Michael Epp and Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled”

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Author: Bryan S. Ghingold


In his article “Raising Minstrelsy: Humor, Satire and the Stereotype in The Birth of a Nation and Bamboozled,” one of the things Michael Epp discusses is Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled (2000) in the context of three different scholarly views on minstrelsy. The first view by W.T. Lhamon asserts that there is a positive spin to minstrelsy because it “popularized and preserved African-American folk tales, songs, and gestures” (Epp 18). Lhamon does not defend minstrelsy as appropriate, but he condemns viewing it as unequivocally racist, because such a view ignores its cultural importance and contribution to the black experience. Lhamon also insists that minstrelsy afforded African-American actors to display their talent, albeit in the capacity of a minstrel show. The next scholarly view Epp explores exists in direct contrast to Lhamon’s view, and comes from Michael Rogin, who believes that blackface and minstrelsy serve no purpose as a tool of preserving culture and custom, and that its blatant racism and prejudice “prevents self-representation” amongst African-Americans (19). The final scholarly view Epp discusses belongs to Homi Bhabha, who offers the closest thing to a middle ground between Lhamon and Rogin. Bhabha recognizes the power of stereotypes to undermine themselves and combat discrimination via reflexive humor (19).


Epp applies these three very different philosophies to his study of satire in Bamboozled. He applies Lhamon’s view of minstrelsy as somewhat positive when he analyzes Pierre Delacroix’s (Damon Wayans) proposal for the Mantan minstrel show. “Delacroix ironically notes in his pitch [to the network execs] that Mantan will bring ‘a very American tradition of American entertainment into the new millennium” (26). This satire relies on Lhamon’s assertion that minstrelsy served as a method of preserving and promoting black culture. He applies Rogin’s negative view of minstrelsy when he talks about the studio reception to the idea for a new-millennium minstrel show. Delacroix’s boss, Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) is excited at the notion of a new age minstrel show because he knows the degradation of the blackface stereotype and the humiliation it will cause the black performers are both profitable spectacles. In this way, his character (himself a stereotype) embodies everything the Rogin philosophy warns against. Finally, the Bhabha philosophy of letting the stereotypes be their own downfall comes into play when Epps discusses how the film criticizes the television industry for profiting on something that is a detriment to African American advancement. Epps writes,


The narrative’s criticism of the television industry is focused on the issue of satire. This form is disingenuously invoked by the network…to make money off jokes that reinforce entertainment’s desire for the securing of white privilege (27).


Epps goes on to explain the difference between the narrative message and the film’s actual message in two ways. The first difference between the two messages is in the types of satire; saying that the diegetic satire of Mantan (Savion Glover) is cynical (or actually, non-existent), whereas the non-diegetic satire of the film is genuine (reflexive). The second difference is in the types of address. Epps feels that the Mantan audience in the diegetic narrative do not resist or think deeply, but rather accept what is put before them (the minstrel show). Lee’s address to the spectator of the film however, assumes our ability to resist, to question, and to feel uncomfortable (28).


The absence of satire is just as important a device to Bamboozled for shock and social statement as satire itself. One of the most uncomfortable scenes in the film that utilizes the lack of satire to make its point is at the end of the film when Mantan quits, and Honeycutt (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) takes over, dressed as Abe Lincoln in blackface. After doing a minstrel dance move, he moves into the studio audience, who are all colored in blackface, and begins asking random people “ is you a nigger?” He asks an elderly white woman, who replies in her deepest voice “yessiree bob! Darn tootin’ I’m a nigger!” Honeycutt then asks a young white man, who replies in a frantic stereotyped slave voice “ Oh Honeycutt… you be nigger, you be nigger! (Incoherent mumbling) Let’s be nigger together!” He asks a Puerto Rican woman, an Italian man, and a black woman. What makes the scene uncomfortable is how happily and greedily they all want to belong to this “club” not out of admiration for black people or black culture, but because they like watching this detriment to black culture as a form of entertainment. They are laughing at the minstrels, not with them.


Another scene that uses the absence of satire to really drive home an uncomfortable point is at the end when Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith) puts on a VHS tape for Pierre; a compilation reel of various minstrel-like characters throughout American entertainment history. This is, of course, more for us the film’s spectator than it is for Pierre, to remind us of our own less-than-perfect past. It calls into question our authority and our license to laugh at what the film presented to us as “funny.” The clip reel shows various live action and animated minstrel characters and caricatures of black people. Many of the animated black characters resembled monkeys, were missing teeth, and were behaving in a less than human manor. Many of the live action minstrel characters were dancing, doing slapstick, or running from white oppressors. The reel ends with a montage of black characters owning a position of subordination to their (usually off screen) white masters by saying “yes master,” “yes ma’am,” etc.








Images taken from the internet used without permission for illustrative effect and not for profit





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