Film

‘Bamboozled’ Is a Great Film: Meet the Critic Fighting for Spike Lee’s Anguished Satire

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Spike Lee’s always got it rough from critics. Back in ’89, before Do the Right Thing came out, David Denby and others warned in print that releasing the film was a reckless act — that the movie now widely acknowledged as Lee’s masterpiece would spark riots in cities across the country.

Lee’s pained 2000 provocation, Bamboozled, fared worse, in that it mostly was dismissed. This blunt satire probably wouldn’t have had much of a chance even if it didn’t continually force viewers to regard and consider images of blackface and minstrelsy both historical and contemporary. It’s shot on murky consumer-grade video and features a difficult lead turn by Damon Wayans as a flinty, self-loathing TV exec who engineers an accidental ratings triumph when he suggests that his fictional network move on from sitcoms exploiting African-American stereotypes and instead air a straight-up blackface tap-dance comedy show set in a watermelon patch.

Lee’s film is as upsetting a comedy as you will ever see, contemplating racial wounds and the ugliest history and building to un-cathartic violence. It climaxes with a shattering montage of racist images from our pop past, almost certainly the most outraged minutes of film Lee has ever cut. The movie’s no easy watch, but the failure of critics to treat seriously the heartsick rage of one of our greatest filmmakers remains a mystery.

Fortunately, Ashley Clark does just that in his new book Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, from the Critical Press. Tonight, he speaks with Lee at a BAMcinématek screening of Bamboozled, which anchors “Behind the Mask: Bamboozled in Focus,” Clark and BAM’s week-long series of docs, features, and experimental films daring to examine themes like Lee’s.

We peppered Clark, an occasional Voice contributor, with a couple of questions.

Is Bamboozled a great film? Is it instead an important film? Is there a difference?

I think it’s both. Its importance is fairly clear to me: How many other major American films have questioned Hollywood’s racist past, present, and — whisper it — future as aggressively and fearlessly? Few, if any. I’ve taken longer to come around to the idea that it’s a great film, but that’s because my own ideas about what constitutes greatness have developed over time. When I first saw it, at age fifteen, I didn’t know what to make of it, and defaulted to the prevailing view that it was overstuffed and unfocused. But after having spent time attempting to unravel its mysteries, I’m convinced that its so-called flaws — the raggedness of its form and content, Lee’s daring aesthetic choices (like filming on digital video) — are what make it brilliant.

This week the New Federal Theatre opens its 50th anniversary production of Martin Duberman’s In White America, a docu-play that presents the history of race in America through speeches and testimony from real people, from Thomas Jefferson to a teen girl chased by a mob of angry whites from an Arkansas schoolhouse in 1963. This production opens with a new quote from Obama’s eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney: “For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present.”

That echoed with me as I read the excerpts you cite of the original reviews of Bamboozled, where critics — many liberals, mostly white — attacked not just Lee’s aesthetic choices and apparent arguments, but the very project of demanding that we look at this material. Why do you think they so roundly rejected the film’s central provocation?

Despite the opening scene, in which the main character literally reads out a definition of satire, I think a lot of critics either missed or chose to ignore that the film’s blackface minstrel show was supposed to be satirical and over-the-top. Reading it this way allowed critics to say, “Oh, Spike’s dredging up the past — everyone knows this is bad! We’ve got Will Smith and Oprah now!” rather than reflect on what Lee was really getting at, which was the persistent, shape-shifting forms of minstrelsy in our culture, and the maintenance of white supremacy in media at the executive level. It’s also a feel-bad movie which points fingers at everybody — black executives and performers included. I can understand why it turned some people off. It’s not a film that’s going to send you off singing into the night sky.

Do you think they might react differently today?

Timing is important. If Bamboozled had come out in the “post-racial,” Obama-driven wave of optimism in 2008, I think it would have been even more of a flop! But if it came out today, in a climate of Black Lives Matter, the incorrigible Don Lemon, and increasing awareness of the shortfall in industry diversity (consider Viola Davis’s recent Emmy speech), it would be impossible for all but the most myopic critics to dismiss it as irrelevant.

The two elements that I’ve always had a hard time getting around in the film are the lead performance — Damon Wayans speaks in an impossible fake upper-crust patois and seems to be daring us to hate him — and the messy subplot about the Mau Mau liberationists, which even at the time of release seemed a defeated and archaic vision of what black protest can be. Your book is helpful and illuminating on both subjects. What would you say to help new viewers to the film over what many have thought to be hurdles?

Whatever you do, don’t go into Bamboozled expecting a series of tidy resolutions. Steel yourself instead to feel challenged, confused, irritated, intimidated at times. Then be prepared to mull it over in your mind for a long time afterwards.

You mention lots of the TV shows and films that have banked on stereotypical portrayals of African Americans — Homeboys From Outer Space and the like. You don’t quite lump Empire in with those shows, but you don’t fully distance it from them, either — can you speak to that?

Empire is not without artistic merit, it’s entertaining — well, I’m fascinated by Terrence Howard’s ever-changing hair, at least — and it is a genuine cultural phenomenon. However, it’s also a lurid carnival of black pathologies which happens to be getting major network and advertiser backing. This is more about the wider narrative I see in black representation, regardless of the specific aesthetic or performance qualities of each show/film. What kinds of movies and TV get the big financial support and Oscars? Precious, 12 Years a Slave, Selma, The Help. These have in common portrayals of suffering, stress, and pathology. I just wish there was a broader palette of black representation onscreen. That said, I heard that Spike Lee might be lining up to direct an episode of Empire, so I’m fascinated to see what might come of that!

You’re going to interview Lee onstage Wednesday night. What one question are you dying to ask?

So many! But I’d love to ask him to expand on the experience of making a short-film rebuttal to The Birth of a Nation while he was at NYU in the early 1980s. It was called The Answer, and it nearly got him thrown out! It makes me think that Bamboozled was brewing in him for a very long time indeed.

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