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Black Identity In Bamboozled

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 4411 words Published: 8th May 2017

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African Americans have for a long time been represented in American cinema in discourses of white realism. With the emergence of black directors, there has been a struggle to detach the black community from the traditional, negative stereotypes attached to them. Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000) is a dark satire on race representation and assimilation and the ways in which the dominant hegemonic power structure is able to divide and rule those it subjugates. This paper will first explore the history of cinematic representation of African Americans, which will be discussed in line with the issue of misrepresentation in Bamboozled (2000). This paper will also explore African-American identity dilemma as presented in Bamboozled (2000).

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I want people to think about the power of images, not just in terms of race, but how imagery is used and what sort of social impact it has- how it influences how we talk, how we think, how we view one another. In particular, I want them to see how film and television have historically, from the birth of both mediums, produced and perpetuated distorted images. Film and television started out that way, and here we are, at the dawn of a new century, and a lot of that madness is still with us today.

Spike Lee.

The debates over race and representation of African Americans in films have been highly contentious for over a century. Blacks have generally been perceived and stigmatized, throughout history, as trouble makers, incapables, intellectually limited, inferior, lazy and irrational, amongst the many other demeaning labels attached to them. These labels are connected not only to the history of colonization but also, importantly, to the exploitation, perpetuation, and careful maintenance of stereotypes through cinematic clichés which have imposed themselves easily and significantly on the popular imagination. As rightly stated by Wijdan Ali, the projection of harmful and negative stereotypes “onto marginal or ineffectual groups within a society has always been an easy and useful method for making scapegoats.”Effectively, films form the ideal space to circularize and preserve the labels which the mainstream audience desires to attach to the black community.

Five decades of the Civil Rights Movement have gone by, and the degree of change in the black community, though undeniably real and noticeable, remains perplexingly complex and inadequate. Although the fact that we now live in a time in history where Americans have voted in a black President, where blacks now occupy positions of power and are ostensibly less subject to institutional discrimination than in the past, the black community nevertheless remains inadequately poor, unemployed, undereducated and negatively labeled. Adding to these, portrayals of African Americans in cinema are still, to a great extent, marked by buffoonery.

Therefore, adopting a ‘writing-back’ style in Bamboozled (2000), Spike Lee satirically attacks the way in which African Americans have historically been misused and misrepresented on screen. Through Bamboozled (2000), the director attempts both to entertain and to educate his audience about the history of African American representation within popular culture, with the word ‘bamboozled’ itself indicating the state of having been cheated or conned. Bamboozled (2000) presents American mass entertainment’s history of racial discrimination through abasing minstrel stereotypes, which first started to be performed in musical theatres and which were later brought to cinema with films such as The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon (1905), The Sambo Series (1909- 1911) and D.W Griffith’s controversial The Birth of a Nation( 1915). Consequently, the purpose of this study is to explore African American evolution in the American film industry and to analyze the effects of stereotypes and misrepresentation on African American identity using Cornel West’s theory of “Alienation” (1993) and Du Bois’s theory of “double consciousness” (1903). These will hopefully in turn help to understand why the integration of African Americans is considered as a problematic issue even in a sophisticated era where racism seems to be a thing of the past, and where people are supposedly no longer “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But before getting to what Bamboozled (2000) actually brings to the table of African-American films, it is important to look at the history and evolution of black representation in Hollywood cinema, which the following paragraphs are going to deal with.

II. African Americans in American Films: A Brief Retrospective

African Americans first started to be represented in minstrel shows in the late 1820s and later on television in the early 20th century. Through blackface minstrelsy, a performance style where white males parodied the songs, dances, clothing and speech patterns of Southern blacks using blackface makeup and exaggerated lips, America’s conceptions of blackness and whiteness were shaped by these mocking caricatures, for, as pointed out by bell hooks, “there is power in looking.” While whiteness was posited as the norm, every black face was “a statement of social imperfection, inferiority, and mimicry that [was] placed in isolation with an absent whiteness as its ideal opposite.” Consequently, for over a century, the notion that colored people were racially and socially inferior to whites was ingrained, internalized and accepted both by white and black minstrel performers and audiences.

The caricatures took such a strong hold on the American imagination that audiences ‘naturally’ came to expect any person with dark skin, irrespective of his/ her background, to fit in one or more of the following stereotypes; Jim Crow, a dull-witted and subservient plantation slave; Zip Coon, a lazy, gaudily-dressed man from the city representing the proud newly- freed slave; Mammy, the contended, happy, loyal and ever-smiling female slave (as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery,); Uncle Tom, the good Negro; submissive, hearty, faithful no matter what, stoic, selfless, and ‘oh-so-very-kind,’ Buck, the proud and menacing Black man always fascinated by white women; Jezebel the temptress; the mixed race Mulatto, and Pickaninnies, who have “bulging eyes, unkempt hair, red lips and wide mouths into which they stuff huge slices of watermelon.”

As time moved on, black appearance in mainstream films became more and more frequent, as well as the increase in the number of independent black directors, from Oscar Micheaux to Daniels Lee and Spike Lee. Since The Birth of a Nation, which marked a change in emphasis from the pretentious but harmless Jim Crow to the threatening savage ‘Nigger’, black filmmakers have responded by creating race movies and blaxploitation films which were tailored to black audiences . The 1970’s witnessed a resurgence of the blaxploitation genre with films such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song (1971), Shaft (1971), Black Caesar (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). Since such films were themselves in turn accused of using the negative to hyperbolize issues pertaining to blacks, this genre saw its end in the late 1970’s to give way to a new wave of black directors, such as S. Lee and John Singleton, who focused on black urban life. However, we cannot afford to simply ‘celebrate’ the achievements of black filmmakers for the so-called ethnic arts. And as Stuart Hall remarks, “we have come out of the age of innocence,” which says that ‘it’s good if it’s there.” The mere fact that such films have had a considerable increase does not mean that the status of and opportunities for black people have dramatically improved although it may be true that the level of clear-cut racism has known an important decrease, or even a disappearance. This can be backed up by Appiah’s statement that “changes in the representation of blacks do not ipso facto lead to changes in their treatment.”

III. The Issue of Misrepresentation in Bamboozled (2000)

In Bamboozled (2000), Spike Lee directly addresses this issue of African American representability as being a discourse of white essentialism. Through Bamboozled (2000) the director invites his audience to realize that although “nobody goes around in blackface anymore,”it does not entail that Hollywood has altogether abandoned/given up essentialist discourse. The director satirically uses very symbolic icons and elements throughout the film in order to highlight racism and misrepresentation. The beginning of Bamboozled (2000) itself generates the intended theme; Stevie Wonder’s Misrepresented People, a song which encapsulates the historical, political and social adversities faced by blacks, is carefully and cleverly set as the background music, which powerfully and heavily impacts upon the content of the film as well as upon the audience.

Spike Lee makes it blatantly clear that Bamboozled (2000) sets out to illustrate White American ideology and discourse within contemporary public sphere. Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), the protagonist of the film, is a network executive working in a company which is specialized in black matters. Ironically though, during the meeting in which Delacroix is reproached for his lateness and reminded of CP time, it can be noticed that the only Black person present is Pierre himself. His boss, Dunwitty, clearly “does not want to see Negroes on television unless they are buffoons.” He even cancelled one of Pierre’s brilliant shows because it starred blacks as dignified people and goes on to complain that the latter’s written materials are “too clean,” “too white,” “too antiseptic,” which according to him merely portray “white people with blackfaces.” He urges Delacroix to “keep it real,” that is, he reminds him of the humiliating position of blacks in cinema; blacks are only entertainers. The depiction of the struggle endemic to the African American experience of representation, which Lee throws to the audience in a very obvious yet complex way, can be seen in Extract 1. It can be observed in this scene that Delacroix has no other option than to portray blacks as entertainers if he is to respect his contract. This scene is also important because it does two things; first, it shows Delacroix’s struggle to promote the black community by attempting to fight misrepresentation, and second, it shows a well-educated Delacroix’s willingness to dissociate himself from other African Americans.

The name of the blackface show in Bamboozled (2000) is in itself very symbolic; “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show.” Here, Lee suggests that minstrelsy has not disappeared in the new millennium. In his-own words therefore, it has only “gotten more sophisticated. Gangsta rap videos, a lot of the TV shows on UPN and WB- a lot of us are still acting as buffoons and coons.” The issue of black-white relations resurfaces in Bamboozled (2000) and the role of the Other is made explicit through Lee’s intended message. Black stereotyping and ‘Otherisation’ becomes the necessary evil in the construction of white identity and is needed to reassure white audiences of the stability of their identity. With this comes the implication that black films are successfully marketed only if they appeal to mainstream audiences. Clearly, Spike Lee’s aim in this provocative film is to show that even today, the American film industry is still concealing essentialist discourses within contemporary films. Consequently, as essentialism involves ongoing human and social interaction as well as limitation, identity regulation and enforcement takes place within this kind of racist discourse, whereby blacks have to undergo identity dilemma while trying to seek approval. As we have seen, cinema has an important role to play in the construction of identity. History, cinema and black identity are intricately intertwined. The association of these three in Bamboozled (2000) communicates to the audience how blacks are identified and how they in turn identify themselves. As a marginalized group, most of the black characters in Spike Lee’s film forsake their identity so as to gain approval, to be successful, or to get out of black poverty and the result is shown to be a disastrous one for the black soul and community. The next section is therefore going to be an exploration of identity dilemma in Bamboozled (2000).

IV. Identity Dilemma in Bamboozled (2000)

I have heard all my life that White people don’t have to change who they are, how they talk, or how they behave. Therefore, I was left with the impression that it was everyone else’s responsibility to attempt to adopt the cultural and social personalities of White people.

Ronald, L Jackson.

In order to tackle this issue of identity in Bamboozled (2000) Cornel West’s theory of “alienation”(1993) will be used in parallel to DuBois’ theory of “double-consciousness” (1903) .West’s theory of “alienation” (1993) explores the identity crisis faced by the black diasporan community in modern day America. ‘Natal alienation,’ which has been created by the history of colonization, is an irretrievable damage to black identity. Since the Black is rendered into an inferior being through history and representation, and this inferiority further reinforced by both descriptive and prescriptive stereotypes in cinema, blacks as a result experience a severe identity dilemma, a double consciousness.

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“Alienation” in West’s theory exists on two intricately related levels: firstly as an ideological system of oppression and discrimination and secondly as a black existentialist struggle. In Bamboozled (2000), this powerful system of oppression forces the black characters to forsake their black soul and identities. Unlike Delacroix, Womack (Tommy Davidson) and Manray (Savion Glover), two homeless street performers, are forced by their unfavorable economic conditions to become de-rooted and senseless performing dolls. Both are stripped of their names and imposed with the abasing and stereotypically racist names of ‘Sleep’n’Eat’ and ‘Mantan’ respectively. Alienation here produces the “modern black diasporan problematic of invisibility and namelessness,” whereby Womack and Manray are forced to look at themselves “through the eyes of others, of measuring [their] soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Impelled by societal and survival pressures, both of them are forced to assimilate in order to be accepted by the white community as well as by the assimilated black people. It becomes clear that David Llorens’s (1968) two types of blacks are present in Bamboozled (2000). Delacroix and Sloan represent the “chosen ones” while Manray and Womack represent the “fellah”. The former is familiar with the streets and the black vernacular, while the latter is culturally refined has assimilated into the white community. Alienation and white essentialist discourse creates such a situation where the “chosen one” feels embarrassed by the “fellah” and seeks at all times to show that they are two different kinds, and to please the “Guardian,” that is, the white man. Manray and Womack are, through the eyes of Sloan ( Jada Pinkett Smith) and Pierre, African Americans who share similar traits to the ‘primitive African’. Delacroix points this out by looking down on them and recommending that they be given deodorants, toothbrushes, toothpastes and underwear. He also attempts without success to dissociate himself from the fellah black category by desperately explaining to Dunwitty that blacks are not a ‘monolithic group’, and that “middle class black does exist.” These words are representative of the African American community’s desire not to be identified only through blackness. For Dunwitty, Delacroix is only trying to wear a whiteface, which is not a mere fabrication or a mere racist comment. Dunwitty’s words carry an important truth. We see from the beginning of the film, that Delacroix eagerly and desperately seeks recognition and visibility from his white co-workers when he walks his way to his office. He also rejects the black vernacular for Standard English so as to make a clear cut difference between the educated and the uneducated black. This, to an important extent, reifies the superiority of whites and serves to alienate blacks in American society, as, according to West (1993), “alienation” is part of a whole system of language. Once a culture’s language is alienated from the mainstream population’s language, the culture’s identity is similarly taken away and starts to dissipate.

Delacroix himself unconsciously embodies several of the blackface stereotypes, although he tries to portray blacks in a positive light. He can be viewed as a Zip Coon, with his pretentiousness and his implicit disregard for the “fellah” blacks during the auditioning for the “Alabama Porch Monkeys,” and his dissociation from the black vernacular. Furthermore, he embodies the Uncle Tom stereotype several times in the film, especially in the scene where he acts as the loyal, faithful and subservient black while insisting on handing off an award to Mathhew Modine (playing himself.) Delacroix is therefore himself caught in this ‘whirlwind of Europeanization.’ In his relentless effort to assimilate into white culture, he gets himself a Harvard education and a penthouse, dresses professionally, and speaks the right language. Even when he sets out on his mission to deconstruct stereotypes and raise public awareness on modern day racism, he is himself unable to “resist the misrepresentation and caricature of the terms set by uncontested nonblack norms and models.” Delacroix therefore also contributes both consciously and unconsciously to the dominant discourse of alienation of blacks from the white community by setting up a “Coon show” which idealizes “a simpler time, a time when men were men, women were women, and Negroes knew their place.” Some black folks are consequently outraged by his racist show and accuse him of selling out his own community. But what has actually happened to Pierre Delacroix is that he has been experiencing the ‘split-self- disease’, what Du Bois calls a “twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” Aware of the fact that the popular American view has consistently dehumanized African Americans through negative representation, Delacroix does not want to be among those blacks who are despised by the European American population. He does not want to be “invisible” and “formless.” Therefore he aspires to be both “Negro and American,” two identities, which, according to Du Bois (1903) are often in conflict. Delacroix’s wearing of the blackface by the end of the film iterates the “inescapability of the imposed mask of blackness.” Realizing that he is unable to appear as anything but “black” in the eyes of others, he compromises with his black self and resigns himself to the mask. What Lee is actually showing is that in modern day America, and even for sophisticated and well- off black Americans, the merging of the American and the African is one very difficult (if not impossible) thing to happen.

The impact of stereotypes and “alienation” on black identity causes one to have “a keen sense of awareness about his or her various selves and how they are perceived.” Often, blacks in Bamboozled (2000) have to negotiate their identity. Through this act, they inevitably reach a self-realization of “twoness.” Womack for instance realizes that he will always be looked down upon as a second-class American citizen, no matter how famous and successful he has become. He becomes conscious of the fact the he had been bamboozled insofar as believing that he could be an equal citizen. His success lies only in the fact that he is able to entertain white America, “to always keep ’em laughing,” a quality which Delacroix’s father Junebug (Paul Mooney) believes is essential for the black American to achieve success. As shown in Extract 2 therefore, when Womack experiences double consciousness, he decides to stop acting in the minstrel show. This scene is significant in that it highlights the self-realization which is made possible only through a “double-consciousness.” Womack at this particular moment realizes that outside of the character of Sleep’n Eat, he is simply invisible, a nobody. “Through the eyes of others” there is no other possible identity for him. Mantan’s own identity grows in conflict with that of Womack following this conversation; clearly he is still unaware of the complexities of the disjointed nature of identity in this scene. A few scenes later however, he also becomes afflicted by the same double consciousness experienced by his friend. In Extract 3, after discovering that he has been “hoodwinked” and “led astray,” Manray refuses to be further associated to Mantan. He realizes that it is fundamentally wrong to negotiate his identity through the medium of blackface. Although Lee might be suggesting that Manray’s realization occurs at too late a time, his message clearly goes in line with Du Bois’s (1903) argument that double consciousness is the realization that identity is “multifaceted.” According to him, at one point or the other, black Americans develop a conflict with the different identities that they need to embody in order to be accepted by the mainstream, a conflict which is inexistent among white Americans.

On the other hand, Sloan’s brother, Julius, who forms part of the “Mau Mau” revolutionary underground gang and who does not go through double consciousness because of his refusal to be seen through white America’s eyes, is juxtaposed to the blacks who try to assimilate white culture, thereby denying their own roots, language, people, and culture. Julius constantly affirms his black identity, unlike the other blacks we encounter in the film. Extract 4 shows how he refuses to be a representative of de-rooted, disenfranchised blacks. In the perspective of revolutionary blacks such as the Mau Maus therefore, Manray needs to be executed because he is a nuisance to the black community; he is a Judas, an “Uncle Tom,” one who contributes to the demise of his own race. The murders of Manray and Delacroix show to what extent alienation and double-consciousness can be detrimental to African Americans. They create inter-ethnic conflict and a heavy malaise in the black community. Alienation as an ideological racist discourse therefore divides and rules those who are marginalized in a society “that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Through the Mau Mau gang, it can be seen that those who accept and affirm their black identities are ineffective in society. They are in no way in a better state of being than those who experience double-consciousness. Since they do not master the mainstream language and do not believe in the ideological discourses of the inferiority of their race, they are forced to retire to the underground world.

The fact that the imposition of history and alienation results in double consciousness in many cases in Bamboozled (2000) is destructive to all. Accepting white essentialism as culturally representable not only creates a fatal division between assimilated and un- assimilated blacks; it also kills the spirit of the black man.

V. Conclusion

Although the situations and the characters in Lee’s Bamboozled (2000) are all fictitious, and although the director does not choose the medium of docudrama to convey his important messages, he manages to successfully reconstruct blackface minstrelsy. African Americans have been freed, but only physically. There has been neither a consistent attempt to make up for the mistakes of humanity of the past nor to reshape identities. His argument in Bamboozled (2000) is that the identity dilemmas faced by the characters in the film are no different from the identity issues faced by African Americans in post-racial America. Although blacks do not find themselves as being represented in blackface or as victims of blatant segregation anymore, they are nevertheless always reminded of their blackness, and of what it implies to be a black in America. Whether Lee is genuinely successful in renegotiating a stigmatized identity or in deconstructing stereotypes by dismantling the false normativity of white authority remains highly debatable. On the one side, his use of satire and his engagement with the history of racism and representation impact heavily on the audience. However, the frustrating ending of Bamboozled (2000), as well as the inter- ethnic conflict between the revolutionary and the assimilated blacks, display a contaminating and intense sense of helplessness and hopelessness in regards to humanity’s chances to ever get rid of the veil which separates whites and blacks in America, as well as in any other parts of the world. Lee’s message, considering his role as an auteur, seems to reflect Du Bois’s words that the black man must not “bleach his soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that [his] blood has a message for the world.”


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