Why Spike Lee Kept Me Up ‘Til 4 in the Morning

So, let’s talk about Bamboozled, a Spike Lee film from 2001.  I know that it’s kind of late to be doing a review, but I think some movies need reflection more than review.  Maybe the climate is right for reflection.  After the Academy snub of Selma and the terrifying ethics brooding beneath the surface of American Sniper, perhaps it’s time to reflect on what the film says about conscience, morals, ethics.  In fact, there’s fresher blood.  Why not look at the new Lee film Da Sweet Blood of Jesus?

Bamboozled Poster - HeadStuff.org
Bamboozled Poster from Spike Lee 2001

Because Bamboozled troubled me and, therapeutically, I need to deal with it first.  I, in fact, need to do it in order to finally go to sleep because I have work in the morning.  That’s why.  And a review is just too easy a way to dismiss it.

A review, after all, is easy.

A review is for a film that can be objectified as a media package.  I can hold it in my hand and say this was intended as a movie.  I need to watch this movie, take it apart and critique whether its various artistic mechanisms work or not.  The Interview, for example.  But this Lee film deserves some reflection because I’m tempted to say that it’s not that good.  That it overreaches.  That it pounds its message down the viewers’ throats.


Basically, what all the critics said about it when it first came out.


But the mechanisms are strange.  They turn back on themselves.  Maybe because I’m, in a quantum sense, looking at them.  Maybe because I’m not intuitive enough to get how it all fits together.  The message seems abrupt.  Forced.  But I know that Lee’s smarter than that.  That his messages are not that hard to get at; however, accessibility of said message can be.  It becomes a lot about what kind of cultural baggage you bring to the table and how that occludes your vision.

I mean, message is important.  Of course.  But cross over the line and suddenly you’re propaganda.  You’re indoctrinating folks.  Somebody paints “agitprop” all over you in big Communist-red letters.

(Now, there might be some movies have a message by accident.  Well shot, incredible acting, solid story.  The message could come after the fact as a serendipitous occasion on account of the juxtaposition of all these things. It would be hard to completely divorce politics from a human creation, but I think Georges Méliès, for example, is one that might come close to this.)

So, I’m going to do my best not to slip into review mode.  Because it’s inappropriate for how this movie struck.  However, I will say some things at the beginning that seem like a review.  Really, they’re just to set-up my reflection.

Okay, we’re clear.  Here we go.

Delusion is a form of discourse

Bamboozled Blackface Spike Lee - Headstuff.org
Bamboozled had black actors using “blackface” in a modern minstrel show

Bamboozled is difficult to condition because it has so many ways of sneaking away from you.  I want to say that using varied elements of pop culture embedded within (clips from minstrel shows, O.J. Simpson trial, Lee’s own Malcolm X, various cartoons, etc.) thoroughly obfuscate the message that seems so much at the forefront.  In other words, throwing so much into a movie could muddle its message. But then, what if that is in itself a message?  And what is this message?

One aspect of it is that entertainment is so all-pervasive, that it becomes harder and harder to escape the very mechanism that you think you’re critiquing.

Becoming the mechanism that you set out to critique is what entraps the film’s protagonist, Pierre Delacroix.  At the beginning of the film, he’s in a dolly shot traveling around his apartment.  Traditionally, Lee has used a dolly shot to convey a character’s transformative moment.  The experiences endured thus far come to an uncomfortable fruition causing a major psychic crisis.  Time stops in a way, the world rushes around them as a new perception of themselves and the world around them emerges.

The dolly shot is the birth of a fresh conscience.

Now, look at this word “conscience”.  It comes from the Latin “con”, with, and “scire”, to know.  It’s a way of knowing with a particular faculty.  But which faculty?  Feeling?  Morality?  The Merriam-Webster defines it as such:  “a sense… of one’s own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good” as well as “sensitive regard for fairness or justice” and “conformity to what one considers to be correct, right, or morally good”.  Conscience has the connotation of accuracy in the understanding of one’s feelings.  This doesn’t mean conditioning your feelings by logic, but observing your feelings as accurate gauges of morality, duty.  The words “sense” and “sensitivity” are key words in the definition, which implies that feelings should condition logic.  That logic isn’t as “objective” as we would like it to be and certainly has its own sordid developmental history.

Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show Bamboozled Spike Lee- headstuff.org
Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show

The definition of conscience captures the mood of the movie accurately.  Dunwitty’s (Delacroix’s boss) “logic” behind Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show is solid: it will mock what society is only ignoring by calling out what’s beneath the surface, calling the demon we don’t want to know is there, right?  Delacroix’s “logic” suggests that he can easily escape the racial stereotypes that plague him as a writer by playing into those stereotypes and critiquing, satirizing them from a meta-level, while at the same time infuriating his bosses so much that he will surely be fired (the only way he get out of his contract with fictional TV studio CNS). In a way, it seems that’s why Pierre runs through the various definitions of satire at the very start of the movie.  We have to keep in mind, implies Pierre, what satire is because we’re going to be wading some deep recesses that test and, perhaps, explode the boundaries of satirical expression.  In other words, becoming what you satirize.  Does Pierre just want out of his job or does he work against the superegoistic urge because he secretly wants industry respect at any cost?  Delusion, as Jacques Lacan notes, is a form of discourse.

Keep that in mind as we return to the dolly shot at the beginning.

The spectre of a spectacle

Damon Wayans addresses the camera in Spike Lee's Bamboozled - Headstuff.org
Damon Wayans addresses the camera in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled

Unlike Malcolm X or Do The Right Thing, Pierre’s dolly shot in Bamboozled is at the beginning.  He closes himself off to a transformative experience.  The conscience is subdued by getting it out of the way at the start.  Pierre addresses the camera face-first at the beginning, but he will never do so again.  And the conscience retreats to the background.  A mere observer.  There are several shots of Pierre from behind.  In fact, watch his first scene in the CNS office.  The camera follows him as he heads into a shark tank where Dunwitty will verbally assault him for being late for a meeting he never knew about in the first place.  The back shot is spectacular (in terms of “spectacle”) because it is as if the conscience bids goodbye to Delacroix, releases him to his own whims.

Watching, observing, spying – I think the concept of a “spectacle” plays a large role in the movie.  It means to watch, to look at.  As the back shot gives me a sense of watching Pierre, of spying on him, the entire movie, as a whole, has a voyeuristic sense to it.  Someone’s watching everyone in that movie.  The shots rotate between scenes with a high-quality camera to shaky camera work with the low quality of a hand held device.  The shift is subtle.  Manray and Wamock’s first scene is a high-quality shot with what I’ll say is the standard (or may we say, “objective” manner with very intentional scare marks), but their next scene (rolling the dance stage out of their apartment) is shot with what seems like a hidden camera inside the stage .  Their performance seems shot from the handheld camera of the crowd watching them.  The Mau Maus are only ever shot from a seemingly low quality device, so that it seems someone is hiding in their midst.  Recording their conversations. They are only filmed from the “objective” POV when auditioning for to be the house band of the minstrel show.

Pierre’s monologue at the beginning is to an audience that, he claims, is not doing a very good job of watching.  The theme of observation is repeated several times in the film as Manray and Wamock are asked to watch a video of an old minstrel show, as Sloan orders Delacroix to watch a montage of minstrel shows and The Mau Maus stream live internet video of Manray tap dancing as guns are shot at him until he is finally murdered on camera.  Earlier as Sloan, Manray and Wamock watch the minstrel show on CNS, they don’t recognize their performance.  What was intended to be satire of a racist form of entertainment suddenly becomes unrecognizable to the participants.  Control has already been lost.  Satire superseded itself.  But through it all there’s this spectacle being filmed, being watched.

When I spoke about “spectacle” earlier, there was a close cousin to the word that I feel is important as well: “spectre”. Because something not only watches people in the movie, something is haunting the movie.  The abrupt changes in camera style are not only switches in style but in placement.  We don’t just see Manray and Womack early in the movie performing in a wide shot.  We see them before the performance in what appears to be a camera hiding in the dance floor that they’re rolling out to perform on.  It hides in the recording studio as The Mau Maus speak about their new album.  What is watching everyone?  I’ll get back to that.


Spike Lee - HeadStuff.org
Spike Lee

Too much review there.  But it was necessary.  You see, I needed to set all these things up that I felt were present after watching the movie several times.  Bamboozled, honestly, needs reflection.  It’s not just trying to “say something” about race.  That, in itself, would be a simpler movie.  It’s describing a phenomenon independent of race.  An entity that was created out of the exploitative nature of the minstrel show that comes from a not too distant past, which a lot of people, a majority of the time (myself included) think has passed.  Has faded into that block of impenetrable solid wood that is “THE PAST”.  But it just played below the radar.  Snuck into our daily 9-to-5.  A review might place Bamboozled into one court or the other.  There are some very nice moments, but also things that seemed awkward, needed work.

I don’t think Lee sought to make art.  He’s made Malcolm X, he’s made Old Boy, he’s made She.  Art is not a problem.  The movie was a vessel for a message.  I talked about all the different aspects Lee put into the movie, the different elements of pop culture, cartoons, commercials, stage performance.  The movie has a slight vaudevillian underlayer to it where I’m not sure if it even wants to be taken seriously.  It has, what Mikhail Bahktin would call “the carnivalesque” in full play.  In Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, centrifugal forces are in full play.  The centripetal forces of culture that define the good and noble are overturned and words lose their definitive nature.  They are reshaped again and again and again.  High is low.  The tables over turned.  The fool is king.  I finished Bamboozled and I’m anxious because I have no idea what to think.

So, I have to reflect on what just happened.  And I have to reflect from where I’m at.  Not what the movie was saying.   To think less about the movie and more about the person watching it, me.  Me being a white middle class male.  How do I see the movie?

I make it personal because that’s the trick Spike Lee is pulling.  That’s the baggage that I’m meant to confront, which was a stumbling black to a lot of white viewers in Do the Right Thing.  The pull I felt was that if black people in the movie were laughing at the blackface, THEN I could laugh too.  But they were being watched, too.  They were part of the show too.  The show is the film.  So who is watching the film?  Or, better yet, who is the film meant for?

Feed the bank

Damon Wayans (Delacroix) in Bamboozled - HeadStuff.org
Damon Wayans (Delacroix) in Bamboozled

Let’s go back to the spectre.  The entity that watches the film from crooked angles, or watches from the dolly carrying the dancing floor, or spies on Dunwitty and Delacroix’s meeting from some corner in the room. It watches Delacroix father, June Bug, performing stand-up.  And it watches everyone as they watch the public execution of Manray.  As they are all confronted with the terrifying reality of a past not fully addressed.  One that was quickly covered in an attempt to rush social progress without addressing all the loose ends.

I see it in the shallow liberal vocabulary I espouse, yet know not the deeper ideologies behind the words I use.  An example: race relations, another great vocabulary word.  One that James Baldwin long ago called absolutely absurd.  I don’t think about it when I use it and I think it’s “a great idea”.  When Baldwin says that human beings aren’t races, I whole-heartedly agree.  Of course, I don’t think about what that means because I can’t see race. I can’t see the reality that others are forced to go through because the daily privilege I enjoy through a lucky gene pool draw, a fortunate heritage with a lighter tone of skin.  In fact, I question whether it’s possible to see outside race.  (That’s why when I use the word “we”, it is specifically myself and other people with this particular visual/interpretative impairment that I refer to.)

I’m thinking of this spectre as I say all of this.  The best example of it might be the gift the Sloan gives to Delacroix after the initial success of the minstrel show’s first episode.  A turn of the century piggy bank shaped like a caricature of a black man with a hand held out.  Sloan places a coin in its hand, pulls a lever and the bank “feeds itself” the coin.  Delacroix, in two more scenes, will “feed” the bank.  As an idle curiosity at first, but, in one of later scenes of the movie, the bank suddenly begins to feed itself.  Delacroix watches it in horror.  An inanimate object created as paraphernalia from an industry designed to reinforce ideologies of racist white hegemony and black subjectification suddenly develops life of its own life.

The idiotbox, the unempty room and the past undealt with

If you’ve seen the movie, remember at the beginning of the move that Delacroix also refers to “feeding”, what he calls, “the idiotbox”.  “The idiotbox” is television, entertainment.  A phrase he picked up from his father, who has been marginalized because he refused to participate in the industry because of moral degeneration, he perceives, would be suffered by his own art in doing so.  What is meant to be satire (and satire is defined so specifically at the beginning, isn’t it?), a brutal response to the industry in which Delacroix works, becomes one that he, in fact, lovingly thrives in.  One in which he finally receives the undue praise that he always felt he deserved.  But, his father might’ve said, at what cost?  The blackfaced characters meant to incense audiences become strange apparitions, reifications of a supposedly dead past revealed as fully alive and thriving.  Pierre did nothing but bring up what was already there.  The past not fully addressed, but when it is brought to light, those connected to it receive irreparable harm.

The past not dealt with, not addressed, will eventually come to light.

The message carries.  Be careful of what you embrace, it says.

Its message, for me, was especially problematic.  Question what you like and why you like it because the very tastes, the very proclivities that you enjoy are, in some cases, examples of your privilege to laugh, to separate yourself from the rest of the world.  Oblivious in a whites-only room.  You carry privilege and, whether you know or not, wield it with everything you do.

If only there could be a bank that illustrated that.

Another message that emerged for me as I reflected on the movie: “conscience is an ethical act”.  How you conduct yourself will affect those around you.  That old maxim “Know thyself” was never more true.

Damon Wayans as Pierre Delacroix in Spike Lee's Bamboozled - HeadStuff.org
Damon Wayans as Pierre Delacroix in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled

The final victim claimed by the spectre is Delacroix himself.  He shoots himself in the stomach and as he dies quotes the author James Baldwin: “People pay for what they do and do more for what they have allowed themselves to become and they pay for it very simply by the lives they lead.”  Baldwin frequently espoused racial problems as an ignorance of history.  But also, he emphasized that holding a certain belief deeply affects one’s own ontological status.  Thinking that I am superior because of my skin is just as bad, if not more horrific, to my own being than thinking that I am inferior for the same reason.

To jump off a section of Baldwin’s speech at a 1986 National Press Club Meeting, it is as if people walked into a room where they had all been part of something terrible years and years ago with the scars still present on the walls, with dried blood still staining the carpet.  Some had shed the blood.  Others had caused the bloodshed.  And some had just watched.  But it is as if people walked into a room and acted as if the thing that happened were over.  That after it stopped everything was fine.  No hard feelings.  As if not talking about it would be the end of it.

But the room had never been empty.  Something had been watching it all that time.  Standing in the corner.  Feeding itself silver dollars over and over and over.  And when the silver dollars were gone, it kept feeding itself.  Waiting and waiting and waiting for someone to find it and call its name.  And it will return again with a vengeance (just as it does every time) because it hates, more than anything, being ignored.




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