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The Cinematic Representation Of Black Identity Film Studies Essay

The debates over race and representation of African American in films have been highly contentious for over a century. Blacks have generally been perceived and stigmatized, throughout history, as trouble makers, incapables, intellectually limited, inferior, lazy and irrational, amongst the many other demeaning labels attached to them. These labels are connected not only to the history of colonization but also, importantly, to the exploitation, perpetuation, and careful maintenance of stereotypes through cinematic clichés which have imposed themselves easily and significantly on the popular imagination. As rightly stated by Wijdan Ali, the projection of harmful and negative stereotypes “onto marginal or ineffectual groups within a society has always been an easy and useful method for making scapegoats.” [1] Effectively, films form the ideal platform/space to circularize and preserve the labels which the mainstream audience desires to attach to the black community.

Five decades of the Civil Rights Movement have gone by, and the degree of change in the black community, though undeniably real and noticeable, remains perplexingly complex and inadequate. Although the fact that we now live in a time in history where Americans have voted for a black President, where blacks now occupy positions of power and are ostensibly less subject to institutional discrimination than in the past, the black community nevertheless remains inadequately poor, unemployed, undereducated and negatively labeled.

Therefore, adopting a ‘writing-back’ style in Bamboozled (2000), Spike Lee satirically attacks the way in which African Americans have historically been misused and misrepresented on screen. Through Bamboozled (2000), the director attempts both to entertain and to educate his audience about the history of African American representation within popular culture, with the word ‘bamboozled’ itself indicating the state of having been cheated or conned. Bamboozled (2000) presents American mass entertainment’s history of discrimination through abasing minstrel stereotypes, which first started to be performed in musical theatres and which were later brought to cinema with films such as The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon (1905), The Sambo Series (1909- 1911) and D.W Griffith’s controversial The Birth of a Nation( 1915). Consequently, the purpose of this study is to analyze both the African American evolution in the American film industry and the social construction of black identity through symbolic representation in cinema. These will in turn help to understand why the integration of African Americans is considered as a problematic issue even in a sophisticated era where racism seems to be a thing of the past, and where people are supposedly no longer “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” [2] This paper will also analyze the effect of stereotypes on black identity using Spike Lee’s film, and will explore the impact of such a film in the deconstruction of stereotypes and the renegotiation of a stigmatized identity. But before getting to what Bamboozled (2000) actually brings to the table of African American films, it is important to look at the history and evolution of black representation in Hollywood cinema, which the following paragraphs are going to deal with.

African American in American Films: A Brief Retrospective

African Americans first started to be represented in minstrel shows in the late 1820s and later on television in the early 20th century. [3] Through blackface minstrelsy, a performance style where white males parodied the culture, clothing, songs, dances and speech patterns of Southern blacks [4] using blackface makeup and exaggerated lips, America’s conceptions of blackness and whiteness were shaped by these mocking caricatures. While whiteness was posited as the norm, every black face was “a statement of social imperfection, inferiority, and mimicry that [was] placed in isolation with an absent whiteness as its ideal opposite.” [5] Consequently, for over a hundred years, the belief that blacks were racially and socially inferior to whites was ingrained and accepted by legions of both white and black minstrel performers and audiences. The caricatures took such a firm hold on the American imagination that audiences ‘naturally’ came to expect any person with dark skin, irrespective of his/ her background, to conform to one or more of the following stereotypes; Jim Crow, a dull-witted and subservient plantation slave; Zip Coon, a gaudily dressed, lazy man from the city representing the proud newly- freed slave; Mammy, the contended, happy, loyal and ever-smiling female slave (as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery,); Uncle Tom, the good Negro; submissive, hearty, faithful no matter what, stoic, selfless, and ‘oh-so-very-kind,’ [6] Buck, the proud and menacing Black man always interested in white women; Wench/ Jezebel, the temptress; the mixed race Mulatto and Pickaninnies, who have “bulging eyes, unkempt hair, red lips and wide mouths into which they stuff huge slices of watermelon.” [7] 

As time moved on, black appearance in mainstream films became more and more frequent, as well as the increase in the number of independent black directors, from Oscar Micheaux to Daniel Lee and Spike Lee. Since The Birth of a Nation, which marked a change in emphasis from the pretentious but harmless Jim Crow to the threatening savage ‘Nigger’, black filmmakers have responded by creating race movies and blaxploitation films which were tailored to black audiences . The 1970’s witnessed a resurgence of the blaxploitation genre with films such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song (1971), Shaft (1971), Black Caesar (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). Since such films were themselves in turn accused of using the negative to hyperbolize issues pertaining to blacks , this genre saw its end in the late 1970s to give way to a new wave of black directors, such as S. Lee and John Singleton, who focused on black urban life. However, we cannot afford to simply ‘celebrate’ the achievements of black filmmakers for the so-called ethnic arts. And as Stuart Hall remarks, “we have come out of the age of innocence,” which says that ‘it’s good if it’s there.” [8] The mere fact that such films have had a considerable increase does not mean that the black self is undergoing a positive change although it may be true that the level of clear-cut racism has known an important decrease, or even a disappearance. This can be backed up by Appiah’s statement that “changes in the representation of blacks do not ipso facto lead to changes in their treatment.” [9] 

In Bamboozled (2000), Spike Lee directly addresses this issue of African American representability as being a discourse of white essentialism. Through Bamboozled (2000) the director invites his audience to realize that although “nobody goes around in blackface anymore,” [10] it does not entail that Hollywood has altogether abandoned/given up essentialist discourse. The name of the blackface show in Bamboozled (2000) is in itself very symbolic; “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show.” Here, Lee suggests that minstrelsy has not disappeared in the new millennium. In his own words therefore, it has only “gotten more sophisticated. Gangsta rap videos, a lot of the TV shows on UPN and WB- a lot of us are still acting as buffoons and coons.” [11] Clearly, his aim in this satirical film is to show that even today, the American film industry is still concealing essentialist discourses within contemporary films. Consequently, as essentialism involves ongoing human and social interaction as well as limitation, identity regulation and enforcement takes place within this kind of racist discourse, whereby blacks have to undergo identity dilemma while trying to seek approval.

Appiah, K. A. (1993). No Bad Nigger: Blacks as the Ethical Principle in the Movies. In: Garber, M, Matlock, J and Walcowitz, R, L Media Spectacles. New York: Routledge. 77-90.

Bogle, D. (2001). Black Beginnings: From Uncle Tom's Cabin to The Birth of a Nation. In: Bogle, D Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films . 4th ed. London: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. p1-18.

Crowdus, G. and Georakas, D. (2002). An Interview with Spike Lee. In: Cynthia Fuchs Spike Lee: Interviews. United States of America: University Press of Mississippi. 202-217.

Mercer, K. (1994). Diaspora Culture And The Dialogic Imagination: The Aesthetics Of Black Independent Film In Britain. In: Mercer, K Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge. 53-68.

Wijdan, A. (2003). Muslim Women: Between Cliché and Reality. Diogenes. 50 (3), 77-87.

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