Film critic (and sometime guest on Film 2016) Ashley Clark has featured on this site before, when we discussed the Afrofuturism season he curated at the BFI in 2014. He has just written his first book, Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled.
We spoke about the book, the merits and demerits of Bamboozled, and the wider issues raised by the film:
Shane Thomas: Why did you want to interrogate the topic of blackface, through the film, Bamboozled?
Ashley Clark: I watched Bamboozled when it first came out, and I didn’t really like it. It looks unpleasant. It’s got an uncomfortable subject matter, and there’s not many likeable characters. I watched it, didn’t really like it, and put it to the back of my mind, but something about the film really stayed with me.
This new publisher, The Critical Press, came along, and they were interested in submissions about individual film titles, and I thought this would be an interesting one to dig into because a lot of the issues the film deals with are still relevant today.
ST: I’ve sometimes wondered if blackface is so explosive as it’s one of the most easy-to-identify manifestations of white supremacy, in a general sense? A literal black face.
AC: It’s a highly charged and powerful symbol. The most powerful scenes in Bamboozled are when the two actors – who perform in blackface – have to put the burnt cork on, and Tommy Davidson (who plays Womack a.k.a Sleep’n’Eat) wrote about how blacking up in those scenes made him emotional, because it brought up a lot of history and pain of what black people have been forced to go through.
SH: One thing that gets overlooked in conversations about Bamboozled is the craft that went into the visual palette. What are your thoughts on that?
AC: The choice to shoot on digital was a budgetary, rather than aesthetic, decision. But I think Spike Lee turns that to the film’s advantage, because they get a lot of coverage, there’s about ten to fifteen cameras filming at the same time. There’s lots of unsettling camera set-ups, and lots of strange editing. The actors don’t even really know where the cameras are, which gives the film this horror-like quality.
Then there’s the contrast between the grubby digital and the gorgeous Super 16mm film for the performance sequences. It makes the blackface sequences look so – for want of a better word – beautiful, and underlines how seductive they are for the audience. It’s really uncomfortable to make something so ugly look very beautiful, and it’s accentuated by how ugly everything else looks.
SH: The critical reaction around Bamboozled was largely negative. Was that reaction, which came from primarily white critics, a result of them not wanting to interrogate their own complicity in the structure of America?
AC: It’s a film that rejects a narrative of progress, which I think is very attractive in America. Related to The American Dream is this idea of an upward curve, and a lot of historical films, even films like Selma, still leave the viewer with a sense of hopefulness. But I think Bamboozled completely and utterly rejects that, and its satire leaves nobody unscathed.
It actively calls out white liberal complicity, and a lot of liberal critics seemed to take it as a personal affront, and were very dismissive of it. But time has told that everything – from April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite; to lack of diversity at executive level; to the fact that blackface still happens – that the film shows is a real concern, and a lot of it hasn’t been addressed.
I also think that people reacted badly to the film because some of it doesn’t work. There’s that weird shift to melodrama at the end, and the love-triangle business is poorly fleshed out. It’s not a perfectly crafted narrative, so there are other reasons for people not liking it beyond sociological ones. And the idea of Spike Lee – his films are thought of as unfocused; or messy; or they lecture, rather than let you do the thinking. In some ways, Bamboozled falls into those traps, and they’re easy get-outs for critics to use as evidence for the prosecution.
SH: Having seen a decent amount of Lee’s work, it didn’t take me long to recalibrate my mind to the way he presents his ideas. I think you need to do that with certain filmmakers, like learning a new language.
AC: Film is a language with its own vocabulary, and film criticism should reflect that film is an art form. Something I wanted to do with the book was go into detail of what the film does aesthetically, and how that dovetails with the story it’s trying to tell. It was written off as ugly and messy, and to an extent it is, but why? It’s not by mistake. Lee’s made beautiful films, so when he makes a film as ugly as Bamboozled he must be doing it for a reason.
SH: What do you think the reaction would be if Bamboozled was made today?
AC: These days, with films that have controversy around them, there are even thinkpieces written about the trailers. Bamboozled would definitely cause controversy if it came out today. If it had come out in 2008, in the aftermath of Barack Obama being elected President, it probably would have been received even worse than it was originally.
SH: Even more than Bamboozled being an angry Spike Lee joint, it’s a despairing film.
AC: There’s so much despair in the movie. It obviously comes out of his own experiences of often being the “one guy” in the room when decisions are being made, and his own response to what he was seeing in the media – such as Ving Rhames giving his Golden Globe to Jack Lemmon – and neo-stereotypes, such as the magic negro.
SH: One of things that stood out in your book was that you describe Bamboozled as horror film.
AC: It reminded me of another film that came out that year: Mulholland Drive, which is not a horror film like Halloween, but it gives you the creeps, because it taps into some kind of dread that’s very relatable. Something that Bamboozled does very effectively is tapping into a real sense of dread based on a very real history that people are not keen to address. The way these tropes build up over the course of the film, the racist imagery, and the hysteria, gave it a horrifying quality.
AC: My aims are not too lofty, but I hope it will help to re-contextualise a very difficult film, and I hope for younger readers it will show how you can not necessarily enjoy a film, but there can still be real value in it. Hopefully the book will inspire people to dig deep into art that is challenging.
Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled is available now, in both paperback and for Kindle.
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