In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
This week, we take a look at Spike Lee’s criminally undeserved dark comedy, Bamboozled.
cw/ discussions of racism & depictions of racism.
“Satire. 1a. A literary work in which human vice or folly is ridiculed or attacked scornfully. B. The branch of literature that composes such work. 2. Irony, derision or caustic wit used to attack or expose folly, vice or stupidity.”Bamboozled, (Lee, 2020)
This is the monologue that opens Spike Lee’s turn-of-the-millennium dark comedy Bamboozled, a film so interestingly of the turn-of-the-century zeitgeist yet still has every bit the punch and spark that it did back then 20 years ago. It’s still every bit as politically sharp, edgy, difficult, and provocative as it was, and it’s getting somewhat of an appraisal now outside of the furor that surrounded it at the time just as Spike Lee is becoming again one of America’s most beloved filmmakers. Honestly? More power to him.
Bamboozled follows Damon Wayans as Pierre Delacroix, one of many parodies of whiteness in the film. Everything from his voice to his name to his mannerisms take the culturally accepted idea of a ‘proper white person’ and blow it up, in a demonstration of performativity. His boss at the TV agency on the other hand, is whiteness gone to seed. As someone born with privilege he never has to try to keep up appearances, and this forms the central conflict of the film. How do white people today think about race when they are born with privilege, blissfully unaware of oppression, and is it any different now than it ever was? The answers may surprise you, then again, perhaps not.
The plot of the film is thus; after Mr. Delacroix is told by his whiter than plain bread boss that his work isn’t appealing to the right audience, (he, of course, says this in the most racially tactless way possible), decides to go for the jugular of American culture. A word that gets thrown around a lot in media is the concept of “art terrorism”. The earliest example I can find on Google of the term is a video which comes with this description;
“The video features the representatives of Belarusian culture: artists, curators, owners of galleries, poets propagating notions connected with contemporary art. Everybody is wearing balaclavas; it may be the desperate gesture aiming at attracting the viewer’s attention to concepts of contemporary art.”Video Art Terrorism, (Shabohin, 2011)
The earliest I heard it was in a review by Mark Kermode of, I think, Bride Wars, but I cannot be bothered to check. The meaning in both cases seems to be broadly the same and it’s what I take it to mean, a piece of art that is capable of being seen by the middle class bourgeois that will attack their ideas and deeply challenge their artistic sensibilities. So, how does Mr. Delacroix do a piece of art terrorism? He attempts to put on a modern recreation of a minstrel show. He describes it as a mirror held up to society. He puts together a writer’s room of all white people full of racial microaggressions yet covertly writes the pilot himself. He’s really convinced that this is going to be a success… then the unthinkable inevitability happens… his whitebread boss rewrites his script, takes all the satire out, and just leaves it as a blatant recreation of the minstrel show.
It’s a hit. Delacroix goes along with it for the sake of saving face.
Here we see the confluence of a few key themes in the movie, mainly, the blatant framing of the film as satirical. At one point in the movie Delacroix’s father asks him where he got his accent from. His accent, by the way, is absolutely ridiculous. If you’re not expecting it, Wayan’s performance can be bracingly strange, but sharp eyed viewers will see how Lee is playing not only with race but race identification in this movie. Delacroix is working so hard to be part of upper class, white corporate culture, especially that of his TV studio, (which only makes the laissez faire attitude of his boss more of a pointed critique of privilege), so when he is faced with a choice to perpetuate privilege or stand by the things he wants to say within the system…the choice he makes was made before the film started. It’s also interesting that he goes on radio stations and still defends it as satire, especially coming into the 2000s and the rise of ironic racism… God, it just makes so much sense and is so prophetic. Another way that Bamboozled is prophetic is that it questions the idea of a post-racial America before we even really had the term post-racial, and before Get Out made that such a zietgeist issue for the mainstream white media. The whole thesis of the movie is that American racial politics has hardly at all, if at all, moved on from the era that birthed the minstrel shows. He makes the point wonderfully.
Another way that Lee weaves the dual themes of racial identification with racial politics and activism is with the makeup of the radical activist cell whose terrorist actions propel the movie towards it’s climax. These are people who, instead of Delacroix, who wants to make change within the system and fails, work outside of the system and outside of mainstream white morality. They also have a seemingly white member, which no one really brings up, and they include him in their conversations of blackness, which is curious, especially as a choice by Spike Lee. When the terrorist cell gets arrested and they cart him off it all makes sense as he shouts at the top of his lungs about “one drop of blood”, the law that enshrined into America’s legal system that just one drop of blood from a black person in your heritage makes you black. It was a white nationalist idea then and it is now. That being said, in a spoiler free way, when the cops go in, they treat him like a white person. In this way Lee dually highlights both the ridiculousness of the ‘one drop of blood’ principle but also viciously attacks police brutality.
Satire indeed Mr. Lee.
So, how does Lee utilise this idea of satire? Why does he frame his film explicitly as satire from the start? It’s not as Lee hasn’t done blatant satire before unframed, just see the masterpiece that is Chi-Raq for more. I would say that Chi-Raq isn’t explicitly attacking racists in the way that Bamboozled is, and satire of racists has a habit of being, well, co-opted by racists. We see films that more explicitly frame racism as ridiculous stand better. Spike Lee’s first point, satire being a critique of human folly, is just obviously what Bamboozled is. The second point, a heightened attack, is one hundred percent Bamboozled as well. It’s what allows Wayan’s performance to be so ridiculous, it’s what allows the ‘one drop of blood’ subplot, it’s what allows Lee to truly hold up a mirror to society in a way that Delacroix utterly fails at. Lee also works in with his satire a complimentary sense of tragedy that provides the bitterness of coffee to the sugar that goes in it.
To conclude with context. With Sean Baker’s film Tangerine he said that his choice of filming medium, a mobile phone was the tool that enabled him to get the film made because of his subject matter, he wouldn’t be able to raise the budget otherwise. While Tangerine is not an explicitly political film, the central characters in that film are black, transgender, sex workers, and really, just humanising those characters is an inherently political act in cinema. Therefore the fact that this is how he had to get the film made, and then even then the choice of camera, is inherently political. In the same way it is relevant that Lee used such low grade digital cameras two years before 28 Days Later. Lee got a lot of flack for making a movie that even just touched this subject matter, so I can’t even imagine how pitching it around for funding would have gone. The fact is that the film has to look and behave stylistically the way it does just to exist, and really, isn’t the fact that people felt compelled to tell Spike motherfucking Lee how to be an activist in his cinema just proving the point that he set out to make?