Spike Lee is an African American film director who is well known for his lineup of highly controversial films. The subject matter of these films is almost always about how race and race relations are dealt with in American society. The controversial nature of these films is often seen in the images that Spike Lee presents as well as the dialogue between characters. While many of his critics accuse him of using his films to push racist messages, Spike Lee argues the opposite. He believes that most of Hollywood either adopts a “magical, mystical Negro” character to act in a secondary role to a white protagonist or just ignores the issues of race altogether. Spike Lee’s waywardness comes directly from trying to answer the tougher questions about race that most of America just pushes aside.
Spike Lee’s “wayward” approach to the social issues of race in his films is meant to make his audience think about what role race plays in American culture and society. Throughout American history, race has remained an important point of study, although it does not always receive the amount of attention that it deserves for being such an important issue. Spike Lee’s goal as a wayward filmmaker is to present the issues associated with race in a controversial manner that will spark discussions on various topics pertaining to race. Cornel West’s book Race Matters shows how race is looked at in America and explains some of the problems encountered while trying to look at issues of race relation:
To engage in a serious discussion of race in America, we must begin not with the problems of black people but with the flaws of American society — flaws rooted in historical inequalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes. How we set up the terms for discussing racial issues shapes our perception and response to these issues. As long as black people are viewed as a “them,” the burden falls on blacks to do all the “cultural” and “moral” work necessary for healthy race relations. The implication is that only certain Americans can define what it means to be American— and the rest must simply “fit in” (3).
This passage describes what Lee is trying to accomplish through his films. He is trying to bridge that cultural gap between people of different races by looking at the issues that divide them in a way that most Americans would never think about.
“Racial Stereotypes,” Do The Right Thing, 1989
The above clip from Do the Right Thing shows the use of over-the-top racial stereotypes by some of the main characters of the film, to convey to the audience the existence of real-life interracial tensions between these different groups. Spike Lee himself plays the part of the African American character named Mookie. Throughout the film, this interracial tension keeps building up until it inevitably explodes into violence. While most of Hollywood just ignored issues of race, Lee went against the expectations and devoted entire films to the matter.
One of Spike Lee’s early films, Do the Right Thing, deals with the often touchy subject of interracial relations. Throughout the film, Spike Lee engages the characters in hateful and racially charged dialogues that include many of the common stereotypes for each race. The negative interactions between characters that occur during the film keep building upon the tensions between the different races. Whenever the groups begin to go overboard with their racist dialogue, Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Mister Senor Love Daddy, a local radio host, interjects and tries to defuse the situation before it gets out of hand. However, he is unable to which leads to an inevitable outbreak of violence and destruction between the different racial groups. These types of racial tensions were real problems that were not paid attention to by most people, especially other filmmakers. Spike Lee took the wayward approach to devote an entire film to these important ideas and implant the moral that Americans need to look at race relations seriously so that the types of violence seen in the film can be avoided in real life.
“Trying on Blackface in a Flirtation With Fire.” Image courtesy of The New York Times, 2000
The above image is from the New York Times review of Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled. The review says that Spike Lee is “playing with fire” by using these images of blackface. It would be dangerous for most directors to try to pull off a film like Bamboozled, but Spike Lee is able to and gets across a strong message about how African Americans are being wrongfully portrayed through various forms of American entertainment.
The African American community often endures many hardships based solely on their racial backgrounds. As Paul Wachtel describes in his book Race in the Mind of America, “The circumstances encountered by black people on these shores, from the extraordinary inhumanity of slavery to the poverty, violence, and virtual abandonment by mainstream society of today’s inner cities, have presented a series of severe challenges to human resourcefulness” (143). Spike Lee tries to educate the mainstream society of these types of issues through his films. His film Bamboozled deals with the various negative ways that African Americans have been seen by society. The film is meant to be a satire of the old minstrel shows and Lee makes this clear by beginning the film with the main character, Pierre Delacroix, giving the definition of satire. The minstrel show and the use of black face were originally used as a form of popular entertainment in nineteenth-century America when racial inequality was the norm. “By addressing themselves to race in the decades when white Americans first had to come to grips with what the position of blacks would be in America, while at the same time producing captivating, unique entertainment, blackfaced performers quickly established the minstrel show as a national institution, one that more than any other of its time was truly shaped by and for the masses of average Americans” (Toll, 26). In the nineteenth century, it was often white men that would perform in blackface. In Bamboozled however, Spike Lee has black actors donning the blackface makeup. This is a jab that Spike Lee makes at how black actors continue to play that “magical, mystical Negro” role in television and movies. The film also featured a large collection of “Negro memorabilia” from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In an interview with Kaleem Aftab, Lee says “Bamboozled was fun to research. I bought a lot of Negro memorabilia. To me it is a reminder of how we were thought of—and how we are still thought of today, for all that’s changed” (Aftab, 264). The final scene of the film plays the most important part. Spike Lee puts in a montage of various instances of blackface and other portrayals of African Americans in the negative stereotypes that they are often seen in. He makes a connection with how African Americans are still looked at through their racial stereotypes today just as they were at the time that blackface was popular.
“Blackface Montage,” Bamboozled, 2000
The above clip from Bamboozled is a montage of various representations of African Americans throughout American culture. The clips show common stereotypes such as African Americans eating watermelon and depicting them as savages. While The New Millennium Minstrel Show portrayed in the film is supposed to act as a satire of these types of images of African American, it comes very close to the real thing itself.
Spike Lee will always be seen as a wayward filmmaker by the American public because he chooses to take on the social issues of race that nobody else will touch. While the images and dialogues used in his film are seen as racist and controversial by many of his critics, they all play an important part in the messages that he is trying to convey. His collection of films are all vital to developing a better understanding of the way racial issues are looked at from different perspectives.
Kaleem Aftab, Spike Lee: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to it (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2005).
Susan Gonzalez, “Director Spike Lee slams ‘same old’ black stereotypes in today’s films” (Yale Bulletin & Calendar, 2001).
Spike Lee, Bamboozled (New Line Cinema, 2000).
Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing (Universal Pictures, 1989).
Robert C. Toll, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974).
Paul L. Wachtel, Race In The Mind Of America (London: Routledge, 1999).
Cornel West, Race Matters (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993).