Pazar, Şubat 21, 2016

Racism and the "Bamboozled (2000)"

While many of the most vicious and degrading aspects of racism have diminished over the past few generations – for example, ‘Manly Sports’ in the commonwealth of Australia and lynchings in the Land of the Free – the history of racism as brutality is deeply inscribed in the culture and subjects of racist societies. History is not simply ‘in the past’, in memory, in institutions and in ‘residual’ patterns of everyday interaction, it is very much alive in the present.” (Jordan & Weedon, Marking Difference, Asserting Power: the Cultural Politics of Racism)


Racism has always been a serious and often times a controversial issue the reason for which is although there have always been those promoting human rights, the idea that no race is any superior to others and all human beings are equal no matter what their skin color is, there are yet so many of those who do not fear expressing their racist feelings openly and strongly believing in the idea of the supremacy of the white race. The root of the idea of racism is the belief that certain characteristics can be attributed to certain groups of people based on their skin color just assuming that they are a monolithic and homogeneous group sharing the same dispositions. Therefore, when an unpleasant characteristic is related to an individual of a certain race, it is inevitably generalized to all those belonging to the same race horrible consequences of which can be evident in history.

Though it is not limited to a one single race enduring the discrimination resulting from racism, it can be said that black people suffered and are still suffering the most. In history, as race was seen as a threat, this gave way to the mobilization of people for social control and protection of their normal society under the name of “moral panics”. As a consequence of this, blacks were exposed to both physical and verbal violence. What’s more, with the advent of the media, cinema sector started to be manipulated and racism became a theme of the movies in the early 1900’s. Movies (e.g. Birth of a Nation) have been made promoting discrimination and violence against those of color. Many TV shows today just reinforce negative thoughts and prejudices against black people (blacks as unintelligent and lazy with big hips and lips and so on). However, there have also been those movies as well that try to shed light upon the discrimination against black people.

Bamboozled” (2000) is one of these movies which takes the theme of racism at hand using satire to show that racism is still existent and stereotypes still continue. With a story evolving around some black people who come from different socio-economic backgrounds and have different roles in society, the movie shows how these people suffer the consequences of their actions in a white-dominant world. The aim of this paper is to tell briefly about the discourse of racism, to study how racism is used in the movie and to make an analysis of these characters and review the changes in them throughout the movie in the light of different ways of representation about how black people are to behave in order to survive in a white dominant society.


Racism should not be taken at hand separate from history. Throughout history, many black people became the victims of racist ideas and practices. From the Aborigines to the natives of America, millions of black people were brutally tortured or killed. The reason may well be defined with Said’s notions of “us” versus “them”. Said (1979) states:

“A group of people living on a few acres of land will set up boundaries between their land and its immediate surroundings and the territory beyond, which they call “the land of the barbarians.” In other words, this universal practice of designating in one’s mind a familiar space which is “ours” and an unfamiliar space beyond “ours” which is “theirs” is a way of making geographical distinctions that can be entirely arbitrary.” (1979, p. 54).

These notions that are more about the geographical differences can also be attributed to the differences of race. When one starts to objectify what is not “ours”, what is different from us, so to speak, the whole problem starts just right there. Certain characteristics are associated with the others, so what the other is, one is not. As a black person is violent and barbaric to the white, the white is humane and civilized. With this thought, all the actions of the white people were justified and a certain discourse feeding on binary oppositions started to take shape against the black. Even Jefferson, the third president of the US, promoted of the idea of race with his statements which also contributed to building a discourse against the black. Within this racist discourse, black people were represented as the ugly, the beast, sex lovers and so on. They were even seen as “animals” inferior to the human race. The imagery used in the media about a black criminal were picked so carefully that it would continue to promote the idea that all blacks are savages having evil intentions. As Jordan and Weedon (1994) explain, after the killing of the police officer Kate Blakelock in a riot, a smiling photo of the black murderer appeared on the newspapers with headlines promoting binary oppositions (good vs evil) for black people to continue to be seen as threats to the society with their animalistic derives.

Though the multitude of racism diminished throughout the course of history (e.g. the abolition of slavery in the 19th century and the desegregation of schools in the 20th century), racism still exists because it has been so internalized into the culture. When the schools were first desegregated in the US in the 1950s, the black students had to arrive at their school an hour earlier and wait in the cafeteria so that there would be no conflicts between the white and the black students in the hallways before the lessons started (hooks, 2004). This proves that segregation (of schools) did not continue in practice but it was fully there as an ideology based on differences, and cultural politics of difference was built on the discrimination of the people of color who are different from what is accepted by the mainstream. West (1990) suggests that this cultural politics of difference be changed with the new cultural politics of difference whose aim is “to trash the monolithic and homogeneous in the name of diversity, multiplicity, and heterogeneity; to reject the abstract, general, and universal in light of the concrete, specific, and particular; and to historicize, contextualize, and pluralize by highlighting the contingent, provisional, variable, tentative, shifting, and changing.” (pg. 1). People of color have suffered so much from misrepresentations that West suggests four cultural attitudes to adopt if they are to survive and succeed in their aims each of which will be used to analyze the characters of the movie Bamboozled in the rest of this paper. These four attitudes are 1. the individual preoccupation with the mainstream and its legitimizing power, 2. a move toward arrogant group insularity 3. the Go-It-Alone option that both refuses the mainstream and group insularity, 4. a Critical Organic Catalyst which is more related to the new cultural politics of difference (pg. 21, 22, 23).


Spike Lee’s movie “Bamboozled” is a movie about racism. The six main characters are Pierre Delacroix, Sloan Hopkins and his brother Julius Hopkins, Thomas Dunwitty, Womack and Manray. The message that is given with the whole story evolving around these characters is that racism still exists and deeply and seriously affects the everyday lives of black people. Even though each of these characters choose a different attitude to cope with the white-dominated society, no matter what path they choose, they cannot escape from being victimized due to their skin color. It is suggested by the movie that the prejudice against blacks is even evident in the language used in everyday life with the negative meanings attributed to blackness. In one scene, Pierre’s father, Junebug mocks about the negative connotations attributed to the color black: when the stock market crashes, it is called “Black” Monday, white people often say “it was the ‘darkest’ day of my life”. When they faint, they say “I ‘blacked’ out. I don’t remember anything.” Yet all these connotations are taken for granted even though these white people may claim they are not racist. The movie is quite successful in the sense that it conveys its message quite smoothly and in a clever and satirical way that racism has not disappeared at all. What’s more, with the excessive use of the degrading term “Negro” by the white folks, it is emphasized that even those who claim to empathize with the people of color do not realize that they are acting in a very racist way. Even the act of calling themselves “black” or “Negro” to show their sympathy while watching the performance proves that they are unaware that they cannot grasp what it means to be a black in reality.


Pierre Delacroix: He is a black man working for a TV channel run by Thomas Dunwitty. Pierre is a creative man and has a sense of humor which make him suitable for the position he holds in the channel. At first, he portrays a successful black man, graduate of Harvard but happy with his blackness in a white-ruled world. With this portrayal, he seems to fit into the “critical organic catalyst” described by West. He is open to the mainstream, but at the same time is loyal to his black roots. However, a change in his character can be seen after his boss Dunwitty asks him to come up with a TV program that shows black people as buffoons. The only way for black people to be on TV is for the purpose of entertainment. Pierre says, “Network does not want to see Negroes on TV unless they are buffoons.” As West (1990) also states regarding the modern Black diaspora, the problem with the black is that they are devoid of power to express themselves as intelligent humans and so they are degraded by the stereotypes of white ideologies. Pierre thinks that only with “satire”, he can destroy the stereotypes against black people. He thinks by being extremely racist in the show, he would prove that television channels only want to see Negros in funny, degrading situations. He thinks his new minstrel show would wake America up because people would be offended by severe racism included.

It soon turns out that Pierre actually fits into the category of preoccupation with the mainstream. Firstly, the way he leads his life and even the way he gets dressed are indicators of how he tries to assimilate into the white world. It is also understood from his speech with his assistant Sloan during a lunch break that Pierre feels trapped in the world of the white as he is economically dependent on his white boss, and his television channel. That’s why, he wants to do something risky to be fired from this company, to be set free, so to speak. Another indicator of this categorization is Pierre’s attitudes towards black performers during the audition for their Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show. He does not give a chance to any black performers with a good talent and skills. They basically lose the audition. Moreover, after his racist show becomes a big success, at first, he does not seem to be content about it because he starts to have a feeling of shame. He even defends black people to Myrna, the media consultant, brought in by Thomas, saying that they are not mice in a cage but human beings and just because of their skin color, no one has the right to categorize them as a monolithic group feeling and thinking the same. However, his whole attitude completely changes with the continuing success of the show. He states in a radio program that he was invited, “People have to stop thinking about slavery. It is over. 400 years ago. Stop crying over, the white man this and that. This is the new millennium and we must join it… Slave mentality must be broken. The man went onto moon. His aunt denied it. We must adapt to the times; otherwise, we will be left behind”. He even claims that “Mantan” should not be criticized and should just be seen as art. Eventually after the demonstrations and protests against the Mantan show, he loses his sanity and starts to have hallucinations. Pierre’s destiny proves that there is no escape from the supremacy of the white. West’s (1990) statements below describe what Pierre exactly goes through throughout the movie:

“It (preoccupation with the mainstream) certainly helps to have some trustworthy allies within this system, yet most of those who enter and remain tend to lose much of their creativity, diffuse their prophetic energy, and dilute their critiques. Still, it is unrealistic for creative people of color to think they can sidestep the White patronage system.” (pg. 22)

Manray (Mantan) and Womack (Sleep’n Eat): Manray is a black street dancer and Womack is his black partner. They earn a living together, yet they are not happy with the fact that they are leading miserable lives. Their clothes are shabby and their only possessions are a shanty apartment, an old bed and an old pair of dancing shoes. At the beginning, as they are desperately in need of some financial support, they seem not to reject the white dominance. That’s why, when Pierre offers them to perform in his show, they both seem very enthusiastic about it although it includes extremely racist elements. Therefore, it would be appropriate to categorize them into preoccupation with the mainstream. The lines in the show that these two performers utter include sexuality and prejudiced black language and the scenes show blacks as thieves and subhuman, no different from animals (acting like chickens, trying to hide from the white overseer in a coop), and even all the character’s names in the show are based on racism, yet it is amusing for them until after the show is broadcast on TV. The way the show is presented on TV is quite humiliating as the racist elements are even multiplied in it. Mantan and Womack’s lips were drawn bigger to mock the physical appearance of the black. Moreover, a pleasure drug is publicized as part of the sponsor advertising, with all black players exploiting their bodies and their sexuality. Briefly, the black body is commodified in a very disturbing way. Eventually, the nigger jokes in the show make Mantan and Womack start thinking whether they are doing the right thing and Womack is the first to quit the show feeling sick of the stereotype that “blacks are entertainers”. Afterwards, as a consequence of this uncertainty, Mantan goes onto stage in his last performance without blackening up his face and without putting his costume on. On stage, he says that he is fed up with being a nigger and starts his usual tap dance which shows that he misses his normal life he was leading before. However, Pierre’s attempt to calm the situation down just shows how desensitized he is to black racism:

“Mantan has come down with a case of coon-itis. We will take him out back and whip it right out of him. I will have him out here even if I have to cut off a foot.”

Through the end of the film, both Manray and Womack are more close to group insularity rejecting the dominance of white culture.

Sloan Hopkins: Pierre’s assistant Sloan is at the same distance to the black narrow-mindedness and white supremacy. She rejects both extremes as a reasonable and moral character of the movie. Sloan agrees with Pierre in that the media does not want intellectual black people on TV as it would be a challenge to their stereotypical approach towards all blacks. At the same time, she never approves of her brother Julius’s insistence that she should make a show about the band of Julius, the Mau Maus. She believes that what her brother and his friends are doing is embarrassing and they are all ignorant. Further, another instance where she shows her morality is when Pierre talks about Mantan as “uneducated Negro with educated feet”. Sloan rejects him since she thinks it will definitely annoy black people as the content of the show is not politically correct. Also, she is the only one concerned about political correctness in the movie. However, the way she prefers to survive within the white culture also fails mainly due to gender roles attributed to a woman in the society. Although a reasonable and ethical character, she can never be strong in a world dominated by males. Even Pierre blames her for being an opportunist and at the end she fails to think logically too and points her gun at Pierre and shoots him.

Thomas Dunwitty: Thomas is the executive of a television channel who is in search of a television production that will attract the attention of a great number of viewers. All he cares about is to entertain people. What is very ironic about this character is he thinks that he is a black person himself meaning that he can empathize with the black very well. He can even go as far as claiming that he is blacker than a black man all because he has black roots and a black wife. What is ironic about this character is that he believes painting his face in black color is a way to empathize with black people which is on the contrary is a very degrading thing to do. These are all controversies in his character as he does not hold himself back from calling Pierre a nigger repeatedly. Furthermore, in response to Sloan’s reaction against the minstrel show saying that it is politically inappropriate, he says, “There is no such thing as bad publicity”. In brief, Thomas is preoccupied with the mainstream as a white man who claims to be black.

Maumau (Big Black Africa) – Julius Hopkins: Julius is a definite example of a person of color choosing group narrow-mindedness which according to West (1990) promotes inferiority complexes and racialist thoughts. One important aspect of Julius and the whole Mau Mau group is that they are so arrogant and stubborn in their way of thinking that they do not even endure proper English names. For instance, they prefer the spelling “blak” and “Afrika”. They believe by keeping their attitudes, by isolating themselves, they can do a black revolution and let all black people free. Also, it is clearly seen that they constantly provoke each other against white culture and white people in every conversation they have. They are so full of black pride that they even think they can defend their rights using violence. With this thinking, they justify their kidnapping and killing Manray who who they think betrayed black pride by taking part in the degrading minstrel show. With their intolerant attitude against the mainstream, they are completely different from the other characters of the film. It is also inferred from the movie that racism is not an individual phenomenon and one cannot escape from the race he or she belongs to as at the end of the film, the police kill the whole gang except the white among them for the murder of Manray. Jordan and Weedon (1994) maintain that:

“Racism is a cultural and institutional phenomenon, not fundamentally a matter of individual psychology, not of ‘racist’ or ‘prejudiced individuals’. It is deeply ingrained within the dominant social structures and signification systems of contemporary western societies.” (pg. 253).

Although the white man begs the police to kill him too, they do not shoot him.


During the decolonization period in the 20th century, when small nations started to gain their independence, this also gave way to the human rights movements(West, 1990). However, discrimination and negative attitudes against others who are not like “us”, especially against people of color could not be completely eradicated. Racism is still existent today, but unlike the history, racism can be seen in different forms now. As Jordan and Weedon (1990) mention, racism is not as degrading and brutal as it was in the history (slavery, killing of Aborigines in the most brutal ways, lynchings and so on), but it takes its place in the present time too. Because of the discourse created in education, media, in daily communications of people and so on, one always finds himself exposed to racism because many people, like those viewers of the minstrel show, are not even aware that what they are doing is racist.

In the case of the film Bamboozled, the media is manipulated to humiliate the black community. That’s why Pierre’s minstrel show fails to convey the message he intends. Also, whatever approach they choose to survive in a white culture, they all fail as there is no escape from being degraded. For this reason, West suggests a new cultural politics of difference to deal with the white culture which is called a critical organic catalyst. Instead of completely rejecting or/and completely assimilating into the dominant culture, one must be open to all cultural differences and get the best out of the opportunities offered by the mainstream, yet stay critical and democratic in his approach. However, with all those viewers in the film who do not even realize that they are contributing to racism by yelling out nigger and painting their faces all black, it would be unrealistic to think that the world is ready for a completely democratic space without discriminations caused by race, gender and so on.

Rukiye Uçar

Reference List:
  1. Lee, S. (2000). Bamboozled. The USA. New Line Cinema
    2. Jordan, G. & Weedon, C. (1994). “Marking Difference, Asserting Power: the Cultural Politics of Racism”. Cultural Politics: Class, Gender, Race and the Postmodern World. Oxford: Blackwell.
    3. Hooks, B. (2004). “A Revolution of Values: The Promise of Multicultural” in the Cultural Studies Reader (3rd edition). Ed During, S. London; New York: Routledge.
    4. Said, E. W. (1979). Orientalizing the Oriental: Orientalism. New York, NY: Vintage
    5. West, C. (1990). “The New Cultural Politics of Difference”. The Humanities as Social Technology.