Released in, or rather let loose upon, the first year of the new millennium, Spike Lee’s febrile and ferocious media satire Bamboozled—the fifteenth feature-length “joint” of a prolific career—found its writer-director in an unflinching mode and an unforgiving mood. According to Lee biographer Kaleem Aftab, Bamboozled had been brewing for some time, and its eventual eruption was a product of the filmmaker’s years of frustration with the vagaries of the industry. These included a traumatic experience funding and making his epic Malcolm X (1992); his failure to launch a number of passion projects, such as a Jackie Robinson biopic; and controversies linked to his public persona, including a running feud with Quentin Tarantino based on what Lee perceived as the white director’s overuse of the word nigger in his films, and hostile media representations of him as an Angry Black Man (for the most disgraceful example, see 1992’s Esquire cover story boasting the inflammatory headline “Spike Lee Hates Your Cracker Ass”).
Having tackled multiple thorny issues in a prolific decade-plus of filmmaking, from interracial romance (Jungle Fever, 1991) to drugs and gang violence (Clockers, 1995) to sex work (Girl 6, 1996), Lee with Bamboozled revisited the catalyzing themes of his 1989 breakthrough Do the Right Thing: black representation and cultural ownership. In that film, local gadfly-cum-activist Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) wonders why there are no “brothers up on the wall”—alongside the framed photographs of the likes of Frank Sinatra, Al Pacino, and Sylvester Stallone—in Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, an Italian American–owned restaurant that thrives on the patronage of its black clientele.
In Bamboozled, Lee turned his attention to brothers up on the screen, and questioned who was really profiting from their work. In interviews surrounding the film’s release, Lee spoke ominously of a contemporary media machine insistent on twisting old negative racial stereotypes into new forms of neo-minstrelsy, particularly in the arenas of gangsta rap, mainstream filmmaking, and TV programming. He cited the ludicrous portrayal of black characters in sitcoms such as the self-explanatory Homeboys in Outer Space (1996–97) and the short-lived, slavery-soft-pedaling The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer (1998); and lamented humiliating roles for the black stars of the Hollywood hits The Green Mile (1999) and The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000): “If this character [played by Michael Clarke Duncan] has such mystical powers that he can touch Tom Hanks and cure him . . . why can’t he use those gifts to walk out of prison? . . . And what about The Legend of Bagger Vance? . . . Georgia has always been one of the roughest states for black people . . . And if this magical black caddy has all these powers, why isn’t he using them to try and stop some of the other brothers from being lynched and castrated?” Lee vented to Cineaste magazine.
Over Bamboozled’s 136 jagged, pulsating minutes, Lee sublimates this frustration into one of the most truly oddball characters of his career: the African American TV executive Pierre Delacroix, a buppie Icarus whose inadvertent rise and fatal nosedive form the film’s central tragedy. Pierre is a walking affectation, brilliantly played by Damon Wayans with clenched poise, indelible hubris, and a bizarre, clipped accent that, in the character’s mind, presumably signifies sophistication but really sounds more like Kermit the Frog impersonating Sidney Poitier. Delacroix, who, we learn, has changed his name from Peerless Dothan, slots neatly into Lee’s roster of dubious “white-acting” black characters (see also: the finicky Greer Childs from his 1986 feature debut, She’s Gotta Have It, and Wendell, the odious Republican car salesman from 1996’s Get on the Bus). Through the frightening, fun-house-mirror prism of Delacroix—a man so unsure of his own true identity that he effectively bamboozles himself—Lee trains a dark light on the historically hideous misrepresentation of black people by America’s corporate-entertainment industrial complex, the deleterious effects of this misrepresentation on individuals, and the pivotal role in it that we all, as active and passive consumers, perform.
“Lee’s film is set in a recognizable reality ruptured by outrageous events and centered on strange, larger-than-life characters whose shortcomings ultimately serve to illuminate human frailties.”
Inspired by classic satires of the American entertainment industry—such as Mel Brooks’s The Producers, Sidney Lumet’s Network, and Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (to whose screenwriter, Budd Schulberg, Bamboozled is dedicated)—Lee’s film is set in a recognizable reality ruptured by outrageous events and centered on strange, larger-than-life characters whose shortcomings ultimately serve to illuminate human frailties. Bamboozled hinges on the frustrated Delacroix’s fateful plan to create a show so outrageously offensive that it will get him fired from Manhattan’s (fictional yet plausible) CNS television network, secure him a healthy severance package, and publicly expose his jive-turkey Caucasian boss Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport, hilariously unpleasant) as a racist clown. Alas, in a twist yanked straight from The Producers, Delacroix’s gamble, The New Millennium Minstrel Show, becomes a runaway hit. This foulmouthed modern spin on traditional minstrel revues features two performers hired for cheap by the vulturous Delacroix: Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson), who are swiftly renamed Mantan (a reference to the controversial 1930s and ’40s black comic actor Mantan Moreland) and Sleep’n Eat. The pair perform comedy and dance routines while encased in blackface makeup and fire-truck-red lipstick, a spectacle that proves to be catnip for an American public insensate to, or perhaps comforted by, its retrograde qualities. The show’s popular and financial success, which Delacroix comes to enjoy, precipitates its creator’s psychological decline, and ultimately leads to many deaths by gunfire.
Yet before the film reaches its inevitable conclusion, Lee delivers some of the best comic filmmaking of his career, not least the bleakly hilarious sequence in which Delacroix, alongside his assistant, Sloan (Jada Pinkett Smith), auditions a motley collection of acts for supporting parts on the show. Delacroix is keen on the loquacious orator Honeycutt (the wiry, superbly unsettling Lee stalwart Thomas Jefferson Byrd), who offers a pungent spin on a Shakespeare standard—“To be or not to be: that’s the muh’fuckin’ question!”—and secures himself a gig as The New Millennium Minstrel Show’s emcee. He is less impressed by a shirtless didgeridoo player (Tony Arnaud), an obese soul singer (Tuffy Questell) who hollers a disgustingly sexist number (“I be smackin’ my hos!”), and the Mau Maus, a rambunctious political rap act–cum–violent rabble, spearheaded by Sloan’s brother Julius (Mos Def), who insists on being referred to as Big Blak Afrika, much to his upwardly mobile sibling’s chagrin. For the role of the house band, the Alabama Porch Monkeys, Delacroix hires a tight funk/hip-hop outfit, played, in a spectacular dash of meta-irony, by members of the real-life socially conscious hip-hop act the Roots.
As the film progresses, the laughs run dry, replaced by a chokingly oppressive pileup of racist imagery, personal tensions, and deliberately operatic plotting. Lee brusquely yet touchingly presents the disjunction between Delacroix and his mother, Orchid (Susan Batson), who is ashamed of him, and his hard-drinking father, Junebug (the great black comic Paul Mooney), a comedian who, pointedly, has retained his dignity by performing culturally specific black material for black audiences in small clubs. A short-lived romance between Manray and Sloan sours when the latter is forced to reveal an earlier dalliance with Delacroix. Though occupying only a few scenes, these romantic pyrotechnics pack a punch thanks largely to Pinkett Smith’s measured, steely incarnation of Sloan. Delacroix eventually meets his maker when she, distraught at the sudden dual losses of her lover Manray (killed by the Mau Maus) and her brother Julius (killed by the New York Police Department), shoots him in the gut. “All I could think of was something the great Negro James Baldwin had written,” blares Delacroix in voice-over as he bleeds to death, “‘People pay for what they do, and still more so for what they have allowed themselves to become, and they pay for it very simply by the lives they lead.’” Delacroix’s thunderbolt of self-knowledge at the exact moment of his expiration is both the film’s cruelest joke and the purest articulation of Lee’s astringent perspective on the nature of choice and consequence for black performers. The film’s only hero is Womack, who quietly walked away from the lucrative but degrading minstrel show before the chaos really hit.
Despite Bamboozled’s bracing qualities and stark emotional force, it was not a huge success on its initial release, grossing a paltry $2.5 million against an already slim budget of $10 million. Perhaps one cannot really blame pleasure-seeking audiences for failing to make a Friday-night beeline to a film that insists, at times with the subtlety of a barbell to the temple—see the hysterically on-the-nose “Timmi Hillnigger” spoof fashion commercial—that American racism is alive and thriving, and that while the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward spiritual abjection and comprehensive mental collapse. And though the film received moderately positive notices from some reviewers, it also inspired serious rancor from prominent and predominantly white male voices who opined that it was unnecessary in our enlightened age. Despite Lee’s established track record with probing, confrontational, and controversial explorations of race and identity, it seemed like he’d crossed an invisible line here. “Enough has changed for audiences to know that blackface is ugly and unfunny,” harrumphed the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, while Roger Ebert, arguably the most influential early supporter of Do the Right Thing, fretted, “Many viewers will leave the theater thinking Lee has misused them.” Slate’s David Edelstein observed that “that chip on [Lee’s] shoulder is fast becoming a tumor,” and Andrew Sarris, writing in the New York Observer, lambasted Lee for his decision to “shock Whitey one last time by rubbing his nose in the blackface obscenities of the past.”
Bamboozled’s near film maudit status made it a tantalizing prospect for me to tackle when a small independent publisher began soliciting pitches for single-film monographs in early 2014. After all, I, too, had initially taken the easy way out, dismissing it as messy and unfocused when I first saw it in London in 2001, as a fifteen-year-old burgeoning cinephile, unprepared to process its stygian provocations. But numerous aspects of the film lingered in my mind, from its acrid scenes depicting casual racism in supposedly progressive workplaces, to some of its least palatable imagery. Once seen, it is impossible to forget the giant, caricatured, mechanical, red-lipped mouth from which Manray and Womack emerge in character onstage, or the intimate, desolate backstage sequences in which the two performers painstakingly apply blackface makeup and red lipstick while gazing at themselves in the mirror, eyes pooling with tears, souls adrift in sorrow.
The film’s unusual aesthetic qualities endured for me as well. Lee’s interest in formal experimentation—traceable from the sudden, gorgeous shift from monochrome to color in She’s Gotta Have It through the bizarre aspect-ratio change in Crooklyn (1994)—ramps up here to a whole new level, evidence of a restlessly ambitious filmmaker increasingly allergic to the idea of a comfort zone. His work with his collaborators is inspired: Sam Pollard’s sinister, ghost-in-the-machine editing patterns foster destabilizing antirhythms within scenes, while the film’s woozily immediate digital cinematography, courtesy of Ellen Kuras, adds a memorably oppressive patina of murk. This rough-hewn look is further complemented by Lee and Kuras’s choice to set up multiple cameras within scenes in order to capture the actors off guard, producing a jittery, unpredictable feel.
As the years passed, the film’s prescience, inextricably linked to its stubborn resistance to comforting narratives of progress regarding race and the media, also became increasingly difficult to ignore. On July 17, 2014, a week after I moved to America from my hometown of London, a father of six, Eric Garner, was killed in Staten Island by an illegal choke hold perpetrated by police officer Daniel Pantaleo. Three weeks later, on August 9, eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death in Ferguson, Missouri, by police officer Darren Wilson. Brown’s prone body was left in the summer sun for four hours. These shocking incidents, in the wake of other outrages like the 2012 Florida murder of the seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin by racist vigilante George Zimmerman, inspired waves of activism and resistance but also drew sharp attention to the frequently pernicious way that images of blackness are constructed in the media—the subject that is Bamboozled’s lifeblood. In death, Martin, Garner, and Brown, all black and unarmed, were hurriedly recast as thugs, brutes, and layabouts by a powerful right-wing media tapping into a rich seam of antiblack stereotypes forged in the crucible of American popular art.
Much of this shameful history is conveyed with harrowing microcosmic grace in the three-minute montage that closes Bamboozled. Moments after Lee has depicted the NYPD using excessive force in executing all the Mau Maus (save, pointedly, for their sole white member), he delivers a stately compendium of genuine footage of American film entertainment’s most racially offensive imagery, including blacked-up Hollywood stars like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney; racist cartoons; black performers like Hattie McDaniel, Stepin Fetchit, and the aforementioned Mantan Moreland in demeaning “coon” and “mammy” roles; and disturbing scenes from films such as Gone with the Wind and D. W. Griffith’s racist, pro-Confederacy epic The Birth of a Nation. The montage would be plenty powerful viewed in isolation, but its poignancy is amplified by Terence Blanchard’s simple, melancholic score, and its affectless presentation in the wake of a narrative marked by excess, incoherence, and choleric rage. It is no stretch to draw a direct connection from the black “savages” (white actors in blackface) marauding through the landscape of The Birth of a Nation to the account provided by Wilson of his fateful altercation with Michael Brown. “It looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked,” Wilson said of Brown.
“A specific and pernicious corollary of Donald Trump’s ascent has been the emergence of grotesque characters who might have walked straight from the set of Lee’s film.”
As I continued to work on my manuscript, Bamboozled’s resonance metastasized, its loopy horrors feeling no less grotesque but somehow more quotidian. The Mau Maus’ live internet broadcasting of Manray’s death not only prefigured ISIS’s methods of atrocity dissemination but also called ahead to the present-day dystopia in which images of death—often black death, caused by white police—are a click away on social media, even if this apparent proof rarely leads to prosecution. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, launched by activist April Reign in January 2015, boosted conversations about racial representation and diversity in Hollywood to a new fever pitch, but, concurrently, absurdity reigned. I read multiple reports of blackface parties taking place on college campuses, and news of a planned musical blackface performance to raise funds for the Baltimore cops charged in the April 2015 slaying of the unarmed black man Freddie Gray. (The performance was, thankfully, canceled.) Tom Hanks’s son Chester Marlon Hanks, who rapped under the name Chet Haze, channeled his inner Dunwitty in refusing to apologize for using the N-word (“Can’t no one tell me what I can’t say”). I sat agog at the weird story of Rachel Dolezal, an official at the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who claimed to be African American but was outed by her parents in June 2015 as a white woman who allegedly darkened her skin. When I saw footage of the newly signed rapper Bobby Shmurda literally dancing on a boardroom table in front of a group of nonplussed entertainment executives, exactly as Manray does in Bamboozled, I wondered whether Lee was in possession of a crystal ball.
Shortly before I submitted my final manuscript for Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled,” one Donald J. Trump officially launched his bid to become president. At the time, it felt like a mildly distracting sideshow, surely nothing more than a baroque prank that could end only in farcical defeat for the satsuma-hued charlatan and reality-TV star who had spent years wasting everyone’s time by trying to prove that Barack Obama was Muslim? Well, we know how that turned out, and the ensuing Trump presidency, a nightmarish, Twitter-fueled media miasma, has come to feel like a real-time fusion of A Face in the Crowd, The Producers, Network, and Bamboozled. A specific and pernicious corollary of Trump’s ascent has been the emergence of grotesque characters who might have walked straight from the set of Lee’s film. Consider prominent Trump acolytes Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, a.k.a. Diamond and Silk, two black women who gleefully profess their Trump love on video blogs, social media, and the Fox Nation streaming service. Their vast popularity comes despite their peddling of a shtick that is, per the website the Outline, “so phony and lazily constructed that it could plausibly be an elaborate Dadaist prank”; it is the resurgent neo-minstrelsy, warned of by Lee in 2000, manifest, lucrative, and on steroids. And what of eccentric multimillionaire rapper Kanye West, another prominent black Trump supporter, who in a May 2018 interview with TMZ made remarks appearing to blame black American people for slavery: “When you hear about slavery for four hundred years . . . For four hundred years? That sounds like a choice. Like, you was there for four hundred years and it’s all of y’all? It’s like we’re mentally in prison.” Midway through Bamboozled, an increasingly misguided, highly flappable Delacroix makes eerily similar remarks in a radio interview with Imhotep Gary Byrd (a real-life DJ, playing himself): “Those people need to wake up. I mean, slavery has been over four hundred years ago. We need to stop thinking that way. Stop crying over ‘the white man this, the white man that.’”
As the scholar Todd McGowan astutely contends, Bamboozled is “Lee’s most disturbing film and his greatest success because it never leaves the terrain of excess . . . and yet it creates a sense of everyday reality out of its excesses.” This “everyday reality” derives as much from the film’s grimy New York verisimilitude and the presence of larger-than-life figures like Byrd, lawyer Johnnie Cochran, and activist Al Sharpton (all making cameos as themselves) as it does from Lee’s uncanny foresight and willingness to amplify the myriad ugly societal impulses that many would prefer to ignore.
In my book, I declare that “Bamboozled is in fact the central work in Lee’s canon—the house on fire to which all roads lead.” The film contains some of the starkest, most successful expressions of his enduring social and artistic fascinations: his investigations into “blackness” as an identity (what does it mean, and who has the authority to claim it?); his depictions of conversations between characters as danger zones riven with potentially fatal misunderstandings; and his playful, pop-artistic use of the frame and soundtrack to convey frequently contradictory political slogans and messages. Lee’s penchant for purposeful dissonance is perhaps no better exemplified than by his ingenious decision in Bamboozled to film the (chillingly) well-choreographed minstrel performance scenes on rich, primary-color-saturated Super 16 mm stock. This perversely lush presentation is at odds with the rest of the film’s scratchy aesthetic, and accentuates how easily the public is seduced by such nightmarish material.
Four years on, I stand by my assessment of the centrality of Bamboozled to Lee’s output, and his most significant subsequent releases have explicitly harked back to it more than to any other film. Consider the wild, outsize, sex-and-guns social satire of Chi-Raq (2015), or the Oscar-winning box-office smash BlacKkKlansman (2018), a more easily digestible and conventional film than Bamboozled but one that nevertheless echoes its predecessor in its sharply critical deployment of footage from Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation to illustrate the long-held racist myths seeping from American entertainment into the national social and political fabric. It seems unlikely, though, that Lee will ever again produce something with the sheer, unsettling force of Bamboozled—as much an exorcism as a film, a brilliant, fiery obelisk that turns the demonic power of racism inside out for the world to gaze upon, if it dares.