Writer-curator Ashley Clark, whose monograph Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled is now on sale, spoke with us about the enduring resonance of the film and the urgency of its contemporary context.
Of all the Spike Lee films you might have written a book on, what in particular drew you to Bamboozled, and were there specific aspects of its critical reception that you were seeking to address or change?
Spike Lee has made a number of very knotty, awkward films that are resistant to a concrete interpretation. When he makes films that don’t go down well with critics, including Girl 6, She Hate Me, and Miracle at St. Anna, I think they’re still always very interesting, with lots to unpack. Of all his films that are not critically acclaimed, Bamboozled is the most fascinating. There’s so much to dig into aesthetically, politically, and tonally. A lot of critics at the time said it was a mess, and they didn’t give Lee enough credit for his deliberate artistic choices, like shooting on digital video, and the seeming randomness of the editing. None of this is by accident, and I wanted to dig into it as a piece of experimental filmmaking and argue for the effects of its technical approach.
The other major thing: many critics said it was unnecessary and dated—that everybody knew blackface wasn’t funny and not politically correct. But Lee used controversial, brutal satire to make the point that, even if we don’t have actual blackface minstrelsy today, a lot of the stereotypes from that supposedly bygone era persist in mainstream entertainment. Maybe it was difficult for people to look honestly at where we were in 2000, and to see that some of these issues were, and remain, in full effect, particularly in institutions, where there is a terrible lack of diversity at gatekeeper level, and what the fallout from that inequality can be, representationally-speaking.
Both Bamboozled and the series you’ve programmed around it raise important questions about how we confront the cinematic past, and how it reflects itself in our present. As someone who is constantly engaging with cinema’s past in your programming and writing, how do you reconcile a cinephile’s love for American film history and the pervasive racism found within it?
It’s every cinephile’s duty to grapple honestly with these difficulties. What’s great about Bamboozled is that it amounts to an avowed cinephile, Spike Lee, wrestling with this pervasively racist past. Yes, it’s painful. It’s supposed to be!
If films are documents of the time in which they were made, then of course there are going to be “problematic” things in them, ideologically and representationally. That’s not to say we have to write off these troublesome films completely. One critic recently advocated banning Gone with the Wind, and I thought that missed the point—I don’t think you can go around banning art, but it’s important to contextualize and approach it in a responsible way, especially where film education is concerned.
One obvious case is D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which has caused film fans and critics problems for 100 years. It was perfectly obvious when the film came out that it was chronically racist, but it’s also technically astonishing and influential, and has been lauded as such, and taught in schools and universities. Lee actually made a riposte to Birth while at NYU in 1980 called The Answer, and it nearly got him thrown out! He complained that the faculty didn’t do anywhere near enough to address the film on an ideological, political level.
Speaking of personal experience, I wrote a piece recently about the difficulties I have with the portrayal of black characters in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. It was a real challenge to write, because I’d grown up basically accepting the canonization of this film, and for a long time I didn’t have the confidence, as a non-white critic in a predominantly white field, to articulate my issues with it. It was great for me to dig in to that film—which I think is brilliant in many ways—and reconcile some of my issues with it, hopefully with a degree of nuance.
Behind the Mask: Bamboozled in Focus draws from a number of different eras in American filmmaking—from Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd in the 50s to Dear White People in 2014. Did you observe any significant shifts in attitudes toward the media and/or racial representation as you were programming these films?
It’s a difficult question because the films are so diverse in period, context, and content. I’m astonished by how prescient A Face in the Crowd was. In many ways, it’s more considered and sharper than Network, which was made almost 20 years after it. Network, while entertaining and revelatory in its own ways, is quite a hysterical film and feels more dated than A Face in the Crowd, which seems unbelievably prescient with regard to the intersection of politics, big business, and entertainment. I challenge anyone to watch the film and not be awestruck by the resemblances between the lead character (played by Andy Griffith) and Donald Trump on his campaign trail. And this film came out in 1957!
Livin’ Large is a great, very funny film that reflects the anxieties of its era, but the issues it broaches haven’t gone away. We still have the idea of Uncle Tom-ism in the media, people like CNN’s Don Lemon who are criticized for pandering to white audiences and being sell-outs. The most recent film in the program, Dear White People, reflects the development of online media and the role it plays in identity politics—for me, it’s like the film version of a multi-stranded Twitter argument, which is more entertaining than it sounds! When people look back on Dear White People in 50 years, they will see an extraordinary evocation of identity politics on campuses at a transitional moment when the bulwarks of white privilege and institutional white supremacy are facing a real grass roots challenge. That said, we can see the same thing happening in Free, White, and 21 by Howardena Pindell.
Illusions, by Julie Dash, is set in Hollywood in World War II, but was quite clearly made with an eye to the present day (which was the early 1980s). The two documentaries by Marlon Riggs anchor the whole series: they offer rigorous, historically-based, brilliantly-argued critiques. For me, they are a perfect, sober complement to Bamboozled, which is a manic, funhouse mirror treatment of the same issues.
I first want to underline that we have serious problems in England, including racist police brutality and an imbalance in media diversity. However, in moving to the States, I was taken aback by the sheer, implacable volume of incidents of brutality against black bodies, which are of course amplified by people’s ability to capture on video and disseminate online. (I moved to America on 7/10 last year, and within the month both Eric Garner and Michael Brown had been killed.) I was also not entirely prepared for how much of a galvanizing effect the presence of an established black media would have on me—we just don’t have that in the UK. It’s refreshing to see people like Melissa Harris-Perry, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Jelani Cobb have major platforms in the media, and to see first-hand that issues of race are debated more openly than they are in the UK. That has all been crucial for me in the writing of this book, the cornerstone of which is the idea that there is no such thing as a “post-racial” society. If anything, this last year has been the absolute nail in the coffin for that idea, starting with the volume of response to these incidents, and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In my recent Vice article, I explored the relentless array of stories about blackface-themed stuff still happening—actual blackface itself in the case of campus Halloween parties (of which there will surely be more examples this year), and also strange stories of neo-minstrelsy in the form of characters like Rachel Dolezal. As I was writing the book, it wasn’t as if I could close my computer and think “I’ve said all there is to say about this.” I was working in a live environment. All the issues that Bamboozled deals with are still alive and happening right now; the film is constantly in dialogue with the world. That’s why it’s so fascinating.
Behind the Mask: Bamboozled in Focus, curated by Ashley Clark, runs Oct 28—Nov 3 at BAM Rose Cinemas. Follow Ashley on Twitter: @_ash_clark.