Talking Pictures

Just another weblog


Posted by keith1942 on November 28, 2011

In an age of action thrillers, Spike Lee’s controversial 2000 film Bamboozled is unusual, an ideas movie. This explains both why it has generated controversy, and also why it is not an easy film to get to see.

“(In the USA) Bamboozled had a very limited theatrical run. At the time of its release in October 2000, the film seemed to play in a few select theaters only, mostly in New York and Los Angeles. In my hometown of San Diego, it took at least three weeks after the initial release before Bamboozled arrived, and it was virtually buried in theaters that most black audiences and other Spike Lee fans would not normally attend.” (Zeinabu irene David 2001).

In Leeds, where I saw it one and half times at the council funded Hyde Park Cinema, the audiences were very small. I’ve had problems finding people who have seen it and this was a blow because I would have liked more opportunities to discuss the ideas the film explores. But despite its low profile in cinemas, Bamboozled is a film that addresses an important issue, little discussed. At least the DVD release in the UK means it is possible to give it wider exhibition. Apart from the pleasures of good cinema, the film makes an excellent study text.

Narrative concerns

The narrative centres on television writer Pierre Delacroix, his secretary Sloan Hopkins, (both African-­Americans), and their white boss at the network, Dunwitty. Dunwitty regards himself as hip and an expert on black culture. He ruthlessly manages and patronises Pierre. So Pierre decides to expose his, and the Network’s, disguised racism by dreaming up a spoof minstrel show. This is based on the premise of African-Americans in ‘blackface’ makeup to recreate the appearance of the original Jim Crow shows. (Jim Crow refers to a character created by a nineteenth century white ‘minstrel’. The name was later applied to the racist laws that appeared in the southern states after the Civil War and which lasted until the 1960s.)

The new show is constructed around two street buskers, Manray and Womack. Their respective characters in the show are Mantan and ‘Sleep ‘n’ Eat’, supported by the Alabama Porch Monkees. At the pilot performance the audience includes both white and black viewers.

“The first time the performers come out in blackface, the white people look around them to see if black people are laughing, because if they are, then it’s sanctioned, and it’s OK for them to laugh, too.” (Lee 2001)

This is the prelude to the show’s rating and critical success for the network. ‘Political’ African-Americans, including a gangster-rap group Mau Mau, are incensed and attack the show. The contradictions of this situation for the black characters lead eventually to a tragic and violent conclusion. 


The film directly confronts the long history of demeaning representations of black people across the US mainstream media. This is no easy task. Lee recounts the responses of some of the cast; “It took away part of their soul”. And reviews included comments like ‘scattershot’ and ‘rabble-rousing’. Lee’s response is to point to the history of blackface in film and television.

“I mean, we all know what D. W. Griffith did, but when you see Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Bing Crosby putting on blackface … well, the critics didn’t want to deal with that. (Lee 2001).

This challenge to racism is carefully integrated with questions of gender and class. Lee describes the main female character, Sloan: “So it was a definite choice to have Jada Pinkett-Smith’s character, Sloan, be the most sympathetic and the most intelligent. At the same time, her hands are bloodied too, but she knows there is blood on her hands, whereas most of the other characters are in denial or just too stupid to know it.” (Lee 2001)

A critical sub-plot refers to Pierre’s own family situation as an educated, middle-class African-American. At one point he visits his father, a stand-up comedian performing in small black clubs with a very ‘strong’ and racially aware routine.

“Yes, I wanted to reveal the fact that they’re disappointed in each other. The father, Junebug, feels his son has no integrity, and at this point Pierre feels that his father is a great talent but that he’s wasting it.” (Lee 2001)

This is partly a class divide, with Pierre, the aspiring executive, separated from his roots. The same divide exists for most of the other characters. Her brother Julius, leader of the Mau Mau rap group, confronts Sloan, the successful assistant to Pierre. Most tellingly, Manray is propelled from penniless street entertainer to a successful and affluent TV star. And these class relations, along with the racialised situation and gender positions, feed into the characters’ final fates.

Pierre, as if fetishising these concerns, begins to collect ‘Black Americana’ – pot and metal figurines of stereotypical characters like the ‘Mama’ and the ‘Piccaninny’. (Many of these objects are from Spike Lee’s own collection). The film ends with a videotape compilation of such types along with clips from a variety of well-known Hollywood movies and US Television shows from the studio period up to the 1960s. (Many of these historical images and others are available in Marlon Riggs’ videotapes, Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment, see http://www.nitrateonline).


There is a range of resources to use in studying the film including an official website and a number of review or interview sites. The official site has details on the production and cast, and brief but informative pages on ‘Minstrelsy’ and ‘Blacking Up’ [Some of this appears as extras on the DVD]. Also available is a Symposium on the film in the US journal Cineaste and a special feature in bfm, Black Filmmaker. (Sight & Sound seems to have failed on this count). Cineaste is especially helpful as it has articles by both pros and antis.

A key article by Armand White, ‘Post­Art Minstrelsy’, challenges the contradictions in Lee’s own situation. Whilst Bamboozled is a scathing critique of Hollywood and mainstream US television, this is also where Lee earns his bread. Many of his practices are very similar to the practices of the mainstream media. Witness the merchandising associated with the film of Malcolm X. However, the contradictions of Lee’s situation do not, necessarily, negate the film and its arguments. He retorts, “No examples, no back-up, no nothing.” (Lee 2001)

I too found Armand White and the other antis somewhat lacking in specifics. Some of the arguments refer to issues and debates in the USA African-American communities, and are difficult to judge from across the Atlantic. But there is a sense that these articles are treating the film both as a political tract and as a realist text. Political tracts need to be written. Popular films can dramatise ideas, but are much less successful at analysing them. And whilst the film shares the naturalistic conventions of Hollywood, it is clearly both a fantasy (Greg Tate suggests that it is science fiction?) and is carefully constructed on a Brechtian model. Brecht advocated distancing techniques in order to encourage the audience’s intellectual engagement. Bamboozled is doing this from the opening printed definition of satire, and with the continuing disruptions to narrative flow. Such techniques aim to create a theatre for ‘changing the world’. Lee comments:

“I want people to think about the power of images, not just in terms of race, but how the imagery is used and what sort of social impact it has.” (Lee 2001)

The article by Zeinabu irene Davis, (‘Beautiful-Ugly’ Blackface: An Esthetic Appreciation of Bamboozled) is pro. She discusses the technical and stylistic aspects of the film. It is shot on digital video (Sony VX1000 – Pal) and Super 16 film. The former is used for ‘actual scenes’, the latter for the television productions, an ironic comment on television ‘realism’. One point she makes is on the use of blue in the film’s colour scheme,

“This was a resourceful choice on the part of the filmmakers, since current film technology makes it very difficult to ‘lose’ the blue tint of video as it is transferred to film”.

There is praise for the scenes “in which we see the application of blackface makeup … displaying a rich palette of film color.” These are scenes that are visually pleasurable, but increasingly painful. She also discusses the excellent and evocative score by Terence Blanchard. Be warned this is apparently missing from the soundtrack CD. There are two aspects of the film about which there is more consensus – that the narrative is uneven and flawed: and that the violent ending ducks out on the problems the film raises. Greg Tate in Cineaste (‘Bamboozled: White Supremacy and a Black Way of Being Human’) counters the first:

“Much has been made of Bamboozled’s narrative and filmic lapses, but in retrospect, they seem only to intensify the nightmarish stereotypical grind Lee sees as the lot of African Americans, as both performers and producers in the Hollywood system.”

And for me the ending powerfully dramatised the desires and fate of the characters caught up in this social conflict. The montage of racist images from US TV and Cinema is instructive for UK audiences who may have only seen occasional examples of the ‘minstrel’ heritage.

Finally I want to make a more general point. Spike Lee, in the interview in Cineaste, refers to earlier critiques of the media, including A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Network (1976). One might add Mad City (1997). All three are satires, as defined in the opening credits of Bamboozled. What all the four films also have in common is the combination of a quite detailed recreation of the world and practices of television with a plot that borders on the incredible. Perhaps television, so self-referential a medium, is resistant to satire. For me it was the qualities of ironic and epic drama in the film (à la Brecht), which most powerfully confronted the continuing racism promulgated in the mainstream media. Bamboozled is both melodramatic and contains quite blatant stereotypes. But the form of the film positions the audience not just to laugh or cry, but to puzzle and argue over these. It is apparent from all the responses that even people who disagree with the movie are stimulated by it. 


Cineaste vol. XXVl No 2, 2001. Includes the interview with Spike Lee, Armand White, Greg Tate, Zeibabu irene Davis and others.

Bfm black filmmaker, Volume 4, issue 11. Review and discussion. bamboozled.shtml 200104frbamboo.html fbambooz.html 2001_05ibamboozled.html

Spike Lee also mentions a documentary by Melvin Van Peebles, Classified X.

DVD available from Entertainment Video (includes a Spike Lee audio commentary).

NB – The article originally appeared in In the Picture.


One Response to “Bamboozled

  1. […] Bamboozled (USA 2000) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: