Blackface Minstrelsy and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (Pt. 1) – (Reading Day #2)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Blackface Minstrelsy and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (Pt. 1)

by T.N.

The following piece of writing (divided in two) was originally a paper I wrote for a seminar with Prof. Jared Sexton early 2010. It is also very much influenced by a seminar I took with Prof. Andrej Warminski on Hegel and Marx. I’ve since revised it for stylistic clarity and to seem a little more like blog posts. I’ve also added images, for fun. They’re all screenshots from the film. I strongly urge everyone to see this film before reading; I’m sure these blog posts will make no sense otherwise. Finally, I’m sure I don’t have to say it, but this is academic writing which attempts to understand the ways in which blackface and racial stereotype elude our philosophical and political grasps; it is in no way an affirmation of blackface as something that’s even remotely OK to do. Obviously, maybe?

“Blackface Minstrelsy and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled: A Hegelianism Without Reserve” (Pt. 1)

Savion Glover as Manray,as Mantan of Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show.
This piece begins with a comment made by Kara Keeling in her meditative essay on Spike Lee’s Bamboozled [2000] and the digital image: “For me,” she writes, “the feeling of working with Bamboozled is akin to what I imagine it might be like to wade through a pool of shit that keeps getting deeper with every advance into it” (243). More than a hyperbolic judgment about a hyperbolically judgmental film, I wish to extend this line of thought and seriously consider Bamboozled as something like shit—as waste, and as irrecuperable loss. I want to read Bamboozled as a pool of waste that leaves no untainted position available for the viewer or critic. Specifically, the film “works most profoundly and effectively on the levels of excess and affect” (Keeling 243), and I wish to reflect on the logic of this excess, arguing for the reading of this waste as excess. This is an excess, I will argue, that persists in the film as a contrast to a humanist ideology based on a progressive unfolding of self-consciousness. Keeling’s essay, “Passing for Human,” points to how the Black—abstractly—has traditionally been considered to exist outside of this unfolding of consciousness in time. What I wish to do is to supplant this insight by looking to how the film presents and exploits the fundamentally dialectical nature of blackface minstrelsy against itself, stalling the progression of the dialectics towards self-consciousness.
According to Keeling, Bamboozled’s use of digital video and animation brings to the forefront a critique of the medium of film’s claims to be an indexical medium by interlacing older film-archive footage of blackness with digital video and computer-generated animation (for instance, in the Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show opening introduction and the scene where the “Jolly N—– Bank” is animated as a moving object). Keeling points to a crucial connection made by the characters in Bamboozled between the CGI caricatures of the show’s characters and the older minstrel film images of Mantan Moreland (245). In this way, the “identity crisis” of the medium of film in the digital era (237) coincides with the critique of the indexical claims of minstrel images, and hence film’s purported capacity to felicitously represent blackness. Keeling’s reflections on Lee’s use of medium deftly draws a connection between the post-human figure of the digital and pre- or para-human figure of the African in Western Enlightenment thought.
Yet—there is always a “yet”—this film ultimately falls short in Keeling’s evaluation. She criticizes Bamboozled as it “ultimately attempts to recuperate and deploy a cultural humanist claim to cinematic representation” (247). In this account, if Bamboozled fails (and it does), this failure is to be understood as the result of a furtive humanism that Lee tries (and fails) to escape. Yet—again—at the same time, the film is criticized by other writers precisely for its lack of humanism. Cultural critic Greg Tate praises the film for its capacity to remind audience of the historical commodification of black bodies and black culture, but finds that the film stops short of offering an alternative; and so “the more complicated question of how one holds onto and enriches one’s humanity when one is reduced to a racial type by the powerful is a question the film largely eschews” (15). Bamboozled, according to Tate, criticizes the inhumanity of racial images, yet fails to offer an adequate account of how to be otherwise—i.e. how to be properly human. We can also read a variation of this criticism in the other major criticism of the film, namely, that the film is populated solely by “inhuman” stereotyped characters. Armond White, in this vein, sees Bamboozled as a politically regressive film and describes Spike Lee as a token “fly in the buttermilk” whose presence on the cinematic landscape eclipses other, more radical (and, no doubt, more politically coherent) filmmakers thinking about race (13). More specifically, White’s critique of the film’s political incoherency and shrill didactics is connected explicitly to the film’s lack of human characters: “None of Bamboozled’s characters present consistent human behavior. By confusing issues of showbiz representation and career ethics through his inherent inconsistency and apoplexy, Lee’s films hinder and exacerbate rather than clarify. He distorts the blackface topic so that viewers leave angered and perplexed” (White 13).  White’s critical insight should not be underestimated here: he explicitly highlights the connection between the absence of properly human behavior and the film’s inconsistency and opacity [1]. White’s criticism fails, however, in his initial assumption that we should contemplate and criticize blackface through the modes of clarity, consistency, congruence and calm.
Inhuman representation.
In contrasting these various critical receptions an interesting pattern emerges: Keeling’s critique of the film finds itself as the exact inverse of Tate and White. That is, criticism of Bamboozled tends to conclude that the film is either too humanistic, or not humanistic enough. Bamboozled is read as either excessive or inadequate, and though these two positions are radically opposed to one another, we can sense a strange congruency in their respective arguments. Ultimately, both positions agree that the film has missed the proper measure of humanity. What I aim to do in this paper is to account for the excessive or inadequate (which are, after all, two sides of the same) dimensions of Bamboozled, to attempt to grapple with the logic of a film that invites criticism from both those who would take a humanist position as well as those who would advocate a post- (or para-) humanist position.
Bamboozled begins with a voice-over defining satire, and satire is its reigning mode. “No one”—no one!—“is spared the lash of caricature and stereotype in this picture” writes W. J. T. Mitchell (301). Mitchell’s analysis of this film is crucial in its analysis of stereotype and the madness of images. This analysis proceeds from an examination of the paradoxically lifeless yet living nature of the stereotypical image, and the ways in which these images circulation across various media in the film. Quoting Spike Lee on the film (whose intention was first and foremost to have people “think about the power of images” [Lee 9]), Mitchell writes:
There’s a crucial equivocation in Lee’s remarks on images. He talks sometimes as if he had achieved a standpoint outside of the “madness” of images, the “distorted” images of film and television. And yet it there is one thing Bamboozled makes clear, it is just how difficult it is to find this critical standpoint, to achieve a “just estimation” of images that transcend distortion and madness. (301)
While Spike Lee himself intends to advance a humanist project that would critique the inhumanity of the stereotype, Mitchell points to the ways in which the power of blackface and racial stereotype exceeds all intentional control [2], with the consequence that no critical position is left which would not be a variation on a type already established in the film. The stereotype, in other words, persists “to exceed all the strategies of containment that are bought to bear on them—including Spike Lee’s own opinions about them” (303). This is made evident in the self-reflexivity of the film, centered on the analogy the film invites between Lee and Pierre Delacroix (played by Damon Wayans) as creators and token representatives of blackness in moving pictures [3]. We can see in the character of Sloan (played by Jada Pinkett Smith, “the most sympathetic and the most intelligent” character in the film by Lee’s own estimation [Lee 6]), that under every successful, smart and ambitious professional woman is a murderous woman hysterical over the loss of her man. Although Mitchell claims that “[t]he film insists throughout on a continuum between the mechanical figures and the flesh-and-blood individual . . . between the caricatures . . . and the characters” (306), his insight about the uncontrollable nature of stereotype deems it impossible to ever extricate the human characters from the lifeless caricatures that animates them.
Jada Pinkett Smith as Sloan Hopkins and Damon Wayans as Pierre Delacroix.
Expanding on W. J. T. Mitchell’s analysis of the uncontrollable nature of racist stereotyping in Bamboozled, I wish to propose an understanding of this uncontrollability as a direct effect of Spike Lee’s framing of blackface as a form of abstract negation that stalls the dialectical logic that is assumed to be inherent in normative accounts of racism and historical progress. The major insight of Bamboozled lies in its understanding—and its interruption—of the dialectical logic of blackface. Mitchell himself alludes to the dialectical nature of blackface when he writes that “The confirmation of the stereotype is thus usually accompanied by the disclaimer, ‘I have nothing against . . ., but . . .’ or ‘I am not a racist, but . . .’” (296). This insight acknowledges that some of the most pernicious forms of racism persist through their own negation. This affirmation-through-negation is the governing logic of the narrative of Bamboozled insofar as opposing racism within the film is not to escape it. The central narrative arc of the film, for instance, is ironic: Pierre Delacroix’s desire to produce a show intended to be so (critically and self-consciously) racist he would be fired has the opposite effect of producing a truly racist show that becomes incredibly successful and saves his career. To look at the level of satire, the Mau Maus in trying to establish a truly “Blak” culture contra the Mantan show come to embody the stereotype of murderous angry black radicals. And the most racist character of all, Dunwitty (played by Michael Rapaport), articulates his racism though—and not in spite of—his fervent identification with blackness. The overarching irony of the film lies in the fact that nobody in the film wants to be racist, and nobody in the film consciously hates blackness. At the same time, everybody is involved in practices that perpetuate antiblack racism. We could say that everything in Bamboozled collapses into its opposite; a sentiment supported formally by Lee’s use of digital video to shoot the diagetic world of the film while using 16mm film to shoot the scenes in the Mantan television show.
Of course, this situating of blackface as dialectical negation is not major innovation on the part of Spike Lee; rather, Lee is simply drawing on an established cinematic (and cultural) tradition that posits blackface as negation. The dialectics of cinematic blackface form the central narrative arc in the very first ‘talkie’ film, and the first film about blackface, The Jazz Singer (1926) [4]. In this film, blackface is not mobilized to turn the protagonist, Jack Robin (née Jakie Rabinowitz, played by Al Jolson), black, but rather to turn him white. In the words of cultural historian Michael Rogin, blackface is used in The Jazz Singer as a form of “cross-dressing,” which utilizes the logic of “I am not really black; underneath the burnt cork is a white skin” (103). This is significant for the film since blackface symbolically transforms the Jewish Jakie Rabinowitz into the white Jack Robin: “As a disguise, blackface capitalizes on identity as sameness; under burnt cork, the Jew could be gentile” (Rogin 102). According to Rogin’s analysis of the cultural logic of blackface, Jewish identity—previously grouped together with black identity in the American imaginary—becomes white through blackface. While burnt cork may turn a Jewish crooner black in external appearance, its function is to double back to affirm his essence as white. That is, the appearance of blackness for another serves to affirm an essential whiteness, or a whiteness for itself [5]. Within this logic, blackface marks a phenomenological moment of disavowal in which a subject realizes that appearance is not essence. In other words, blackface is never authentic, but this inauthenticity is not inert. Inauthenticity in this instance forms the basis for making determinate claims about the world, and ourselves within it.
Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer
The genius of Bamboozled—as well as its obsessional limit—lie in its continual and insistent return to this moment in progressive dialectics. That is, the film foregrounds the problem of the disjunction between appearance and essence—as exemplified by blackface—without allowing for this moment to be sublimated into a higher state of self-consciousness. Within the progressive system laid out in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, this is the moment at which consciousness, aware of the insubstantiality of appearances as being merely vanishing essences, reflects back on itself. In becoming aware that appearances are fleeting, consciousness can then become certain of itself as consciousness; in this way, consciousness leads logically and progressively to self-consciousness (Hegel §166-167). However, Spike Lee deliberately undermines the expected transition from the acknowledgement of appearance as appearance to the positive knowledge that appearance is not essence. Thus in a moment Keeling describes, Sloan, Manray and Womack watch a CGI animation of Mantan and Sleep ‘n’ Eat (Manray and Womack’s racist characters in the TV show), and the camera cuts between cartoon caricatures and the characters’ very concerned, and very human, expressions. In these types of scenes, prevalent throughout the film, characters are shot confronting caricatured or racist representations, placing representation and ostensive referent in constant conflict. At the same time, the film continually foregrounds its own status as representation, whether by having other characters comment on the Delacroix character’s artificiality, or by repeating certain shots for no explicable reason, or by its consistent intertextual allusions. This acknowledgment-as-disavowal extends, as well, to the rhetoric of humanism, as Dunwitty remarks: “And if by miracle the reverend Al ‘Do’ Sharpton shows up at my door, I’ll invite him in and we will discuss it like civil human beings” (emphasis added). If taken in isolation this statement is a straightforward advocacy of humanism, but coming as it does from the obviously racist Dunwitty, this statement makes apparent that such civil humanism is only an appearance.

Womack and Manray confront their own caricatures.
What this film enacts, then, is the liberation of the (historically situated) determined negation of blackface as the affirmation of (human) whiteness through presenting “black actors with blacker faces,” as Delacroix puts it. Blackface has been used historically to negate whiteness (and more recently to negate the human), and what this film does is to raise it to become a universal negation without content. Bamboozled introduces the possibility of a determinate negativity (blackface as the negation of whiteness) being an abstract negativity (blackface as simply negation) that stalls the phenomenological dialectic and thus prevents the advancement to higher form of self-consciousness. In the Hegelian system, a determinate negation has a specific content, and thus exists positively insofar as it gives rise to a new form of knowing. Indeterminate or abstract negation does not give rise to the new form of knowing, but leads instead to a perpetual skepticism: “The skepticism that ends up with the bare abstraction of nothingness or emptiness cannot get any further from there, but must wait to see whether something new comes along and what it is, in order to throw it too into the same empty abyss” (Hegel §79, emphasis added).
Thus while blackface is regularly decried as being dehumanizing, in Bamboozled blackface is not the negation of the human nor of humanism. For one, the creators of the Mantan show, from Sloan to Dunwitty (to Spike Lee himself), espouse the rhetoric of humanism. Meanwhile, the most human moments of the film, in my estimation at least, occurs when Womack is in blackface either literally in burnt cork, in the scene where he is seen crying (“real tears,” according to the director’s audio commentary), or when he puts on the dumb face of minstrelsy one last time in his final confrontation with Manray. This is not to say that blackface is not negative, quite the opposite: it is relentlessly negative throughout the film, though we can never tell what it is the negation of.
Michael Rapaport as Thomas Dunwitty
Abrupt end of part one. Part two (including bibliography) soon to follow.
[1] In fact, one could say that White’s critical insight exceeds his own intent. In the final sentence quoted an ironic dynamic is highlighted, whereby blackface is a topic that is not in itself angering or perplexing; instead, White implies that anger and perplexion as a response to Bamboozled is a result of Lee’s “distort[ing]” of the topic. It seems as though the act of looking at blackface without distortion—that is, contrasting its dehumanizing effects with human characters in a coherent manner—would not produce anger or perplexity in the audience. Of course, the question then becomes whether such a calm and collected reaction was intended, or, indeed, desirable.
[2] On the impossibility of intentionally controlling the semiotic reception of blackface within the context of US race-relations, see also Ayanna Thompson’s “The Blackface Bard: Returning to Shakespeare or Leaving Him?” In this article, Thompson weighs in on the debate as to whether contemporary productions of Othello should utilize blackface since the titular role was originally intended for a white actor. Thompson then looks to the histories of contemporary artistic productions of blackface, including Bamboozled, as well as recent court rulings involving blackface. Drawing the common thread between these disparate instances, Thompson argues that in our culture, intentionality proves to be an insufficient criteria for determining the meaning or effects of blackface and its reception, and therefore Othello in blackface would be a bad idea, which is apparently still not obvious to some. Thompson’s argument reiterates a classical position that eschews intentionality, but it is still refreshing to hear someone take a position that says that we should bracket Shakespeare’s intentions.
[3] Mitchell writes, “Pierre, we must note, is the closest the film comes to providing us with a portrait of the auteur, Spike Lee himself” (301-2). Likewise Susan Grubar in “Racial Camp”: “Delacroix is therefore Lee’s most perplexed portrait of himself as a filmmaker, reflecting the director’s awareness of how his movie’s inevitable complicity in minstrelsy’s degradations which are documented in the scenes and images at its close” (34). Interestingly, when questioned about the Delacroix character, Lee does not implicate himself. At the same time, Lee is extremely conscious of the role of the audience: “We wanted to put the moviegoing audience in the same position as the TV audience in the movie” (6). This would imply, of course, that Lee as creator of the film would be put in the same position as that of Delacroix, but this is an irony that seems to escape the filmmaker.
[4] Of course, The Jazz Singer is not the first instance of the cultural practice of blackface, nor is it even the first film to utilize blackface. It is, however, the first movie in which the actual practice of blackface became an object for cinematic reflection. That is, The Jazz Singer is solely concerned with whiteness; it has nothing to do with actual black bodies or black culture. Nor, for that matter, does it have anything to do with actual jazz, as many critics are quick to point out.
[5] For an explanation of how the spectacle of blackness has been historically situated in the United States to reaffirm an essential whiteness, see George Yancy, “Whiteness and the Return of the Black Body,” especially p. 219.

Posted by at 8:30 AM


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