I’ve been prompted by shootings of African-Americans in far too many incidents over the last few years to dig out some notes I used in 2003. The crime investigated in Four Little Girls, the Spike Lee documentary, is also alluded to in Selma, the 2014 film about Martin Luther King. I thought that Spike Lee had lost his way recently with a remake of Oldboy (which I haven’t seen but which seems to have been poorly reviewed) but BlacKkKlansman (US 2018) has confirmed that when he is on form, few American filmmakers have the same power. These notes come from an evening class screening.
Four Little Girls is perhaps a surprising film – a sober and conventional documentary from one of cinema’s angry men with a penchant for stylistically daring feature films. But the concerns of the film are in no way surprising, comprising a powerful argument for a rewriting of American history.
Spike Lee and the history of Black America
By naming his own production company ‘40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks’, Spike Lee set out his mission from his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It in 1986. The company name refers to the promise made to freed slaves at the end of the Civil War – a promise never kept that Lee wants to remind us about.
Most of Lee’s films have been about the experience of African-Americans in contemporary society. Some have been overtly ‘political’ in attempting to reassess the importance of historical figures such as Malcolm X or to validate contemporary struggles such as the ‘Million Man March’ celebrated in Get on the Bus (1996). Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled is a calculated attempt to tell the story of racism in film and television, linking contemporary debates about African-American culture to the hidden history of exploitation stemming from the minstrel shows of the early nineteenth century. Bamboozled was also notable for its audacious use of digital video and contrasting celluloid stock (to distinguish the ‘real’ life of the performers and their ‘minstrel performances’) and its satirical take on the American television industry. By contrast, in Four Little Girls Lee takes a civil outrage and personal tragedy that happened in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 – the firebombing of a church and the death of four little girls – and uses it to explore the embedded institutional racism that ran through American life, seemingly with impunity, before the struggles of the Civil Rights movement offered hope for a better future.
As a voice for Black America on screen, Spike Lee has been controversial not just as a director but also as cultural critic, not least in his attacks on Steven Spielberg for his ‘black’ projects, the adaptation of The Color Purple and the historical film Amistad. Lee’s anger always creates expectations about how he will tackle his own projects.
The documentary form
Lee used two of his long term collaborators, editor Sam Pollard and composer Terence Blanchard, to achieve the aesthetic he wanted for Four Little Girls. This was his first film with Ellen Kuras as cinematographer and she has since become a regular on Lee’s productions. What this group produced is a documentary film using several familiar sources – archive film footage, rostrum camera work (panning and zooming across still images) and ‘witness interviews’ with both the families of the girls and the representatives of the Birmingham authorities.
The ‘witness documentary’ gained a high profile in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s with notable films such as The Wobblies (US 1979) (about the ‘International Workers of the World’) and Rosie the Riveter (1980) exploring the experiences of women in work during World War II. The use of music and rostrum camera to recreate scenes from American history was particularly successful (i.e. critically and with audiences) in the case of the Ken Burns’ series on the Civil War broadcast on US public service television (PBS) in 1990.
American television has developed a tradition of screening prestigious documentaries ever since the ‘Direct Cinema’ films of Robert Drew and his associates such as D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock in the 1960s demonstrated the attraction of ‘real’ images on the small screen. It is worth noting therefore that Four Little Girls was co-produced and distributed by the cable television giant Home Box Office. Although the film screened briefly in selected cinemas, its main impact has been via television where arguably it will have made more impact in educating Americans about their own social history.
Documentary and representations of social reality
Four Little Girls immediately raises the question – is documentary the most appropriate and effective way in which the ‘real world’ can be represented on the screen? How can documentary be used to create the drama which in Hollywood involves the general audience? Can documentary film really ‘educate’ an audience? These questions must certainly have been at the centre of the discussions between Spike Lee and Sam Pollard. The effectiveness of Four Little Girls in this respect is explored in this review:
There is a defining moment in Spike Lee and Sam Pollard’s Academy Award-nominated 4 Little Girls, a documentary about the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which ended the lives of four girls. This moment provides a bridge between the legendary and near mythical status of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the intimate and very human reality of the individual men and women who were involved in it: “When young people today ask me, ‘When are we going to be able to get together like you all were in the Sixties?’ – I tell them nobody was together in the Sixties,” says Reverend Andrew Young of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC). “It was a small group of dedicated people who got it all started.”
For Pollard, the co-producer and editor of the film who will be present in Austin to introduce it during its Texas Documentary Tour screening this Wednesday, this represented the bridging approach that he and Lee were adamant on taking toward their subject matter. “It was important, first of all, to make sure the four girls came alive in the telling of the story. And the second thing was to make sure there was a social and political context for their existence. So we decided to use a parallel structure to tell the stories of the girls in juxtaposition to the evolution of the civil rights struggle as was specifically particular to Birmingham.”
And for a younger generation whose knowledge of the civil rights struggle comes primarily from history textbooks, this micro-analysis of the nuts and bolts of the battle-like process is a refreshing revelation, indeed. It is the storytelling strategy and its respect for the engrossing real-life events that gives the film its potency, and this reflects Pollard’s extensive bicameral experience in the film business. A filmmaker for over 25 years, he worked primarily in the documentary field (including serving as producer on the acclaimed PBS series Eyes on the Prize) before becoming Spike Lee’s editor on such narrative features such as Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Clockers, and Girl 6. His expertise in both fields is evidenced by one particularly powerful interview with George Wallace. Using such narrative devices as jump cuts, different film stocks, and varying focal lengths, the scene cuts to the heart of the horror of George Wallace and everything he stood for in a little more than a minute of screen time. It represents a penultimate example of the fusion of high drama and documentary.
Despite the fact that they were conducted 23 years after the fact, the interviews with the four girls’ family members contain a startling immediacy. And each individual reflects back on the events with a remarkable bearing of both internal fortitude and grace that, despite all of the hate and chaotic insanity directed toward them, comes with the self-awareness of their moral certainty and rightness in the face of evil. Unlike the racist forces aligned against them, “They didn’t have a pathology,” explains Pollard. “They didn’t walk around thinking ‘We need to figure out a way to hate white people as much as they hate us.’ They understood the parameters of what their existence was all about and they figured out how to be real human beings and live and struggle within that.” Tommy Wren of the SCLC sums it up best in the film: “I used to be afraid of ‘Bull’ Connor [the malevolent Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham at the time who lead police attacks against marchers] until I discovered he was crazy.”
It was also the family members’ sense of moral rightness that led them to protect their story for as long as they did. Christopher McNair, father of one of the slain girls and something of the keeper of the story, had been approached many times over the years by filmmakers and authors who wanted him to lend his support and input to their projects. “Chris has a great reputation with and the respect of the community, and he was not going to have a filmmaker come there and exploit the family or their story,” says Pollard. “He finally agreed to cooperate with us and with his involvement, although there was some initial reluctance on the part of the other families, they too came around and opened up to Spike and me.” And it is our good fortune they did open up for a film that not only provides a further detailed historical account of events that still have significant relevance today (especially in light of the recent spate of bombings of African- American churches across the South), but also uncovers a gripping drama of human loss, tragedy, and redemption.
Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle, 04-06-98
Roy Stafford, 30 January 2003
Here’s an interview with Spike Lee and journalist Howell Raines about the background to the making of the film. It’s quite long, but I hope worthwhile.
It’s very exciting to see a Spike Lee film back in wide release in UK cinemas. BlacKkKlansman just scrapes in as a wide release with 217 cinemas but these had the highest average audience numbers of any film in UK cinemas last weekend. I have a great deal of time for Spike Lee as a filmmaker with passion, creativity and political intelligence to go with a deep knowledge of cinema and the skills to make memorable films. Having said that it’s also the case that he makes a wide range of features, shorts, documentaries and other types of moving image work and sometimes he chooses projects that puzzle me. Too often he falls foul of UK distribution companies and their notorious reluctance to release African-American films. All of this means that I hadn’t actually seen a Spike Lee ‘joint’ since I managed to import a US DVD of The Miracle at St. Anna in 2009. After all the build-up to the release of BlacKkKlansman and its Cannes Grand Prix I did worry that it could be a let-down, but it isn’t. This is Spike returning to the form that produced Do the Right Thing (1989) and Bamboozled (2000), the former universally acclaimed, the latter larger ignored – but both important films.
The first point to make about BlacKkKlansman is that it is packed with a great deal of material and ideas and I found that the 135 minutes flew by. I think it will take several more viewings to properly ‘read’ the film and come to any sensible conclusion about what it might mean to different audiences. Spike Lee at his best is always provocative and attempting to build a polemic using humour as well as political insight is often rejected by audiences looking for clear resolutions. My feeling at the moment is that BlacKkKlansman makes important political statements. It certainly made me think about strategies and ways to articulate arguments and it made me question some of my assumptions and ways of thinking about politics in the UK as well as the US and indeed universally. I did also wonder at moments whether Spike gets the balance right and whether his satire works – but in the circumstances I think that is inevitable.
I recommend the Sight and Sound (September) interview with Spike Lee (I have some arguments with the rather negative review of the film in the same print issue but the online piece by Sophie Monks Kaufman is also very good). Queried by Sight and Sound interviewer Kaleem Aftab about how much of the film is actually based on the real events described by Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth, Lee simply re-iterates “[the film] is based on a true story”. It’s a reasonable question – and response. Some aspects of the narrative seem so fantastical that it is hard to believe that they ever happened, but at other moments the narrative seems only too ‘real’. Ron Stallworth (played with bravura by John David Washington, son of Lee regular Denzel Washington) was the first African-American to join the Colorado Springs force in 1972 as a cadet. It wasn’t until several years later that as an undercover cop he answered an advertisement for applications to join the Ku Klux Klan. Establishing himself on the phone as a ‘white supremacist’, it then required a white officer to physically attend KKK meetings posing as ‘Ron Stallworth’. This was ‘Flip’ Zimmerman (Adam Driver). Lee and his co-writers decided to compress the story so that the events seem to take place over a few months in 1973/4. Apart from a familiar strategy to speed up the pace of the narrative, this also allows Lee to highlight questions around black identity at the time of the ‘Blaxpoitation’ cycle of films in the early 1970s alongside the fashions, the music and the ‘Black Power’ iconography.
The wonderful Afros on display, the clothes and the music and the discussion of Shaft and Superfly and Pam Grier (complete with on-screen film posters) provide a rich mise en scène which allows Lee to explore issues within African-American culture. Ron’s first undercover job was to ‘infiltrate’ a student-organised event at which Kwame Ture (aka Stokeley Carmichael, played by Corey Hawkins) makes an impassioned plea to the students to prepare for revolution. That evening Ron meets Patrice (Laura Harrier) the student president and begins a relationship. This relationship is an invention which in genre terms allows Lee to explore a romance-thriller narrative thread. We worry about Patrice, although she is generally quite capable of looking after herself and her fellow students. But as Herb Boyd in Cineaste (Fall 2018) points out, we learn relatively little about Patrice and, apart from two or three key moments, the relationship between Ron and Flip is much more important. It is Flip who is in the most danger. The script emphasises how much the Klan are anti-semitic and Flip is someone who has never really thought about his own Jewish identity. This danger (of exposure) is an element of the romance thriller that also generates the possibility of comedy and it is these scenes (i.e. Flip among the Klan members) that test Lee’s ability to balance humour and anger. He’s helped by wonderful performances all round and especially by Jasper Pääkkönen as the most suspicious Klansman and Topher Grace as David Duke, the Klan ‘Grand Wizard’. These two are chilling and completely absurd at the same time.
While much of the film narrative remains within the familiar mode of ‘Hollywood realism’, Spike explores the legacy of racism in Hollywood through extracts from Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939). I don’t want to spoil the impact of how he does this, but the appearance of Harry Belafonte is thrilling for anyone old enough to remember one of the great figures of the Civil Rights movement. Alec Baldwin’s appearance might be more puzzling for some audiences outside North America, although I guess his YouTube appearances as ‘Donald Trump’ are easily accessible around the world. The crucial question is how does Spike Lee end his narrative? We know Ron Stallworth survived his involvement with the Klan because he wrote his memoir in 2014. But it would be dangerous to leave us laughing and feeling good about victory. In fact, I think there is a narrative thread running throughout which keeps us querying Ron’s actions and his motivations. When the final section comes I think it works very well and I hope that BlacKkKlansman will become a classic ‘joint’ like Do The Right Thing.
BlacKkKlansman took £1.2 million on its first UK weekend and it looks set to be one of Spike’s biggest hits. I’ve failed to mention the initiative of Get Out writer-director Jordan Peele who initially brought the project to Lee and also Blumhouse Productions the company which made Get Out. Peele and Blumhouse are both part of the production background for BlacKkKlansman, demonstrating that Spike Lee is very much still part of the cutting edge of African-American cinema. Terence Blanchard, Lee’s long-time collaborator is still on board composing a fine score and including an array of great 1970s tracks. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin is new to me but Spike Lee has a strong track record in working with exciting camera people and Irvin’s work contributes a great deal to the look of the film. I want to finish by urging you to see this film. I also want to emphasise that there is much, much more to say about it so I hope some of you will add your comments.
This is the new Spike Lee film set mainly in Chicago (or Chi-Raq) and which ‘The Guardian‘ review praised with four stars. It added a comment
“magnificent, rage-filled drama.”
I saw the film at the Leeds International Film Festival, The Catalogue quoted the director, who commented
“I think that we have the same indignation and hatred and anger when we do it to ourselves . . . “
on the ‘black-on-‘black violence that is the subject of the film.
I was underwhelmed by the film and found it rather scattergun in its treatment of the important topic. A couple of friends at the Festival offered similar opinions and one of them only gave it one star out of five.
The problem seems to be that the parts are better than the whole. The film uses rap-style dialogue, dramatic scenes, large scale set pieces including musical numbers and sequences that are predominately realist and other sequences that are fantastic even fanciful. I thought the set-pieces worked best, with Lee’s usual panache. The realist drama is based on actual figures in Chicago, a woman campaigner and a male priest. Replaying actual people and events can be tricky and I found some of the dramatic scenes somewhat ineffective.
Peter Bradshaw’s review adds
“It interestingly looks like a filmed stage play in the Aristophantic or maybe Brechtian style.”
Those two playwrights were skilled at balancing drama, irony and satire. Moreover, they worked in the theatrical medium and translating their ideas and practices to the medium of film is often problematic. This only works well when the filmmakers can translate these into the distinctive form of film. Spike Lee did this in a masterful fashion with his seminal Do the Right Thing (1989). Chi-Raq never achieves that level.
Peter Bradshaw also comments that
“it shows women of different ages banding together, organising, taking action.”
I found this aspect less than convincing. There are a series of short sequences where the activists in Chicago are supported by women in other lands and cultures, but there are not really convincing factors to explain this.
And Bradshaw also draws a comparison with Spike Lee’s own
“Bamboozled (2000) or Kevin Willmott’s CSA: The Confederate States of America (20034).”
The first is a masterful satire and one of the exceptional US films of the last couple of decades. The latter is cartoonish and heavy-handed. Though Chi-Raq is better than that it does suffer from the same weaknesses.
I really like Spike Lee’s work so I was seriously disappointed on this occasion
Spike Lee’s last feature film, Miracle at St Anna has finally got a DVD release in the UK. Revolver are releasing the DVD/Blu-ray of the film on June 27. We featured a review of the American Region 1 disc here. The film is an adaptation of a novel by James McBride about a small group of ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ – African-American soldiers in Italy in 1944. As in many recent war films, the central story is ‘book-ended’ by events in contemporary New York. The film is long (150 mins plus) but always packed with incident. It’s a Spike Lee film so it is controversial and some people don’t like it for various reasons. But this is an important story about the Second World War and particularly about the segregated American armed forces. The film deserves to be seen.
The UK official website is here.
One of the interesting aspects of this release is the simultaneous launch of the film on DVD/Blu-ray, online via LOVEFiLM, iTunes, Playstation, BlinkBox, FilmFlex, BT Vision and on TV via Sky Box Office.
The film has never had a UK release (unprecedented for a Spike Lee fiction feature, I think) so Revolver should be rewarded with some interest.
The release prompts us to ask what Spike is up to at the moment. As far as we can see he has been working primarily for television documentary (plus one stageplay recording). Nothing new is available in the UK but a Region 1 DVD was released in April of his follow-up to the epic When the Levees Broke (2006). This is the documentary If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise (2010). To keep up-to-date with Spike Lee’s output, the best source is the 40 Acres and a Mule website.
This is the only Spike Lee fiction feature that has been denied a UK release. Why? I’m not sure. Possibly because it died at the US Box Office where it failed to reach $10 million against a $45 million budget. But then you would expect Disney (Touchstone) to attempt to get something back on a DVD release in the UK at least. Perhaps one is scheduled, but it is already nearly a year since the US cinema release. IMDB seems out of date on the release schedule since Italy isn’t listed, but according to the Lumiere Database it attracted 191,000 admissions there – not great for an epic film like this. It doesn’t seem to have been released anywhere else in Western Europe (at least not in 2008).
More worrying perhaps is the general unwillingness of distributors to put out films with African-American cultural content in the UK. We are still waiting for the awards-laden The Great Debaters (US 2007), the second film directed by Denzel Washington. There is a form of institutional racism at play here, a kind of dismissal of the possibility that general audiences might find an African-American film interesting. I guess the distributors would point to the general negative reaction to Miracle at St. Anna from US viewers and reviewers, despite the minority view that this is a great film.
I don’t think it is a great film, but it is a film that I would urge anyone interested in representation issues and auteur filmmaking to watch. As is often the case, Roger Ebert gives one of the most sensible responses to the film when he suggests that all the flaws he sees in it, and possibly all the things he doesn’t really like, are evidence of Spike Lee’s vision, which he has maintained in the film in the face of potential front office objections:
“When you see one of his films, you’re seeing one of his films. And Miracle at St. Anna contains richness, anger, history, sentiment, fantasy, reality, violence and life. Maybe too much. Better than too little.”
I’ll go with that.
Outline (no spoilers)
The film is an adaptation, scripted by the author himself, of the novel with the same title by James McBride (published in 2002). The plot opens with an incident in New York in 1983 that sets up a mystery involving, among other things, a marble head that turns out to be a valuable artefact. The main narrative is set in Tuscany in December 1944 during the Allied push against the Germans. Black soldiers from the 92nd Division of the US Army, known as the ‘Buffalo Soldiers’, engage with a large German force near the Serchio River. Four men get detached from the American side and end up on the other side of the river. They rescue a young Italian boy – who bonds immediately with one of the soldiers whom he calls ‘a chocolate giant’ – and eventually find themselves in a mountain village from which the Germans have fled. Meanwhile, the local German commander is being berated by a senior officer and told that he must regroup his men and find both the local partisans who have been harrying the German forces and a German soldier who is missing and must be found. What happens in the ensuing confrontations between the four Americans, the villagers, the partisans and the Germans holds the key to the mystery in New York. The resolution does solve the mystery, but doesn’t perhaps ‘close’ all the narrative questions.
The film is 160 minutes (although the closing credits last nearly 10 minutes) and it does feel long. The rigmarole of watching Region 1 DVDs forced me to watch the film in three parts. I think that if I had seen it in one sitting it would have flowed more as a narrative. In a way, I think I was least impressed with the opening and closing (mostly) New York-set scenes. The central narrative however, I found gripping. The ‘bookending’ of Second World War stories has become a convention of recent war films and to some extent it also links this film to Lee’s previous feature, Inside Man (2006) which also posed a mystery in New York that only made sense in terms of events from the 1930s. Lee has worked before with properties from other writers or with scripts written by strong authorial voices, so I’m not sure how much of the audience’s difficulties with the film come from the original story (which is a fiction based around a real incident). I read the book after I saw the film and in a way I’m glad I did it that way round as I enjoyed getting deeper into the narrative. I don’t believe that books are always ‘better’ than films – they are simply different as narratives.
The book isn’t actually very long, but it does have an awful lot of narrative detail. Although the film script more or less sticks to the book’s central narrative, there are aspects that are cut out since they are easily described in a novel, but would be difficult to include in a film narrative lasting less than three hours. This is inevitable – the book can include more detail, but it doesn’t press the emotional triggers as well as the film for a popular audience. Partly this means we learn less about the four central characters in the film than we do in the book. There is also, I think, less possibility of exploring the various fantasy or ‘spiritual’ elements of the novel – whether ‘real’ or imagined. More intriguingly, the film simplifies some of the subtleties in the depiction of the Buffalo Soldiers – perhaps McBride thought that audiences simply wouldn’t believe what actually happened in the US Army in Italy? Just to give one example, the leader of the four soldiers is a Staff Sergeant in the film, but a 2nd Lieutenant in the novel – a small difference, but important in how the Buffalo Soldiers were organised. There is also rather more in the novel about the issues concerning white officers and Black men. In other words, the film is perhaps less challenging than the novel in confronting the racism in the US armed forces.
Here are Spike Lee and James McBride in New York discussing the issues surrounding the film – it seems to me that in McBride, Spike Lee has found a like-minded soul (but note the emphasis that McBride puts on the theme of friendship and spirituality over and above the story of the Buffalo Soldiers).
Lee says that he wanted to make the film after reading the book, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that he knew quite a lot about the 92nd Division and had already considered this kind of project. The US forces in the Second World War were still segregated (although led by white officers). This caused problems in Europe as depicted in the John Schlesinger film Yanks (UK/US/Germany 1979) in which the local British girls are attracted to the black GIs and don’t really understand the colour bar (which did exist in Britain, but not so openly). The only other films I know that deal directly with segregation in the US forces at this time are The Tuskegee Airmen, an HBO TV film from 1995 and Norman Jewison’s A Soldier’s Story (1984).
As you might expect, the four soldiers are not Hollywood types but carefully-drawn characters who are constructed in various ways to allow McBride and Lee to explore a range of issues. Pfc Train (Omar Benson Miller) is the ‘chocolate giant’ – the gentle and spiritual boy from North Carolina who has never been close to a white person before he rescues the Italian boy. Corporal Negron (Laz Alonso) is the solid and sensible radio operator from Spanish Harlem, a bilingual man who also speaks enough Italian to translate when they meet the villagers. Sergeant Bishop (Michael Ealy) and Staff Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke) are the two who have ‘got on’ in life and in the Army, but Bishop is smooth and light-skinned, a con-man preacher from Kansas with the most obvious vices. Stamps is upright and sober but perhaps repressed – he is the product of a special US Army scheme devised to ‘fast track’ potential leaders. He is shocked that he feels more ‘free’ in Italy than at home and there is a vulnerability about him. They fall out over the only young attractive woman in the village – and just about everything else. There has been some comment that Bishop is too ‘modern’ in his speech and mannerisms and I can see this, but I suspect that Lee and McBride want to be sure that his behaviour is recognisable for a contemporary audience.
There are two aspects of the film that I suspect have caused most problems with American audiences. One is a typical Spike Lee insert into the narrative – a flashback to the soldiers during training in the Southern US where they encounter racists in a town bar (which was in the novel, although slightly differently handled). It’s the kind of incident that may well have happened in ‘real life’, but Lee plays it to the hilt. The other surprise for audiences, perhaps expecting a Hollywood style war film, is that the story is just as interested in the villagers and the partisans as in the soldiers and one of the central themes is the kind of supernatural bond that develops between Train and the boy and between the central family group in the village and the group of Black soldiers. McBride and Lee strongly suggest that for the soldiers, the village is a spiritual home.
The film did remind me of the great Hollywood war films – I mean the small-scale gritty pictures made by Robert Aldrich and Sam Fuller and also Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron – no higher praise really, except that it also reminded me of Rossellini’s Paisa with the partisans and Americans fighting the Germans (and the Brits mentioned and somewhere off-screen). The combat scenes were pretty impressive and exciting and probably quite realistic in terms of the survival rate in what was a very hard-fought campaign. I’d urge anyone to see the film – and to read the book. In an ideal world, I think I’d like Spike Lee to be able to make two films – Part 1 about how the Buffalo Soldiers were formed and Part 2 about what happened to them in Tuscany. I hope he returns to material like this. I’m also tempted to read more by James McBride.
Spike Lee has often referred to his own obsession with the ‘Knicks’ basketball team in New York, so it isn’t a surprise that he decided to make a film about basketball. ‘Sports films’ constitute a familiar genre in Hollywood, but they are often concerned with American sports that relatively few people worldwide actually understand (i.e. baseball and American football). Basketball is played in most countries but not in a professional way like it is with the NBA in the US. Although we don’t really understand these American sports, Hollywood generally simplifies them enough to turn a sporting event into a familiar cinematic dramatic narrative. This usually means that the film has little credibility with sports fans since it lacks authenticity either in the storyline or the presentation of the action on screen. Fortunately He Got Game is not a Hollywood movie, so it does something else.
I suggest that it isn’t a Hollywood movie, even though it stars Denzel Washington, by the late 1990s an A List star, and was released by Touchstone, a Disney Brand. The-Numbers.com suggests that the production budget of the film was $25 million which signifies a medium budget picture. What this means to me is that this was one of those Spike Lee blags in which he persuades a studio to cough up money and then produces something different to what the studio expects – the film opened at No 1 on 1,300 screens but died fairly quickly for a $21 million US box office gross. It does, however, have a following of sorts.
Hollywood narratives are usually linear and goal-centred, so sports films tend to feature a number of games/performances culminating in winning a championship contest. He Got Game ends with a contest of sorts, but there are no conventional sports contests. Instead this is a film about the commercialisation and professionalisation of sport in the US, its place in African-American culture and specifically in the father-son relationship within the African-American family. The generic narrative is actually drawn from the prison movie. Denzel Washington plays Jake Shuttlesworth apparently in prison (Attica) for a long stretch. He practises his basketball technique in the prison yard in order to keep fit and one day he is called into the warden’s office to be made an astounding offer. He will be released on special leave for a short period in order to persuade his son, Jesus, to enrol at ‘Big State’. Jesus has been named as the No 1 high school basketball player in the country and his enrolment is being sought by all the big basketball schools. The warden is intent on pleasing the governor, who is backing Big State. When Jake agrees to the ‘mission’ (after assurance that success could shorten his sentence) we begin to learn, via series of flashbacks, why he is in prison and how Jesus came to be such a star player. The time limit is the date by which Jesus must make a decision – only a few days away. Will he make the right decision? I won’t reveal what happens, but needless to say, there must be dramatic tension, which I don’t think is released in the most conventional way.
One of the strengths of Spike Lee’s filmmaking is cinematography and visual design and another is music. The opening to He Got Game is stunning in every way. If you didn’t know already, you would quickly be convinced that Lee loves basketball and wishes to place it on a pedestal as the ultimate American game – to mythologise it as Richard Falcon in Sight and Sound suggests. (‘He Got Game’ appears to be a complimentary remark confirming that someone can really play the game.) The camerawork by Malik Hassan Sayeed, who worked on several Lee films in the 1990s, draws on documentary styles and allied to the use of Aaron Copland’s music on the soundtrack it presents a series of beautiful images of street and on court basketball across the US and in and around Coney Island. The film’s aesthetic is constructed around a seeming contradiction. Although all the basketball footage is highly stylised – the ball is often in slow motion – there is also a strong thread of cinematic realism. Coney Island is the Shuttlesworth home and the Abraham Lincoln High School is a real school – one of the best-known and most successful public schools in America. Not being a fan of classical music, I also wasn’t aware that Aaron Copland is in many ways an appropriate composer to use in scoring the film. Copland was another Brooklyn boy who ‘done good’ – an intriguing figure, Jewish, gay and a socialist according to the Wikipedia entry. On the soundtrack, the Copland pieces are mainly used for the basketball moments and contrasted with Public Enemy used for the home life of Jesus. I was also intrigued by Lee’s use of the unusual name Shuttlesworth for the central characters. Doing a bit of internet research I came up with one of the highly honoured leaders of the Civil Rights movement, Fred Shuttlesworth (born 1922). I’m sure that isn’t a coincidence. (The naming of ‘Jesus’ is explained in the narrative and has a similar resonance in terms of the treatment of Black sports stars – Lee’s original motivation to make a sports film was the story of the Black baseball player Jackie Robinson who ‘broke the colour barrier’.)
This symbolism/realism also carries through to the discourse about the commercialisation of basketball. Jesus watches himself on television and we are offered a range of TV clips featuring the various coaches who praise Jesus. Lee’s critique of TV journalism pre-figures his attacks in Bamboozled and he can’t resist pushing the jokes as far as possible, so that one of the funniest scenes in the movie sees another Spike Lee regular, John Turturro, as a coach welcoming Jesus into his enormous basketball stadium with a montage of Jesus images on the big screen monitors, many taken from Denys Arcand’s Jésus of Montréal (Canada/France 1989) – a film itself satirising media images of the crucifixion.
The problem for Lee is how to meld his paean to basketball and satire on commercial sports to a family melodrama involving a father in prison. This is where he has to use the powerful star image of Washington – which he does very well with Denzel turning in a great performance, even with an Afro that seems rather dated. I confess that I’m not an historian of hair styles and I can’t remember when this style disappeared, but I’m assuming that it signifies how ‘out of touch’ Jake is (though he seems very aware of the latest model of Air Jordans in the shoe shop – Lee has had several commissions from Nike). Washington is both zen-like, gentle and vulnerable, crumpled even, but also hard and vicious as the occasion demands. I think he also works well with Ray Allen, a ‘real’ basketball star without acting experience who plays Jesus.
There are good and bad reviews of the film. The ones that suggest Lee only deals in stereotypes really piss me off. On the contrary, Lee always picks out interesting Black families with characters who live in real places doing believable things. Jesus is not a stereotypical Hollywood Black youth. He is a basketball player (all the basketball plays are ‘real’ not simulated) and a boy who has, understandably turned against his father. His little sister is that rare thing in American cinema, a believable child torn between brother, a surrogate father and her real Dad.
The film is not without its flaws. As usual, unfortunately, Spike’s writing for women seems less developed than for the male characters and I can’t really see why the film needed its sex scenes to be presented in such detail. Presumably both Jake and Jesus had to be seen having sex with prostitutes to emphasise the father-son similarities and possible differences (i.e. in the circumstances in which they found themselves). One of the better reviews (from a fan) suggests that there are many matching shots of the son and the father doing similar things. The film is also too long at 134 minutes – but apart from trimming a few scenes, I don’t think I could see where to cut it significantly. Finally, there is the race question. From one line of dialogue and the brief appearance of Jesus’ mother in a flashback, I gathered that Spike wanted to say something about mixed marriages, but I couldn’t work out what.
The film is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it and worth watching again to savour the basketball scenes with the Copland music.
Here’s the trailer – quite good at suggesting rather than revealing the narrative, I think:
and here is part of the opening sequence:
Well, do you want to watch the rest?
It’s twenty years since the release of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (it feels a lot longer, not sure why). The BFI is celebrating the occasion with a season on the Southbank in London and we are also going to get some screenings up here in Bradford. I’m also planning a course, so it seems a good idea to revisit the work of Spike Lee, one of the most controversial directors working today. I’ve seen most, but not all, of Lee’s features so I’ve got some catching up to do and some re-viewings. I’m not qualified to judge how well he represents African-American culture, though I feel like I’ve learned a lot from his films. Although race is a major topic for him, his films are also about gender, social class, the family and a host of other issues. Most of all though he is a stylist and I think that his films are distinctive because of their visual qualities, the use of music and great casting. Lee is a genuine auteur. There are few filmmakers whose work is instantly recognisable from their company’s name. But when you see the announcement that a film is from ‘40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks‘, you know that it is a Spike Lee Joint, sho’ nuff.
I’d have to say that I haven’t yet seen a bad Spike Lee film or perhaps more accurately, I haven’t yet seen a Spike Lee film that wasn’t interesting in terms of style, content and commitment. I know that there are commentators that I respect, such as Armond White, who are very down on Spike and accuse him of blocking out other more worthwhile filmmakers because of his vigorous self-promotion and propensity to ‘say it like it is’ as loudly as possible – but even when I don’t necessarily agree with him, I think it is better that he is out there saying things than keeping schtumm.
Spike Lee was born in 1957 in Atlanta but grew up in Brooklyn, New York City. He went back to college in Atlanta at the famous Black school, Morehouse, before developing his filmmaking skills back in New York at the Tisch School a couple of years behind Jim Jarmusch. Lee’s father is a noted jazz musician and composer and his mother was a teacher. His father has worked on the music for several of Lee’s films and his family life has clearly influenced his filmmaking.
In 1986, Lee’s first ‘commercial’ feature She’s Gotta Have It, a low budget independent film, was one of the earliest successes of what became known as American Independent Cinema. Since then, Lee has been continuously working on fiction features, documentaries, TV dramas, music videos and commercials, all produced by his own company. As of August 2009, Lee had released 20 features (fiction and documentary) and another 20 TV/video/commercials etc. This is a staggering achievement given the conservative nature of the mainstream American film business and the forthright arguments put forward by producer/writer/director/actor Spike Lee. This hasn’t prevented major features like the last Spike Lee Joint, the Miracle at Santa Anna (2008) from failing to get a proper release outside North America. Personally, I find it difficult to imagine what the winning documentaries must have been like that prevented Lee’s 4 Little Girls (1997) and When the Levées Broke (2006) from claiming Oscar success. But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised given the commercial failure of Bamboozled (2000), the biting satire on the racism in American television. In the same year, Lee had a big commercial success with a documentary/concert film featuring four African-American comedians, The Original Kings of Comedy. Lee is tough and sharp when it comes to surviving in the American film industry. It would be good to discuss what we think his films have contributed to global film culture over twenty years and more.
I would put Spike Lee into my Top 10 American filmmakers of the last twenty years without hesitation.
Spike Lee has been a ‘controversial’ director since his first film, She’s Gotta Have It (1986). Nearly all of his features have focused on African-American culture and identity. Lee trained at New York University film school, following Martin Scorsese as a contemporary of Jim Jarmusch. His first film was an independent feature, but he soon attracted the attention of the studio majors and has since been an uneasy bedfellow for a number of studios. At the same time, Lee has promoted himself and his company very effectively, courting controversy, not only for his own films, but also through his interventions in public debates about other high-profile films which address African-American cultural issues.
Through his public appearances and statements, Lee has gained supporters and detractors in equal measure, both within the African-American community and across American society as a whole. Bamboozled can be seen as Lee’s strongest statement about the issue of identity, with its direct references to arguably his most successful previous films Do The Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992) as well as its biting satire on contemporary culture.
These notes explore the following aspects of the film.
- the history of black representations in American cinema and television
- satire as a narrative form
- music and visual style and the aesthetics of Bamboozled
- Spike Lee as auteur.
First, an outline of the film’s premise:
Pierre Delacroix (Damon Willans) is a highly educated African-American employed as a producer on a TV channel run by a young white guy, Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport). Dunwitty commands ‘Dela’ to come up with an idea that will attract a black audience. Feeling undervalued and patronised, Dela comes up with the idea of reviving the ‘minstrel shows’ of the past, expecting to create controversy and expose the institutional racism in US television through biting satire. His assistant Sloan (Jada Pinkett Smith) is sent out to find some performers and she returns with Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson) who are busking outside the studio. But Dela’s plan fails when the show is a big hit. Then there are a whole range of unexpected outcomes . . .
‘Minstrelsy’ and black performers
The central idea of Bamboozled is the recreation of a ‘blackface’ minstrel show with the intention of exposing the hypocrisy of the US television industry in its representation of black issues.
Minstrel shows developed in the pre Civil War United States. Originally they comprised white performers wearing ‘blackface’ (burnt cork) who created a set of stereotypical characters such as ‘Uncle Tom’, ‘Mammy’, the lazy, chicken stealing ‘Rufus’ or ‘Rastus’ etc. The first of these performers was Thomas D. Rice who appeared as a crippled old black man named ‘Jim Crow’ in 1828. The term ‘Jim Crow’ later became shorthand for the whole edifice of institutionalised Southern racism that oppressed African-Americans even when slavery was ended – thus the so-called ‘Jim Crow Laws’ that underpinned segregation in the South from the late nineteenth century right up to the 1960s. These laws supported segregation of black and white people in public places and denied voting rights and equality before the law.
After the Civil War, black performers themselves began to use ‘blackface’ with its obscenely exaggerated features as an entry into performances for white audiences (including audiences in the UK and mainland Europe). Minstrel shows as live performances began to lose some of their popularity at the start of the twentieth century, but they swiftly moved to the new forms of cinema and radio, where they proved popular as the basis for enduring stereotypes.
Black performers from the 1920s through to the 1960s had two choices. They could appear in small independent films, made for the so-called ‘race’ market – black audiences in the South and in the major urban areas (the ‘race music’ market targeted black consumers in the same way). Some of these films were produced by black entrepreneurs like Oscar Micheaux. Mainstream Hollywood also made the occasional all black film, usually a musical, but mostly, black performers were restricted in Hollywood to specific roles as high-class entertainers (such as Duke Ellington) or in the stereotypical supporting roles as ‘Mammy’, ‘Uncle Tom’ or ‘Coon’ (the lazy and cowardly Rastus type character). Gone With The Wind (1939) is a good example of a major film with two star turns by Hattie McDaniel as the Mammy and Butterfly McQueen as the childlike maid with the high-pitched voice.
All these roles were demeaning, none more so than the ‘coon’. Hollywood paid better and made some performers into stars, but the antics of the coon were less noticeable in the all black films where such stars would just be seen as a ‘funny man’ amongst a range of black character types. As the sidekick to a white protagonist in a range of ‘B’ pictures, the coon character would widen his eyes and run as soon as danger threatened. One of the most popular performers was Mantan Moreland who played the ‘scared to death’ chauffeur Birmingham Brown in the Charlie Chan series in the 1940s. The name ‘Sleep ‘n Eat’ was associated with another coon figure, Willie Best. Both these actors were seen as successors to the earlier star, Stepin Fetchit.
The ‘high class entertainers’ were associated with the intellectual and artistic movements of Harlem that also produced poets and writers in the 1940s and 1950s. Reference to these movements comes in Bamboozled via Pierre’s use of the term ‘negro’ and his quotation from James Baldwin at his death. Although the entertainers in this group were wealthy and widely admired in white America, they were still ‘kept in their place’ by entertainment institutions. Lena Horne and Nat King Cole were just two performers who found themselves restricted at various times. Lena Horne’s performances in MGM musicals were edited so that they could easily be cut when the films were shown in the South (see Bogle 1992). The singer Nat King Cole was the first black star to have a networked television show (and the problems that went with it).
The most popular radio act was ‘Amos and Andy’, a pair of clowns who transferred to television in 1951 and became instantly popular portraying uneducated Southern black men. The racism of the 1820s reached television almost unchanged. The success of the show and its subsequent demise a few years later in the face of the Civil Rights movement, scared television producers and black shows were largely absent from television until the emergence of a new generation of shows in the 1970s, which again drew criticisms of ‘one dimensionality’ in terms of African-American representations. This in turn produced ‘safe’ ‘middle-class’ sitcoms such as The Cosby Show. Given the enormous number of television channels in America (over 900), remarkably few address the range of different black audiences. Breaking through the barriers of history and still extant institutional racism is the problem that confronts Pierre Delacroix in Bamboozled. It’s worth noting that in Britain The Black and White Minstrel Show (white performers in blackface) was still the centre of BBC Television’s Saturday night entertainment in the 1960s.
One of the striking aspects of the mise en scène of Bamboozled is the deployment of numerous artefacts that depict the standard stereotypes such as the Mammy figure, ‘Little Nigger Jim’ etc. The characters on stage in the minstrel show are duplicated around Dela’s office and home as he begins to acquire figurines and posters, mirroring the activities of many contemporary African-Americans who now collect such items (including Lee himself). The moment when the savings bank seems to animate itself is a startling representation of Dela’s breakdown. These artifacts were common in North America up to the 1960s (and they existed in the UK as well). Some were associated with particular products such as Uncle Ben’s Rice, Aunt Jemimah’s Pancake Mix etc. and these kinds of associations are satirised by Lee through the reference to ‘Tommy Hilnigger’ clothes and Da Bomb malt liquor.
Another Hollywood film in 2001, Ghost World, also picks up on this phenomenon. A young high school graduate played by Thora Birch discovers an original 1950s poster for ‘Coon Chicken Inns’ and enters it in an art competition as ‘found art’, hoping to cause comment and to raise questions about institutional racism – she succeeds in creating a controversy.
The complexity of representations
There isn’t space here to do justice to the development of racial stereotypes throughout the Hollywood studio era and into television. Bogle points out that the later characters were gradually ‘humanised’ into likeable personalities – but perhaps this makes the type even more dangerous?
What is certainly true is that many of the leading black performers were supreme entertainers who gave audiences immense pleasure in viewing performances. The racism from which they suffered didn’t negate the power of their performances and this is something that Lee clearly recognises and celebrates. Savion Glover who plays Mantan/Manray is one of the foremost performers in contemporary dance and a star of international reputation – when in Bamboozled he is presented with the shoes owned by Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, it is an intensely moving moment.
1. (a) A literary work in which human vice or folly is ridiculed or attacked scornfully.
1. (b) The branch of literature which composes such work.
2. Irony, derision or caustic wit used to attack, expose folly, vice or stupidity.
These dictionary definitions of ‘satire’ are Pierre Delacroix’s first words in Bamboozled. From the outset, Spike Lee sets out his intentions. His film is clearly not going to be a ‘realist’ account of goings-on in an American television company. From this opening we should expect that the characters in the film will be broadly drawn with names that refer in some way to their role in the satire (as in Thackeray’s nineteenth century take on English manners, Vanity Fair).
This is certainly the case with the names chosen for the performers, referring directly to stereotypical characters or black performers of the 1930s. The lead character has changed his name from ‘Peerless’ (his given name – reflecting his mother’s attempt to strive for a more dignified future?) to the pretentious ‘Pierre’, more suited to his new ‘buppy’ (‘black upwardly mobile professional’ – the equivalent of ‘yuppie’) identity. His father is ‘Junebug’ a more ‘down home’ name for a performer who is something of a ‘gadfly’ with barbed attacks on white society for his predominantly black audience.
The other name change comes with Sloan’s brother, ‘Big Blak Afrika’ who explains that he is not ‘Julius’ any more. His exchange with Sloan explains the whole business of dispensing with ‘slave names’ that began with the Black Muslims in the 1950s. Sloan and Julius both carry the name ‘Hopkins’. This is one of the oldest names in American history, traceable back to a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and one of the first families of settlers in Massachusetts.
In a satire, we can expect that few characters will be ‘sympathetic’ in the usual sense. Some will be clearly misguided or villainous, others will be dupes in the exaggerated story. Thus Pierre’s mother, an otherwise ‘real’ character, represents the over protective mother who is ‘disappointed’ in her son. In Bamboozled, the most seemingly sane and rational character is Sloan – does she in some way represent us, the audience? In the end, she too is implicated in the madness.
“[Jada’s] really the conscience of the film, the character the audience feels for. And despite that, her hands are bloody too, as are Delacroix’s. Everybody’s bloody in the film, everybody’s in cahoots, and she knew about it from the beginning, but like everyone else in the film, she wants to see how it’s going to work out.” (Spike Lee in Fuchs, 2000)
Because the aim of satire is ridicule, we can’t expect a satirical film to conform to narrative conventions as such. The ending of Bamboozled is rushed and ‘over the top’ (‘melodramatic’ perhaps – this particular satire draws on family melodrama for some of its effects). By contrast, the coda – the compilation of clips from Hollywood films and television shows – is given more prominence than usual and earlier narrative sequences, such as the audition scenes for the minstrel show, are given extended coverage when conventionally they would be presented in a montage. Lee’s main purpose is to expose and ridicule, not to tell a conventionally ‘satisfying’ tale.
The major problem with satire for audiences is a tendency towards incoherence. This comes from the lack of conventional narrative structure and from the ‘scattergun effect’ of raising a wide range of issues, none of which will be ‘resolved’ as such. Lee’s aim is to make audiences think, to carry on the debate outside the cinema, rather than to feel that there is a ‘right’ answer.
“This film is really an exploration of the history of racism and misrepresentation of African Americans and people of color since the birth of film and television. This film shows how racism is woven into the very fabric of America: when you think of America, you think of Hollywood, and this wasn’t just D.W. Griffith. This was Al Jolson, and “wholesome” performers like Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Bing Crosby. It was like, the sky was blue, just accepted, an accepted view of black people.” (Lee in Fuchs op cit)
“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. In particular, I want them to see how film and television have historically, from the birth of both mediums, produced and perpetuated distorted images.” (Lee in Cineaste interview)
Bamboozled also emphasises its satirical roots through references to two earlier satires on American media. Spike Lee has discussed his own admiration for A Face in the Crowd (1957) written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. In this film an ‘Arkansas nobody’ becomes a major media star when his personality is promoted by television. His ego takes over and eventually he is found out. References to a later film, Network (1976), written by Paddy Chayevsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, are evident in the pilot minstrel show in Bamboozled when Manray/Mantan urges viewers to go to their windows and shout out that they are “not going to take it any more”. This is a direct reference to the newscaster played by Peter Finch who gains a huge television audience by becoming an evangelical figure: his ravings against the media are turned into high ratings by the network. Something similar (i.e. the cynical manipulation of the truth) is evident in the speeches made by Warren Beatty in the political satire Bulworth (1998).
The pilot minstrel show does seem to be more directly ‘political’ in content with Mantan’s rant referring to the problems of urban America and Womack pointedly referring to a gentler time when there were fewer problems and black people ‘knew their place’. This irony is much diminished in the later shows.
Whatever else we might think about the presentation of characters in Bamboozled, we can be sure that all the stereotypical characters are based on historical evidence. It may be difficult, and painful, to stomach, but Hollywood did create such representations.
The aesthetic of Bamboozled
Spike Lee and his cinematographer Ellen Kuras (a regular Lee collaborator and one of the very few women to succeed in Hollywood as a cinematographer) devised an approach to the ‘look’ of the film using digital video and Super 16. In fact, Ellen Kuras used several ‘mini-DV’ cameras working on the European PAL standard rather than American NTSC (since it gives a slightly higher resolution that is noticeable when blown up to 35mm for cinema projection.) Video is used throughout the film in all scenes except those depicting the stage performances, which are shot on film.
The deliberate move from one format to another might be seen as a ‘distancing’ device such as those associated with the German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Such devices serve to break up the easy identification with characters or the flow of the narrative and ask audiences to question the way in which the narrative is being constructed. Lee uses a ‘Brechtian’ approach in several of his films. Other examples in Bamboozled might be the ‘fantasy’ moments such as Pierre thinking about slapping Dunwitty and later when the savings bank is animated.
There are several different ways to approach the choice between digital video and film. On the one hand, video might be thought appropriate for the ‘story’ scenes if they are being equated with the feel of ‘reality tv’ – handheld, grainy, muted colours with plenty of blue. Equally film might suit the ‘fantasy’ of performance. But the opposite could also be argued – film is an ironic medium to use for material that would be viewed as ‘live television’, but film would be the expected format for the fiction narrative of the ‘story’ scenes. This confusion adds to the distanciation effect. Ironically, also, ‘Super 16′ is a film format that uses the whole of the film area to record the image (i.e. sound must be recorded separately) and in the UK it is only used for shooting film for television.
In her contribution to the Cineaste symposium, Zeinabu Irene Davis points to the striking colour scheme in the film with blue the predominant colour in the cold ‘white’ scenes (the network offices, Pierre’s apartment etc.) and orange in the warmer ‘black’ scenes – Junebug’s performance, the focus on Da Bomb malt liquor. Davis points out that blue is a difficult colour to remove from digital images, but film allows the vibrant colours of the minstrel show, none more so than the deeply moving sequences in which Manray and Womack apply the burnt cork of ‘blackface’, finishing with the ‘fire truck red’ lipstick.
As a final comment on the technologies used, the budget for Bamboozled was $10 million. This is significantly more than might be available for a ‘black independent’ production, but only about 20% of the budget of a mainstream Hollywood feature. The film was eventually financed by New Line Cinema, a Time Warner company, so it is ‘independent’ in name only. Lee has criticised the company for its failure to distribute the film properly.
Music is crucial in Spike Lee’s films and in Bamboozled he worked for the ninth time with Terence Blanchard. The music performs two different functions. In the Stevie Wonder songs, the lyrics provide a direct commentary on the themes and issues of the film, whereas in Blanchard’s score, the music serves to add intensity to the emotional underpinning of key scenes.
The performances by the artistes at the audition are more problematic. The key performance is by the Mau Maus, all of whom were played by hip-hop performers from the more politically conscious end of the music. Lee wanted to present both the politics of rap and it’s excesses:
“I think their intentions are honorable but, but they’re misguided. I think a lot of this is because they don’t read. If you don’t read then you’re going to be ignorant, and you’re just going to be making up stuff as you go along. I like rap music, but I’m not a fan of a lot of gangsta rap. I think it’s obsessed with the ‘bling bling,’ with the gold chains and diamonds and Bentleys and all other trappings – you know, the titties and the butts shaking and jigging into the camera. I don’t think that’s uplifting, not at all. It’s all about massive amounts of consumption.” Spike Lee interview in Cineaste.
Spike Lee as auteur
Several references have already been made to Spike Lee’s output via his company ‘40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks’. The company title refers to the (unfulfilled) promise made to freed slaves after the Civil War. In reality not only were blacks in the South not supported by the Federal government, but as already noted, the ‘Jim Crow’ laws reduced them to second-class citizens. Lee’s intent in controlling his own work is clear.
Bamboozled refers directly to several of Lee’s other films. The title itself comes from the term used by Malcolm X to describe the state of mind of black people in the 1950s (“to be deceived, confounded or mystified” is the dictionary definition of the word). Denzel Washington is seen in a clip from Lee’s 1992 film. The history of Southern institutionalised racism is explored in Lee’s critically acclaimed documentary Four Little Girls (1999), which investigates the death of the girls in a bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 during the Civil Rights struggle.
The most striking reference is to Do The Right Thing (1989). This was the film which brought Lee to a wide audience. It concentrates on an incident in the predominantly black neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York on the hottest day of the year. A confrontation begins when a politically conscious young man challenges the owner of the neighbourhood pizzeria over the the issue of the portraits of the ‘heroes’ on the walls of the pizza parlour. They are all Italian-Americans, but most of the customers are black. Why can’t the owner put up portraits of black heroes? He refuses and tension grows. Lee himself plays Mookie, the pizza delivery man – caught in the middle of the conflict. The film explores all the ethnic communities in the area and the different positions they take up.
In Bamboozled, Dunwitty has his office decorated with African-American sports stars in order to prove how ‘black’ he is. But he also smooths his hair and makes a reference to the Rev. Al Sharpton in exactly the same way as the racist son of the pizzeria owner in Do The Right Thing. Lee seems to be saying that the debate has moved on or become more complex. (In Do The Right Thing, the young man who calls for portraits of the ‘brothers’ is clearly right to be asking the question, but is shown to be inept in political strategy – Dunwitty is a target for satire). Lee himself does not appear in Bamboozled. Does he place himself outside the arguments? He is clearly implicated in the issues. D’Arcy (2001) suggests that Lee is a collector of ‘black Americana’ and that some of the figurines that decorate Pierre’s apartment are from Lee’s own collection. Lee would argue that preserving such artefacts is important in keeping the evidence of what happened in front of people. But how does he refute the charge that in promoting his own brand of ‘designer clothing’ he is as culpable as ‘Tommy Hilnigger’ of being an entrepreneur in league with corporate white America in separating urban black youth from their money? The issues are complex and, again, Lee would argue that by earning the money to give him the freedom to make the films he wants, his commercial ventures are ultimately subsidising more important political and cultural work.
Ideas and values: Lee and his critics
Bamboozled was not a box-office success and it attracted plenty of negative reviews to put alongside some glowing endorsements. Almost all critics are agreed on one point. There are possibly too many ideas to fit in one film. The issues are complex and can’t be contained within a single narrative. Lee’s strategy of playing the film as a satire and therefore presenting ‘broad brush’ characters in a didactic and ultimately melodramatic mode then divides the audience. Those who are happy with the satirical mode find the film invigorating and important in stirring up a debate that should be heard. The detractors feel that it simply means that the film is incoherent – a mess.
Lee’s most consistent critic has been Armond White of the alternative weekly New York Press. White sees Lee as making ‘big budget agit-prop’ movies that please the ‘white liberal press’ and take up the space that might be used by more radical and more important black filmmakers such as Charles Burnett (see below). More acutely, White asks whether or not Lee is patronising his audience in not recognising the sophistication with which black audiences read contemporary images and also in not considering how audiences ‘read’ such images in the 1930s.
White’s attack is important and it is supported by Ray Carney, an academic at Boston University:
The presence of racially- or sexually-based characters, settings, and references is no guarantee of minority imaginative content, in this sense, and is in fact irrelevant to it. That is why Spike Lee’s films can be judged to be far more mainstream, middle-class, middlebrow, and ‘Hollywood’ in their point of view than Cassavetes’. While Lee merely recycles standard Hollywood melodramatic conflicts, formulas, and clichés (in Minstrel Blackface, as it were -suburban, Yuppified versions of Cabin in the Sky [a Hollywood musical with an all-black cast, made in 1943]), the stylistic experiences of Cassavetes’ or Burnett’s works provide the viewer with the opportunity to participate imaginatively in truly alien and unconventional forms of knowledge. (Carney 1994)
Carney is writing about the New York independent filmmaker John Cassavettes, but again he mentions Charles Burnett. Burnett is a genuine independent filmmaker who works on miniscule budgets and has produced a handful of films over a twenty year period. Only two of Burnett’s films have been released in the UK, the most recent being a family melodrama set in Los Angeles, To Sleep With Anger (1990). Burnett’s films are characterised by the absence of stereotypical black characters and a much more realist presentation. It is this realism that is seen as radical given that other black films (Lee’s included) are seemingly pre-occupied with violence, drugs and popular entertainment.
Questions for discussion
1. Is Bamboozled a ‘radical film’?
2. Pierre Delacroix is the leading character in Bamboozled. What kind of a journey does he take in terms of understanding black representations?
3. What is Spike Lee suggesting in the way in which he tells the story of Manray/Mantan and Womack/Sleep ‘n Eat?
4. Are the criticisms of Spike Lee justified in presenting him as a middle-class African-American filmmaker who takes the focus of attention away from more radical black filmmakers?
References and further reading
Don Bogle (1992) Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, New York: Continuum
Ray Carney (1994) The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism,
Modernism, and the Movies, New York and London: Cambridge University Press
Cineaste Vol XXVI No 2 features a Spike Lee interview and a critical symposium on the film.
David D’Arcy (2000), ‘Black market’, Guardian March 30
John Kisch and Edward Mapp (1992) A Separate Cinema: Fifty Years of Black Cast Posters, New York: Noonday Press
Cynthia Fuchs (2000) interview with Spike Lee on http://www.nitrateonline.com/2000/fbambooz.html