape and size of the face of Big Ben. Before we are made aware of Delacroix’s plan to create a minstrel satire – not even Delacroix has thought up this idea yet – the exact meaning of the word is broken down with technical precision: “1a: A literary work in which human vice or folly is ridiculed or attacked scornfully … 2: Irony, derision, or caustic wit used to attack or expose folly, vice, or stupidity.” It is Lee’s disclaimer to the audience. Delacroix acts as the vessel for the filmmaker, conscious of the spectator’s forthcoming disapproval before the picture has hardly begun. In its first minute, Bamboozled labels itself as an oppositional work actively engaging with, in this case, racist depictions in the entertainment industry. It is as much a fantasy as any other film, but one that confronts real social and ethnic issues in an unabashedly upfront manner. This is further visualized when Delacroix speaks directly into the camera, introducing himself as a television writer and “creative person.” Characterized by accent and mannerisms as flamboyantly over-the-top as his apartment, he goes on to inform us of his occupational conundrum, saying, “The problem is, not enough of you have been watching out there in television land. With the onslaught of the internet, video, and interactive games, nine hundred channels to choose from, our valued audience has dramatically eroded … People are tuning out by the millions, which, needless to say, is bad for business.” The fact that Delacroix is mindful of the world beyond the camera lens encourages the spectator to take up a more active role in the movie-watching process; regardless of Delacroix’s meta demeanor, we recognize and connect to his position. Lee’s use of what Samuel Watkins refers to as “full frontality” in cinematic practice “ruptures traditional story-space boundaries” (162). Instead of lulling us into a second-hand trance via Hollywood’s traditionally seamless narrative structure, Lee demands a certain level of involvement on the part of the audience. We are engaged from the get-go, primed for the more serious (often revealingly, albeit revoltingly, funny) investigation of primetime corruption soon to come. As Kara Keeling puts it, “Bamboozled presents itself as a satirical investigation of the abiding allure of racist imagery in American popular culture, but the film’s narrative system ultimately is unable to control what its images unleash” (243); that is to say, Delacroix’s supposed “satire” backfires so extravagantly it not only results in his demise, but brings a whole generation of consumers’ hunger for said racist imagery to light – quite the opposite of what was intended.
The pitch for Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show begins as an idea so ludicrous it would leave the network executives no choice but to fire whoever proposed it. Tired of enduring his manager Dunwitty’s crass rejections of mild-mannered, intelligent black characters, Delacroix decides to eject himself out of the office with the most appalling proposition for a show he can conjure up: a sitcom that revives and fully embraces African American stereotypes. This includes donning the performers in blackface, altering the way they speak, and surrounding them with dehumanizing symbols of the past. Much to Delacroix’s surprise, the pitch is eagerly well-received by Dunwitty and becomes the number one show on television. Here is where Lee asserts his claim on the world; the excessive display of provocative material is justified by the filmic audience’s unbelievable reaction. Alessandra Raengo offers a crucial remark on the acceptance of racial insensitivity within a given culture when she says, “Without our desire, the stereotype is sterile; infused with our desire, it is vibrant, believable, and seductive – it comes ‘alive’” (68). What we are watching is atypical of Hollywood’s mantra to entertain; entertainment is shown here to be dangerous, kindle for the morally consumptive fire. It is all too easy to submit to self-degradation for the sake of “entertainment.” Even Delacroix relishes his unexpected fame, defending the very thing he hated. Soon his office is littered with black-themed curios, artifacts, memorabilia to the extent of paranoia as he imagines some of the objects coming to life. Many in the film industry would rather forget the past and move on, but “[b]y bringing what has persisted in the offscreen space of mainstream cinema into the scene, Bamboozled makes those collectibles, and the linear, progressivist temporality invoked when black people collect them, available for redefinition or annihilation” (Keeling 246). Unfortunately, once established into one’s everyday life, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the stereotype from its subject.
The only voice of reason comes from Sloane, Delacroix’s assistant, although even her half-hearted attempts to appeal to her boss’ rational side are thwarted by her own fear of losing her social ranking. Lee doesn’t try to hide the influence of and references to Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, in which Marcia, another female staff member on a cable show, is overcome by guilt and self-reproach for not acting on her conscience. Both characters provide ethical anchors into a morally corrupt world. Sloane is first dumbfounded, then concerned, then furious at Delacroix’s actions, paralleling our own emotions; the fact that the creator of The New Millennium Minstrel Show is black makes the situation all the more befuddling. As Keeling notes, Lee’s film engages in a humanist dialect with black culture and its cinematic counterpart, “suggesting that black people also ought to be able to lay claim to the power of cinema’s presumed ability to index ‘prefilmic’ reality” (247). The daring use of blackface, even in the context of a satire, applies urgent pressure to the idea of the stereotype as representation (Raengo 74). Modern audiences are forced into that tension, free to judge the historical portrayal of onscreen African Americans as it has been presented to them. Lee craves this relationship with the public; “In fact,” writes Watkins, “his intentions have been, in part, to stake out a particular set of claims on the nature of race relations, and the post-industrial experiences of blacks especially, and manipulate the technology of film production to articulate those claims” (161). Refusing to sugarcoat personally meaningful issues may make for difficult viewing, but it allows Lee to be explicit and honest; he operates under the philosophy that either hot or cold, no matter the critical divide, will always artistically surpass lukewarm.
As a testament to this philosophy, one of the most powerful segments of the film is the concluding montage of early 20th century film clips depicting exaggerated caricatures of black people. As Delacroix lies bleeding on the floor of his antique-ridden office, a tape of “classical” movie and television scenes assembled by Sloane plays on his idiot box. Then the sequence takes over. It fills our screen, leaving us no choice but to gaze at its alarming misrepresentation, and the reality of what has up until now been a farce hits us like a bucket of water. Eyes bug out of heads, watermelon is devoured with unappetizing haste, cartoons of African tree-dwellers strongly resemble apes. Images linger; just as the opening spells out the type of film we will be watching, the finale shows us authentic documents to emphasize Lee’s criticism of history’s normalization of racism in the media. The deliberate recontextualization of old films challenges cinema’s “insistence upon the integrity of its images as indices of prefilmic reality” (Keeling 243). Lee has mentioned in interviews that the same picture could have been made about women, gay people, Hispanics, or Native Americans – it is about the cinematic dehumanization of certain ethnic groups. Although the message is clear, many have questioned Lee’s lack of solutions to his movies’ endings. What is the answer to all this anger? Furthermore, what is the audience meant to do with such a non-traditional viewing experience? Lee is not interested in such concerns; “[r]ather than asserting a harmonized world at the end of his films, Lee repeatedly subverts this industry rule by choosing to end many of his film narratives on the curvature of several question marks” (Watkins 163). It is another counter-cinematic stylistic choice that unsettles the spectator out of his/her expectations. After all, challenging aesthetic politics warrant challenging spectatorship. The final minutes of Bamboozled stand out in its director’s filmography as some of the most personally upfront; it’s difficult to imagine a filmmaker being any more blunt than plucking out a part of history and repackaging it for a modern public. As Watkins puts it, Lee’s is “a form of agency that contests the intensely regulated forms of cinematic authorship that customarily obscure the fact that all forms of media are a socially constructed, manipulative view of the world” (161). The dramatic repercussions to Delacroix’s Mantan speak to the power of images; rage at the staged fiction onscreen leads to real violence, real deaths. Apparently, the only choice we have is to take Papa Junebug’s advice and “Keep on laughin’.”
With the aid of his signature counter-cinematic techniques, Spike Lee manages to alert viewers to an archival and contemporary racial issue facing the American masses. Bamboozled, released in the year 2000, arrived at a significant turning point in global history; 100 years after the birth of cinema, 50 years after the advent of television, and amidst great political, cultural, generational change. The virtue of mainstream filmmakers like Spike Lee comes from their status as celebrity figures. The auteur’s ability to convey personal angers, convictions, truths on a massive scale balances (to some degree) the anonymous schlock that spews out of the industry. This is where the spectator comes into play, considering the public has always served as judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to which content is deemed acceptable – for better or for worse. What we make of what we see is what really matters. True, audiences have long since matured out of Hollywood’s Golden Age of racist stereotypes, but clearly Lee believes we still have a ways to go.
Keeling, Kara. “Passing for Human: ‘Bamboozled’ and Digital Humanism.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 29, no. 15:1 (2005): 237-250.
Lee, Spike, dir. Bamboozled. 2000; Los Angeles, CA: New Line Cinema.
Lee, Spike. “Spike Lee on the legacy of Bamboozled.” October 30, 2015. BAMcinématek, Brooklyn, New York. MPEG-4, 5:12.
Raengo, Alessandra. Critical Race Theory and Bamboozled. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.
Watkins, Samuel Craig. “Reversing the Gaze: Interrogating Whiteness.” In Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema, 154-166. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.