Spike Lee’s Bamboozled is a film so rich with meaning that it can seem a little daunting to peel back the layers to get to the film’s resounding message; the film implores the audience, I believe, quite simply to consider what affect images and people have on each other. Indeed, of the film, Lee himself says, “I want people to think about the power of images, not just in terms of race, but how imagery is used and what sort of social impact it has – how it influences how we talk, how we think, how we view one another[. . . ]how film and television have historically[. . .]produced and perpetuated distorted images.” Bamboozled bombards the viewer with images of the complex intermingling of racial, social, political, and economic factors which ultimately culminate in the destruction of people for profit, forcing the viewer to “recognize the misuse and abuse of the Black image informing the mainstream mind.”
The film begins with Malcolm X’s voice cautioning that “you’ve been led astray, run amok. You’ve been bamboozled,” not only commenting on the state of society, but also foreshadowing the disaster that is to follow. Most of the film develops around Pierre Delacroix, a Black executive for a television company, who we learn right away is wealthy due to such details as his lush Manhattan apartment and monogrammed cufflinks. His wealth is contrasted sharply by the following scene, which introduces Cheeba and Manray, homeless and squatting in a condemned building. Manray tap dances outside Delacroix’s office building while Cheeba asks the onlookers for money. Once Delacroix is inside his office building, his skin color becomes more and more apparent because he is the only Black man there: in the elevator, in the meeting he is late to merely because no one bothered to inform him of its existence.
Delacroix’s boss, Dunwitty, seems a volatile character who feels entitled to lecture Delacroix on the essence of Blackness, eventually saying, “I probably know niggers better than you, Monsieur Delacroix[. . .]I got a Black wife and three biracial children, so I feel I have a right to use that word.” Delacroix has a fantasy of beating Dunwitty into a bloody pulp, but he doesn’t, since his position is one where he is powerless, forced to submit to his boss. Dunwitty has rejected all of Delacroix’s ideas for television shows because he feels they are composed of “White people with Black faces,” and he continues to assault Delacroix’s self-identity by claiming “[he] is Blacker than [Delacroix].”
That night, Delacroix and his assistant Sloan both come up with the idea to feature Manray’s dancing in a show. Delacroix takes the idea many steps further when he decides to propose Mantan: the New Millennium Minstrel Show, a “Coon show” that will be “so racist, so negative, [Dunwitty] won’t have the balls to put it on the air;” his idea is to make Dunwitty realize that he only wants to see Black people on television as bafoons, and he also hopes to get fired so that he will get severance pay.
His plan starts to go horribly wrong, however, when Delacroix tentatively proposes the idea to Dunwitty, expressing that it might be too controversial for the network. But when Dunwitty loves it, he is forced to continue on, and he introduces Manray and Cheeba as “Mantan and Sleep ‘n Eat. Two real coons,” and describes their characters as “ignorant, dull-witted, lazy, and unlucky.” Continuing to rely on these racist images from the past, he names the rest of his characters: “Honeycutt, Snowflake, Rastus, Nigger Jim, Sambo, Jungle Bunny, and how could we forget Aunt Jemima?” The idea of the minstrel show spins further and further out of control as Dunwitty decides it should take place on an Alabama plantation and that the characters should perform in black face as well; notice that what Dunwitty actually wants is to have Black characters with blackened faces. Delacroix tries to argue against the plantation but Dunwitty stands firm, claiming that “every week these Alabama porch monkeys will make us laugh, make us cry, make us look at our own humanity.”
It’s important to note here that, although Delacroix says Mantan: the New Millennium Minstrel Show will be a satire – “irony, derision, or caustic wit used to attack or expose folly, vice, or stupidity,” as defined by Delacroix in the opening scenes – there’s almost nothing satirical about it aside from the fact that it takes place in current times, when one would think people would have better judgment than to find humor in the show. Clearly, Delacroix thought so too, and merely claimed the show was satire facetiously. The intended irony was lost once Dunwitty took the reigns. Though he informs Delacroix that it’s not right “to hire someone solely on their ethnicity, gender, or religion[. . .]it’s un-American,” he proceeds to hire twenty White writers to work on the show, in addition to a White Finlandic male to direct it.
At the auditions, we see a group of Black people dressed up as racist stereotypes: mammies, slaves, pimps, hustlers, basketball players, whores. Delacroix wonders “who had told these Negroes this was what we were looking for? The same old image.” Here the viewer is left to suspect that all these Black actors and musicians had been socialized to think these were the only roles available to them.
Delacroix’s script is reworked so that he asks: “funnier to who and at who’s expense?” The show becomes nothing but a reenactment of the old minstrel shows. The cast consists of all the stereotypically racist characters that were popular in the past, from Aunt Jemima as the mammy to young Nigger Jim as the animal-like, dehumanized pickaninny. Nigger Jim’s dehumanization is made particularly clear when Manray cruelly berates him for not picking up the choreography fast enough, saying “I’m tired of you pickaninnies messing up my choreography”; “he has begun to internalize Jim’s status not as a child but as a mechanized, senseless, performing doll.”
Manray and Cheeba play somewhat of a mixture of happy Sambos and Zip Coons: blissfully stupid, dancing and singing despite the fact that they reside at “Hang ‘Em High Plantation.” The minstrel show does more than just suggest that Black people were happy as slaves ; it actually has Mantan and Sleep ‘n Eat choose to reject their urban life to “come back to [their] roots; [their] Alabamy home.” This is the Zip Coon element of their characters, the element that implies a failure and inability to adapt to their freedom. Indeed, Sleep ‘n Eat asks the audience to remember “a simpler time, a time when men were men, women were women, and Negroes knew their place.” Mantan wears a tattered tuxedo, while Sleep ‘n Eat wears an old Pullman Porter uniform.
Mantan: the New Millennium Minstrel Show becomes an overnight success, much to Delacroix’s shock and horror. At the taping of the next show, Honeycutt leads the crowd, a mixture of Black and White people, both young and old, in chanting “Let’s go niggers.” On the first television screening of Mantan, the opening credits feature a claymation Mantan and Sleep ‘n Eat doing a jig, but their noses and lips have been exaggerated to immense proportion, as was a popular portrayal of Black people in the past. Delacroix, Sloan, Manray, and Cheeba are unhappy with the show’s opening, and Delacroix keeps expecting massive protest, but the next day President Clinton says “[he] can honestly say [he] feel[s] it promotes racial healing.”
However, the sentiment turns when Mantan performs at the Apollo theater. Sloan’s brother, Big Blak Africa of the “revolutionary” rap group the Mau-Mau’s, leads the crowd in booing Mantan until the crowd becomes hysterical and rushes the stage. This, coupled with the stress of Cheeba quitting his role as Sleep ‘n Eat, causes Manray to begin to rethink his role as Mantan. On a talk show, he says “it’s all about the money,” but it becomes clear that he realizes there is more at stake: his self-identity and self worth are being violated by playing the Coon for America. At the following taping, Manray goes onstage as himself – no tuxedo, no black face, and announces “I’m sick and tired of being a nigger and I’m not going to take it anymore.” He collapses, as though dead, and rises to tap. Dunwitty has him removed from the stage and fires him, showing his true racist colors when he tells him that “niggas like you are a dime a dozen.”
From here on, Bamboozled becomes a blood bath. The Mau-Maus capture Manray and decide to execute him live via the internet, in the name of revolution, for being “a Tom[. . .]a disgrace[. . .]a head-scratching, foot-shuffling Negro.” The murder, perhaps, may be meant to symbolize that Manray had gotten so lost from his true identity that it was too late to turn back – but unfortunately, this falls a little flat since he seemed to realize that Mantan was a terrible mistake. Also, we see the folly of the Mau-Maus, who are portrayed as stereotypical wannabe rappers, smoking weed and drinking malt liquor, talking big about changing the world but succeeding only in killing a man. The Mau-Maus are then gunned down by the police, and in a somewhat surprising turn, Sloan shoots Delacroix and he bleeds to death in his office. All this death, to me, suggests that there was simply no way to reconcile reality with the images portrayed on the television. In other words, the Black image that is presented through the media is ultimately and eternally damaging, and unless people protest those images, there will continue to be an unhealthy and dangerous gap between actual reality and the media’s presentation of reality.