Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

The Use of Spike Lee's Bamboozled to Promote Difficult Dialogues on Race

Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

The Use of Spike Lee's Bamboozled to Promote Difficult Dialogues on Race

Article excerpt

This paper, which is the outgrowth of a presentation at UMass Boston's Center for the Improvement of Teaching (CIT) Annual Conference on Teaching for Transformation held in 2008, will explore pedagogical strategies for using feature films to stimulate thoughtful discourse about race in the college classroom. We have selected Spike Lee's cinematic coup Bamboozled as the focus of this paper because of its frontal assault on the use of racial stereotypes in the communications media. (1)

Experience has shown us that a teacher's attempts to kindle discussion about difficult sociopolitical issues often result in students going into "silent mode." Alternatively, a bedlam can erupt in which everyone's talking and no one's listening. The combined use of film excerpts, writing exercises and classroom discussion can help students to thoughtfully develop and express their responses to complex issues about race in American society.

Feature films that deal with racial issues tend to make use of racial stereotyping in two basic ways: (1) the deconstruction of racial stereotypes and (2) the exploitation of racial stereotypes for their entertainment value. Spike Lee's Bamboozled is an intricate blend of both. The film has a clever story line. An African-American television writer, Pierre Delacroix (referred to as "De La"), pilots a minstrel show for the new millennium, replete with such "three dimensional" blackface characters as Man Tan, Sleep 'n' Eat, and Aunt Jemima. De La's initial intention was to excite popular outrage so that he could get himself fired from the station and thus be rid of a job he is tired of. To De La's surprise, however, the show becomes a huge success and the popular outcry against it is largely ignored. De La and the African-American entertainers he's recruited from the street, Manray and Womack, thus become twenty-first century promulgators of the crassest form of racial stereotyping of American blacks as lazy, ignorant, self-effacing buffoons. The film ends violently with explosions of rage directed towards De La and his key performer, the talented tap dancer dubbed Man Tan.

Cynthia Lucia's analysis of the film poses two probing questions: "To what degree do viewers participate in the very processes they are positioned by the film to criticize? And to what degree does the film, itself, participate in the very processes it seeks to expose?" (2) On the one hand, the film educates the viewer about the very explicit derogatory stereotypes of African-Americans initiated during the era of the minstrel shows (mid-19th and to early 20th century) and sustained, as Spike Lee pointed out at a recent talk at Northeastern University, until the present day. (3) The story line requires that the newly recruited street performers be made to understand the motifs of the minstrel era, and so De La and his sleek assistant Sloane instruct them while simultaneously deepening their own understanding of the genre. We see documentary footage of tap dancers from the Deep South, vintage footage of Amos 'n' Andy, and animated cartoons, as well as numerous dolls and figurines that display the shiny black faces, wide eyes and red lips of the comical stereotype of the African-American. Likewise, Lee shows us the complex emotional responses of the performers who must "black up" before going on stage. On the other hand, Lee creates a highly entertaining pageant of traditional minstrel show entertainment. So the students viewing excerpts from the film must sort out a maze of apparently contradictory signals about racial stereotyping.

Our strategy is to begin the classroom exercise by showing the archival footage at the film's conclusion, an excerpt of about three and a half minutes. As De La lies ex-sanguinating on the floor of his luxury condo, the audience is treated to the pastiche of traditional racial stereotypes he has been viewing on his VCR: movie cartoons from the first half of the twentieth century, excerpts of racist feature films like Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer, documentary footage of soft shoe and tap from the era of the advent of film, newsreels of watermelon-eating contests, and the like. …

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