Film & Media Studies Theory

Whitman College – FMS 387

An Snobbish East Coast Boarding School’s (but actually a culture theorist’s) Take on Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled”

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According to his writings, cultural theorist Stuart Hall would have seen Spike Lee’s Bamboozled as an exaggerated yet effective means of demonstrating the hold that “inferential racism,” or the “apparently naturalized representations of events and situations related to race,” has on our society (162).

Lee’s film is centered around a television show entitled Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, a weekly variety show starring African American actors in blackface performing boorish acts and supposedly lampooning racial stereotypes. Originally designed by its creator, Pierre Delacroix, a black film executive, to be unpalatable to any audience due to its extremely racist content, the show somehow gets picked up by the network and becomes an overnight sensation, becoming popular with people of all demographics, but also inspiring an expected negative response.

This sudden popularity, as Hall would argue, is due to the “grammar of race,” specifically the  “base-image” of “the clown,” an entertainer who pokes fun at his own race by “putting on a show for others” (164). Creating a situation where the performer is acknowledging his own race and its racial stereotypes in order to create humor, however, as Hall writes “it is never clear whether [the audience] is laughing with or at” the entertainer, leaving much room from interpretation (164).

In Bamboozled, the implication is that the audience is doing both, laughing at the buffoonery of the characters on stage but at the same time identifying with them, as evidenced by the number of people (including people of all races) who attend the show’s taping in blackface and proclaim themselves loudly (and in horribly racist accents) to be “n*****s.” For Pierre and the audience, the show’s “modern and glossed up images” of racist representations and performances allow the audience to “put the old world of [racism] behind them” and allow them to feel a form of identification with black culture (165).

However, this is a false identification, as Hall argues the “white eye is always outside the frame,” as the identifiers (“rhythmic grace [and] expressivity,” along with childlikeness, boorishness and over-excited-ness) are not actual representations of black culture, but rather “unquestioned assumptions” formulated during a long passed era that have been “naturalized” overtime (163, 162). Additionally, the “white eye” serves to “position” the characters on stage, meaning those traits that “the clown” is acknowledging are not in fact actual, racial identifiers of his race, but rather pre-assigned and “naturalized” assumptions (163, 162).Therefore, the audience cannot identify with the material in the manner they seek, and instead identify only with their ideological norms.

Spike Lee even uses personification to demonstrate the “white eye” in the form of Thomas Dunwitty, the white executive responsible for green-lighting Mantan, and claims to be “more of a brother” than Pierre because he has a black wife and two multi-racial children. During the final taping of the show, Dunwitty shown in blackface, viewing the proceedings from the control room; when things go awry, his muffled voice can be heard cursing through the glass. Despite his efforts to identify with the show’s content (wearing blackface) he cannot, as he is physically watching through a window and behind glass, and metaphorically left “outside [of] the frame” (163).

Clearly Spike Lee’s Bamboozled demonstrates the hold that “inferential racism” has on our society by illuminating that racial comedy is one of the more insidious means by which racism remains in our twenty-first century society, and illustrating the ways that the “white eye” influences our societies understanding of race (162, 163).

Also my example:

Dave Chappelle’s Comedy Central show was literally cancelled because Chappelle realized that no matter what he did his show only reenforced racist stereotypes and inferential racism in America and ran off to Jamaica. Thus, I give you my example.


One thought on “An Snobbish East Coast Boarding School’s (but actually a culture theorist’s) Take on Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled”

  1. LOVE the suggestion that Dunwitty serves as the embodiment of the “white eye” — perfect.

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