A postmodernism of resistance.... seeks to question rather than exploit cultural codes, to explore rather than conceal social and political affiliations.
"You must never be a misrepresented people." Stevie Wonder
Although Spike Lee's film Bamboozled, released in 2000, (1) surprised and shocked many viewers while thrilling others, it may well be considered, eventually, one of his most significant contributions to film and to the study of race in the late twentieth century. Its controversy stems from acknowledgment that Lee's films tend to be political criticisms of racism, yet with confusion over whether or not Bamboozled articulates a clear political position. Understanding the film is aided by placing it in the context of postmodernism, an approach not yet applied to Bamboozled nor to the bulk of Lee's work. (2) A question that plagued postmodernism early on, which has since been addressed, asked whether or not postmodernism can be political. Theorists such as Hal Foster and Linda Hutcheon registered a resounding "yes," and the cultural theorists Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and bell hooks have demonstrated its political relevance to the issues of race and gender, work that has continued in a new generation of theorists such as that of Russell Potter. It is in the context of the political importance of postmodernism that I offer this analysis of Bamboozled, claiming that it is best understood in the context of a postmodern analysis, and that, though postmodern, it strikes with political impact, as do Spike Lee's earlier films.
Clockers and Enlightenment Modernist Thinking
In appreciating Bamboozled as a political postmodern film, it helps to first contrast it to another film of Lee's, Clockers, (3) which relies instead on the political assumptions of modernism and emancipatory enlightenment thinking. Enlightenment thinking, and its culmination in modernist thinking, values the individual as the source of reason and will, and therefore of ethical and political activity. Clockers is centered on one individual, Ronnie, caught by the limiting and degrading material conditions of the projects in which he lived. Various dialectics are set up, also common to this framework, between whites and blacks, cops and teenage males, and hardened, violent older men against captured, compliant, younger men.
Ronnie's character expresses the tension of these binaries by stepping at once into the requirements the condition makes on him (selling drugs) although being ill-at-ease with this activity, represented by his constant stomach aches: his head/mind/will is at war with what his guts tell him. With this tension we witness the individual caught in a struggle of will. As per enlightenment modernist thinking, the individual, Ronnie, holds something of himself in reserve: universal human qualities that are necessarily in excess of those influenced, or determined, by the limiting material conditions.
This reserve is represented in the film by Ronnie's love of trains, a representation that expresses two important elements of his character. First, he is fascinated by trains. He keeps an elaborate model train set up in the center of his living space, he studies the history of trains, collects videos on trains, and wears a T-shirt emblazened with trains. Friends make slight kidding comments about his love, but primarily Ronnie's love of trains exists in a private sphere, and his friends respect that privacy. In befriending a young boy, Ronnie lets him into this private world, sharing with him the train set and the knowledge he holds on the subject. Ronnie's love of trains represents something not determined by the conditions of the projects. As in enlightenment modernist thinking, an individual is not determined by his environment, but exhibits qualities universal to all humans: autonomy and personal will. (4) Near the end of the film's narrative, Ronnie offers the boy his train set, wishing to pass on this individual reserve (love). …