Spike Lee tries to sink some racist
images and self-perceptions in this poorly photographed and dreary-looking
overly long shrine to man's implacable need to look down on others.
"If I didn't feel superior to you I wouldn't
feel anything at all."
That should have been a line in the movie, but it
In a nutshell, a whining self actualized pretentious TV
writer wants out of his contract with a poorly-run mini-network, and develops a
show sure to get him fired. Predictably, the show is a big back-firing hit, and
you know the rest.
Unfortunately, the rest is rather predictable, and though
Spike does hit some racial stereotypes on the nose, his humor is lame at times,
and there is an uneasy mix of drama with the comedy. (For example, TV's In
Living Color was an order of magnitude funnier and more critical of
stereotypes, as is the Friday - Next Friday series of films. The Nutty
Professor's family life excesses, and Woody Allen's lampoons of Jewish families
are also better models for attacking stereotypes.)
Spike is heavy handed in his satirical approach, and
about the only thing he manages to do is provide every kind of stereotype among
his cast members - every character is one of some sort- but knowing Spike's
work, I think that it was not intentional. In short, the characters feel phony,
and at the same time are not far enough removed from experience to be
What Lees gives us though is a fabulously entertaining
dancer by the name of Savion Glover (Sesame Street), and lesser entertaining
comics and folks.
Lee is searching for some realization among his
characters for a glimmer of enlightenment that they need not be slaves to their
past or the iconic imagery of others. Embroglio'd in some sort of introspective
whitefacewash of racism, Lee dances around his subject, and fritters away
valuable time on less interesting people while berating the system for abusing
Damon Wayan's character effects a ridiculously strained
articulation in his accent (ostensibly to show he is an educated neh-grow, I
guess) but it ceases to serve a purpose after a time. When Lee could have
broken down the essence of the man, stripping away all pretensions when faced
with his imminent (and tardy) death, he fails to capitalize on it.
As usual, when Lee is out of ideas, he resorts to a
tech-nine denouement. He manages to kill just about everybody in the film - as
pointless as the violence in Do the Right Thing and Summer of Sam - but he does
not make satiric use of it. Instead, we get a lame voice over about what Wayans
is thinking as he dies - still in that ridiculous (but not satiric) accent.
I also think Lee may be confusing satire and
So what could this have been? Why not take us into a
heaven populated with angels in Blackface, and a big black God in whiteface?
Why not question the whole race issue on a spiritual level? Or have everybody
pull off "Scooby-style" masks, and reveal white people underneath? Or
red, or something alien? I think if you really want to do in the racism issue,
it would help to really abstract it, explore the imagination, compare it with
other injustices, and put it into perspective.
The sad part about this whole experience was the
realization that for once, Lee was onto something big, but pushed himself away
from the table too soon.
The death knell for racism, sexism, ageism,
smarty-pants-ism and God knows what else remains to be sounded.
Either wait for that or just take it to heart that sticks
|No defense of racism -
plenty of other "racist" images in the press and cinema during the
last century - to wit, the pictorialization of Japanese during wwII. (Don't
construe that remark to indicate any sympathy for the rising sun of the 30's
and 40's. One need only look at the butchering jobs they did in China to get
that perspective back.) It might have been interesting to reference them, but
that would perhaps dilute the victimization of blacks...
I suppose I am as lily white as you can get. Anglo-European
on all sides.
I have however - and not through some sense of guilt to
atone for my youth - dated blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Caucasians, and I must
admit fantasize about Indians (American and Bombay), etc. I still manage to see
the person, at least last if not first, but I know it is not that way for some
people. I do believe these days most people see other people for who they are
-especially among the younger set.
But what was this white boy's perception of
"racist" images of forty years ago?
I grew up in the fifties and sixties, in a 99.99% white town
in Illinois. I ran across an occasional person that had a problem with blacks,
but by and large it was a non-issue. Blacks had no reason to move to my central
Illinois town forty years ago - and no reason not to. I was told that the few
black families there were protective of their community though and ran some
troublemakers out. I have no idea what it is like there today.
I was exposed to the black face characterizations profiled
by Lee in Bamboozled, but I did not attach any pejorative meaning to them. When
we would travel to Chicago or St. Louis, which had large black populations, I
did not associate the images I had seen on TV with any particular race or
In my experience, the blacks in the 3 Stooges shorts were
way smarter than the white guys on the screen. Inky and the Mynah Bird was only
a cartoon, which I liked for the music and the way the bird hopped along. And
the determined spirit of the little boy.
The crows in Dumbo were just birds.
Steppin' Fetchit's name meant nothing to me, other than a
Butterfly McQueen was comic relief, and Rochester on the
Jack Benny Show was the one sane person there. I loved them both.
As an adult, I can see how the images take on cruel,
demeaning and oppressive dimensions, but the reaction I had to those images as
a child was much different.
In my innocence, I did not see them as servants or burdens
or undesirables. They were just more people on the road of life, with their own
unique and interesting personalities and attitudes. They took life as it came,
and had their own dignity. (Check out "Tobacco Road" to see
undignified poor white trash...)
None of them were archetypes to me.
None of them were less worthy in my opinion.
Watching Sidney Poitier in "The Heat Of The Night"
did little viscerally to me other than register as a good murder mystery. There
were no racism issues in me confronted by that film. I saw its restoration at
the 1997 Hampton's International Film Festival, and felt the same way, though I
had a better appreciation for the filmmaking.
As a freshman in college, (1971)I bought a poster of Bill
Cosby and displayed it prominently on my dorm room wall. (It was from I Spy, I
think.) I was dumbfounded when I was labeled a "nigger lover".
Totally perplexed, I did not even associate that with the poster on my wall.
That was Bill Freakin' Cosby, one of the funniest people alive. They liked the
poster of Michelangelo's naked Adam touching God's finger even
I was forward in how I handled the black employees at the
campus radio station I ran. I set aside ten total percent of the airtime (based
on the percentage of black students at the school) to do whatever they
wished.I was an honorary member of their "Black
Backers Club" which although it seemed had vaguely sexual overtones, I was
blissfully unaware of the very direct sexual meaning - which they thought was
Recently I had the opportunity to work with a black man as
sales manager for the film company where I am CEO. We worked well together, but
I was at first very concerned about how the industrial people would treat him
in the Deep South. To my relief, I saw no overt racism, and he was later one of
the top contenders for a spot in a regional marketing position for industry.
After he left us, people regularly told me what a great guy he was
(unsolicited). Progress, I guess.
I have a close working relationship with Henry Turner Jr.
and Flavor, a reggae group here in Baton Rouge, and regularly work with all
races as a part of my creative life.
I was never the victim of reverse racial discrimination
until I came to Louisiana, and found myself getting short shrift at the hands
of sullen chicken shack employees. Of all the reasons to dislike me, race is
probably not the best one. And how does making things crummy for me make anyone
else's life better? I don't get jollies from screwing people over, I get them
from lifting people up and making things better for whoever I meet.
But the majority of blacks I meet are not racists.
I met an elderly black woman in Albertson's one day and I
asked her if she thought this was a racist country. She said, "Yes I do.
But I tell you there is just as much racism in the black community as there is
in the white! It's bad on both sides." Remarkably
But who cares.
Injustice is everywhere.
But it is not everything.