In his essay “Racist Ideology and the Media,” Stuart Hall analyzes the way racist ideologies are created, reproduced and distributed by the media. Spike Lee deals with the same subject in his controversial 2000 film “Bamboozeled” a complex satire that details the heady rise and bloody fall of a modern minstrel show, and makes a powerful argument about the portrayal of race in the media today. Stuart Hall would likely find many of his ideas supported by the film, but he would also likely challenge some of Lee’s racial portrayals as reinforcing rather than questioning of stereotypes.
My post will focus on Hall’s distinction between “overt” and “inferential” racism. Overt racism is found in media portrayals that advance an “openly racist argument” policy or point of view. Inferential racism is characterized by invisibility – racial portrayals appear as natural, as a “set of unquestioned assumptions” that allow racist portrayals or statements to go unrecognized or unchallenged by the audience (Hall 162).
The main character in “Bamboozeled” is Pierre Delacroix, a Harvard-educated black man working as a television writer for the network CNS. All of Delacroix’s attempts to create shows featuring intelligent, middle-class black people are vehemently rejected by his white boss. Hopeless, Delacroix decides to create a satirical show so racist that he will be fired and released from his contract, allowing him to work for a different network that supports his goals of portraying black people in a positive light. But instead of shocking his superiors and the public, the show is an immediate success. The popular reception surprises Delacroix but would not have similarly affected Hall, who would have seen the minstrel show as legitimating racist notions of the inferiority of black people and their role as the “slave-figure” and “entertainer” (Hall 164). Hall would have interpreted the show’s overt racism as giving public relief from the tension of remaining “politically correct,” allowing them to release suppressed racist assumptions and ideologies, as he states, “it is the very fact that such things can now be openly said and advocated which legitimates their public expression and increases the threshold of the public acceptability of racism” (Hall 162).
It is interesting to consider the way might unpack the elements of overt and inferential racism in Lee’s film as a whole. Most fruitful in exploring this are the scenes in which Pierre Delacroix interacts with his tactless white boss, Thomas Dunwitty, who exemplifies overt racism. Dunwitty insists on calling Delacroix a “nigger,” mimics black speech, and urges Delacroix to “dig deep into his pain as a negro.” We are clearly meant to cringe at Dunwitty’s jovial, unabashed racism. But there is another racial portrayal in these scenes that is much less prominent, present but never explicitly stated: that of Jews. The portrayal of Jews in this movie is an excellent example of inferential racism – stereotypical and derogatory but deemphasized, subtle. In “the pitch” scene, Dunwitty states, “I’m all ears, and my nose is a close second.” Later, after a particularly racist episode is a hit, he declares “Mazel Tov!” He later brings in Jewish media consultant Myrna Goldfarb, who is presented as an ignorant, hypocritical, racist elitist who pathetically tries to appear politically correct (“my parents walked with Dr. King in Selma” and “I’ll have you know I have a degree in African-American from Yale”).
Lee’s picture of the Jew is strikingly different from the satirical but sympathetic portrayals of blacks in this movie, which frames blacks as underdogs and invites members of the audience to align themselves with them. By contrast, the portrayal of Jews in this film perpetuates the anti-semetic trope of Jewish greed, racism (especially toward blacks), elitism, and of Jews as selfish media giants who will stop at nothing to make money. Stuart would likely argue that while this film is a wake-up call to Americans to recognize the negative portrayals of blacks in the media, it does nothing to challenge stereotypical portrayals of Jews, in fact, it reinforces them in a powerful way. At the end of film, we are left with a bad taste in our mouths for the American media industry, and by extension, for its most visible representative – the Jew.
In this clip from the movie “Stick It” (2006), Wei Wei Yong shocks the white judges and audience with her “very original” (a.k.a. racial) routine. She mixes her gymnastics tricks with dance moves to the sexually suggestive song “Come Baby Come” by the Latin freestyle trio TKA. While her white teammates “scratch” their routines in protest by cutely revealing their bra straps, Wei Wei Yong (the only gymnast of color) chooses this moment to rebel against – and entertain – her white audience with some bolder racial sass. In Hall’s “grammar of race,” Wei Wei is the “entertainer,” putting on a show that simultaneously shocks and amuses the “other” (Hall 169). Wei Wei’s child-like, puzzled facial expressions make her the simple, stupid “slave-figure,” her dance moves are evidence of her “racially innate” sense of rhythm, and the song choice brings explicit racialized sexuality to the forefront of her performance (Hall 169).