Spike Lee's film Bamboozled (2000), cinematically stages American mass entertainment's history of discrimination with humiliating minstrel stereotypes which was first brought to film in 1915 by D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. Blackface' minstrelsy is a disturbing legacy that began as a tradition in the early 1800s on stage, with white actors using burnt corks to darken their skin and "allowing them to portray African-American slaves, usually as lazy, child-like providers of comic relief" (4). This eventually evolved into Vaudeville-style parody shows consisting of songs, dances and comic skits. This tradition represented an accepted way of looking at African-Americans and was the first form of American mass culture that created stereotypes. At the time it also eased white tensions about black America and the images served to justify notions of white superiority and power. Early American cinema relied on racial stereotypes and spectacles and it gained much popularity because it drew heavily from the tropes of vaudeville and minstrel shows, it was an effort to make the film-going experience comfortable. Bamboozled offers itself as a "status check" of the genealogy of American Cinema that begins with Griffith and develops through most of the genre and major technological innovation in film history. Bamboozled clearly compresses the aesthetic and socioeconomic history of racist representation and essentially is a tool to analyze the presence of this history in the present. It also destabilizes the possibility of constructing an "innocent" history, by rooting the film industry in the aesthetics of racism. Minstrelsy is politically charged and its influence has clearly continued to influence film historically and contemporarily. Bamboozled and Birth of a Nation share two common elements of satire and stereotyping.
Birth of a Nation
The Birth of a Nation relays a strong message of its white supremist vision through minstrelsy and propaganda which implicitly excluded African-Americans from stage and identity performance. It is considered the single most important and key film of all time in American movie history. It contains many cinematic innovations and refinements, technical effects and artistic advancements, including a color sequence at the end. It had a "formative influence on future films and has had a recognized impact on film history and the development of film as art" (7). Its story includes the events leading up to the nation's split; the Civil War era; the period from the end of the Civil War to Lincoln's assassination; the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era detailing the struggle over the control of Congress during Andrew Johnson's presidency , actions of the Radical Republicans to enfranchise the freed slaves, and the rise of the KKK. The film was made during a time when the audiences were familiar with the blackface and it provided an authentic re-creation of African-American culture and provided a narrative to "explain" the ambivalence of its stereotypes: "black" behavior is the direct result of "white" politics. In blackface, whiteness controls the performance of blackness. African American actors are in the film but most are not the main characters, instead they appear in mobs that do not speak and make random roars and murmurs. The few African-American actors that do have their own individual roles put on the blackface and portray either devoted Southern servants who reject freedom after the Civil War or rebellious Northern servants who roll their eyes. The minstrels mimed blacks and in the Birth of a Nation, the black actors and clearly showed that they were "denied potential of having their own self-representation and instead had a fixed African-American identity masked and crucially guided by "whiteness" (6). Literal blackface surfaces in the film in contexts that are clearly suggestive of minstrelsy's racist implications. One actor, who early in the movie plays Abraham Lincoln, later rides a...
Citations: (1) Lee, Spike, dir. Bamboozled. 2001. 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 2001.
Bhabha, Homi K
(6) Stanfield, Peter. "‘An Octoroon in the Kindling ': American Vernacular and Blackface Minstrelsy in 1930s Hollywood." Journal of American Studies 31.3 (1997): 407–38.
(7) Birth of a Nation
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