Bamboozled: Critiquing the Critics

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It is easy the first time watching Bamboozled to miss what Spike Lee is doing throughout the movie, between the choppy narrative structure and blatant commentary on blackface the viewer can get disoriented. This disorientation led many critics to misunderstand the film Spike Lee was creating. One of the most common criticisms of the film was that it ironically did the same thing it was satirizing in the show, that by commenting about these themes of race the movie did more harm than good. Highly revered film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “And if what you’re attacking is a potent enough image, the image retains its negative power no matter what you want to say about it.”Ebert, who so often has provided reviews of films spectacularly, has really missed the mark on this one. One has to ask if the point of Bamboozled was really to turn these negative images into something else. Lee was not attempting to make anyone comfortable, he clearly was not trying to avoid these potent images and through the disturbing plot and showing of minstrel shows, no audience member left the room after watching the film with any doubt of the negative power of the images of minstrelsy. But should that be a criticism? Lee clearly wants to put this difficult issue the viewer’s face to have them ponder it, something typically easily avoided by people. Andrew Sarris, writing in the New York Observer, says “If Mr. Lee meant to bring back blackface entertainment as a metaphor for the current black performers he finds obnoxious, he has miscalculated.” Unfortunately for Sarris, he was the one who miscalculated. This was not Lee’s intention of the film. By taking a closer look at the above screen shot in context, one can come to better understand part of the message in Lee’s film.

Although this film is certainly multi-layered and addresses multiple issues often with ambiguity, this shot does lend to better insight for understanding the film. In context, Manray has been taken by the Mau Maus and his abduction is about to be broadcasted by these former music group turned terrorists. The room’s only discernible light source in the diegesis is the television screen itself, Pierre’s tie is loosened adding to his disheveled and disheartened look that he rarely has in the film. He solemnly is looking down at the tape that Sloan had given him earlier right before telling him he needs to “come into the light.” This scene signifies Pierre’s internal struggle of balancing his own identity and assimilating to white culture, with Sloan acting as his conscience for his personal identity symbolically through the film in this shot and the consequences of neglecting the painful history of his culture shining on his face in the dark room through the television screen. This shot interestingly enough gathers the three struggling identities in the film all in one place, with both extremes of Pierre’s assimilation and abandonment of his culture and the Mau Mau’s extreme of protesting through violence shown through the screen and the balance of sloan’s moral consciousness represented through the tape given to Pierre. The tape we later discover is a history of minstrel shows, blackface and degradation of blacks in media, something that Pierre ironically attributes to. This shot and the following sequences of the Mau Mau’s broadcast, shots of sloan and others in the community watching the broadcast capture one of the main themes of this film, struggling to balance one’s identity in a white culture. One may not catch this the first time watching the film, but through a closer look, critics could have seen that this film wanted to show blatant negative images, to spark discussions on race and force people to think about this difficult topic. Lee certainly accomplished this through his film.

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