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Stereotyping and Caricature in Oscar Micheaux's ‘Within Our Gates' and Spike Lee's ‘Bamboozled'
Societal inferiority has been imposed onto the black race since the first Africans set foot on American soil. Economic, social and institutional inferiority followed soon after simply as a result of the initial discrimination. Yet in a supposed post-colonialist world such as our own, one would assume that these fundamental inequalities would have been repudiated, dismantled and dismissed. However, this initial, unfounded bigotry has permeated through the minds of both blacks and whites, creating an internalised, respective sense of inferiority and superiority. These prejudices continued unchecked well into the 20th century. Oscar Micheaux, regarded as the most prolific African American filmmaker ever (Green 1998, 17) developed his craft in an environment rife with bigotry and racism. Black filmmakers such as Micheaux were denied the rights offered to whites in the same profession. However, perhaps the most important problem in the entertainment industry at the time was the stereotyping and caricaturing of African Americans. An African-American actor looking to construct a unique identity in serious theatre, one which would convey a true-to-life image of African-Americans to an audience was impeded by the pervading stereotype of ethnic, rube-like images (the image of a simple country resident). (Green 1998, 16) No progress could be made without the deconstruction and remoulding of the African-American stereotype. Spike Lee, born in 1957, did not face obstacles of the same scale as Micheaux. However, Lee's films show that residual traces of the original prejudices and stereotypes still remain in modern society. This essay, using the Oscar Micheaux film, ‘Within Our Gates' and the Spike Lee film, ‘Bamboozled', is intended to illustrate the different ways both filmmakers confront and contest the stereotyping and racial caricature of the African American.
‘Within Our Gates' was, at the time, a controversial piece of filmmaking. Condemned by many to be too provocative for audiences due to it dealing with the subject of lynching, it was censored and gained widespread criticism. The film can be seen as a response to D.W. Griffith's 1915 film Birth of a Nation which was widely praised by the hegemony. The story it told was a complete fabrication yet it presented the story in a subversive way so as to mask its fictitious nature. Woodrow Wilson, former American President even went so far as to describe it as “History Written in Lightning” (Green 1998,17) African-Americans were played by white actors and actresses in ‘blackface', playing stereotyped portraits of the African-American. Any realism of Birth of a Nation breaks down completely around its portrayal of blacks, with historian Nathan Huggins stating that the actors are “merely playing minstrel types”. However, despite this, the film was very successful, and the film industry seemed to absorb this success into its genetic materials (Green 1998, 18) Black independent filmmakers fought back with “positive image” films. However, all such films failed rhetorically or financially, with the low-budget films jarring awkwardly with the slick production of Birth of a Nation.
Essentially, ‘Bamboozled' depicts the reproduction of a minstrel show, placing within the context of modern day New York. The Minstrel show is recreated to boost flagging ratings and is intended for family viewing, much like the talk show genre which is prevalent in the United States. The irony present throughout is that ‘Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show' is intended by its writer, Pierre Delacroix, to be an intense satire which would contribute to his dismissal from the repressive television network by which he is employed. A show so overt in its racism, that the idea of it being sanctioned in such an enlightened time as the 21st century is laughable. However, the production team and the audience are blind to the satire and the show becomes a network smash. The initial excitement of the protagonists of the film and the two minstrels in the show gradually evolves into self-loathing as they realise the self-deprecating nature of the characters. The film's intense satire almost reaches the point of absurdity. However, the underlying issues in the film gradually reveal themselves and the farce becomes a starkly real, if somewhat hyperbolic, depiction of the current status of the African American caricature.
The foundation of minstrel shows, i.e. the casting of white people in blackface is illustrative of the hegemonic precedent of treating blackness as an allegory, rather than directly and accurately portray the situation of blacks. The casting of a white man in blackface to represent a black character serves not only to highlight the white hegemony's tortuous approach to black characterisation, (i.e. suggesting that the image of blackness is so grotesque that it can only be signified, not directly represented (Barlowe 1991, 1), but also brings with it a destructive, comedic element which serves only to satirise the role of black people, bringing with it all of the preconceived racist notions surrounding the image on an African-American. The intense blackness and full, vivid red lips conjure up images of clowns not of African-Americans and should the person behind the blackface genuinely be black, the black make up stops any idiosyncrasies penetrating through. The removal of identity becomes more and more evident as ‘Bamboozled' progresses, with the palpable descent of Manray and Womack into depression. With each application of the blackface, the two characters become increasingly aware of the damage their black faced roles are doing to the overall image of the black community. . However, the fact that these negative images are nurtured within the stereotyped group is not surprising, given the pressures to assimilate in society. (Green 1998, 20)
‘Within Our Gates', challenges this sort of stereotyping, refusing to let the hegemonic beliefs of the African-American control his characters. For example, when a rube-like black farmer enters the office of Reverend Wilson Jacobs (the founder of a school for African Americans) Micheaux gives the farmer the voice with which to explain his situation, something which no other film had done before. The farmer explains that “boll weevils” have destroyed his crop and with no money to pay his rent, his mule has been taken away. He explains further, "I hears 'bout your school 'n so we walked from my place, aways off, cause my children don't do nothin' but say 'Papa without schoolin' we c'n never mount to nothin.' So her I is, ready to work day n'night so's my children can go to school." Micheaux's use of vernacular language is endearing. There are no pretensions, just an honest farmer wanting to provide for his children. (Butters 2000, 5) This image of the African American is in contrast to stereotype, which made out that many African-Americans were too lazy to pursue an education. While other African American filmmakers ridiculed the poor black southerner, Micheaux held him up as a model. (Butters 2000, 5)
If we focus on Pierre Delacroix's boss in ‘Bamboozled', Thomas Dunwitty, we have the perfect illustration the hegemonic perpetuation of racial stereotypes, continuing to propagate the clichéd and outdated images of the African American. As Barlowe states,
“This…represented an accepted way of looking at African Americans. The stereotypes eased white tensions about black America and put to rest any concern about social/racial inequities and injustices; at the same time, the images served to justify notions of white superiority and power.”(Barlowe 1991, 4)
Dunwitty personifies the position of white superiority, and whilst not acknowledging his position as part of the larger white hegemony, his ability to alter, reinterpret and veto Delacroix's ideas show him to be just that. He employs a team of entirely white writers to bolster Delacroix's ‘Mantan' show and denies him any creative input in production, emphasising the hegemonic dominance, specifically in the workplace and fundamentally in contemporary America. (Barlowe 1991, 3-4)
The perceived difference stems from the colonial racist epoch where the black stereotypes were formed. Minstrelsy acts as a facilitator to the hegemony allowing them to accept the image of black monstrosity without evocating feelings of revulsion and the uncanny, and whilst the image of blackness no longer is one of novelty, the psychological framework of fetishism and allegory remain, pervading through to the modern era as illustrated by ‘Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show'. When asked the question, “How much have images of African Americans progressed…?” director of ‘‘Bamboozled'', Spike Lee, stated that whites are still uncomfortable with depictions of the “diverse lives of African Americans”, in other words, a “balanced” view of African American life. He emphasises the spectrum this affords. “Not all roles have to be positive” he states, as this would not be “keeping it real”. (Barlowe 1991, 3) The idea of a total modification of the black role to one of immutable benevolence and rigid adherence to the dominant societal norms and hegemonic preference is completely unrealistic. However, even a ‘balanced' representation of African American life is denied by the hegemony. Lee states that whites, whether they admit it or not, want to see black people “shuckin' and jiving…entertaining them with no consequences to themselves” (Barlowe 1991, 3)
Micheaux accepts that the idea of a completely benevolent race is unrealistic. He understands that not all African-Americans will advocate bettering themselves. The character Old Ned, a “coloured preacher”, was subject to Micheaux's mockery. Micheaux viewed traditional black religiosity as dangerous to freedom and advancement of African-Americans. (Butter Jr. 2000, 6) Their subservience to religious dogma ensured that African Americans remained in their lowly social position within the social hierarchy. Old Ned believes that the position of blacks is God's will and that by remaining uneducated and poor that they will be accepted into heaven and the whites will be condemned to hell. However, Micheaux reveals that the preaching of Old Ned is all an act. “Negroes and Whites are all equal. As for me….hell is my destiny…Again I've sold my birthright for a miserable mess of pottage.” Such evaluation and recognition of human psychology was unheard of in films previous to ‘Within Our Gates'. (Butters Jr. 2000, 6)This self-recognition can be compared to the depression the protagonists, Manray and Womack, feel when putting on blackface in ‘Bamboozled'. They realised that the role they are playing is hindering black advancement by simply conforming to the stereotypes created by their white oppressors.
Spike Lee shows the characters in the minstrel show discovering their race-betrayal, yet the audience remain ignorant of the caricatures and stereotypes they are advocating and perpetuating. After a brief, initial uncertainty, the African Americans in the audience warm to The New Millennium Minstrel Show, so much so that, along with all the other audience members, they put on blackface, mimicking the performers, Mantan and Sleep'n'Eat. We must ask ourselves why this occurs. According to Barlowe, it is the concept of mimicry which is the problem, more specifically, mimicry of the coloniser by the formerly colonised. (Barlowe 1991, 9) The wearing of blackface takes away their black identity, replacing it with the parodied character, one which allows the wearer to join in the ridicule of the race without becoming subject to it him/herself. The image is uncomfortable and seeped in irony, a black man, wearing blackface, mocking his own race. This is illustrated in the words of Malcolm X,
You know yourself that we have been a people who hated our African characteristics ... We hated the colour of our skin … And in hating our features and our skin and our blood, why, we had to end up hating ourselves ... Our colour became to us like a prison ... keeping us confined … based solely on our colour. Black skin, Black features, and Black blood, those features and that blood holding us back had to become hateful to us. (Malcolm X, Barlowe 1991, 9)
The spoof advertisements during ‘Bamboozled' illustrate not only neo-colonialism, but also the commodification of blacks by the hegemony, generating “consumer desire” by exploiting African Americans. (Barlowe 1991, 10) Tommy Hilfiger especially is subject to Spike Lee's harsh criticism and parody. With an advert for ‘Timmy Hilniger Clothing', Lee condemns the company's blatant exploitation of the identity of African Americans, imposing hegemonic capitalism and product desire onto people in order to gain wealth. (Barlowe 1991, 10) Further proof of this capitalist mentality can be found in the depiction of auditions for Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show. The production team are auditioning for characters and roles on the show, with the Mau Mau's, a highly Afro-centric rap group, auditioning for the part of house band. The simple act of auditioning for the show undermines all of their principles; indeed, it is their auditioning for Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show which makes their actions at the end of the film somewhat hypocritical. However, as Delacroix notes, “Were people really this desperate to get work? Apparently, so”, (Barlowe 1991, 10) justifying the auditioning as a way of simply generating capital, an act made necessary by the exploitation and inequality promoted by the hegemony.
‘Bamboozled' presents to us a stark viewpoint on the state of current society. It leaves no future except one rife with racism and neo-colonialism. It confronts the audience, black or white, with their continued ignorance to their respective situations. If the hegemony is to re-evaluate its beliefs, African-Americans must stop conforming to the current norms and directly represent their situation. ‘Within Our Gates' tried to do this. However, without funding, the film was unable to spread its message to the masses. The work Micheaux started is evidently still going on, the works of Spike Lee demonstrate this. While things have changed in the civil rights arena, Lee recognises that more needs to be done to confront the stereotyping and caricaturisation of African-Americans and as ‘Bamboozled' shows, even light-hearted mockery of the race can have serious implications, with Delacroix paying the ultimate price for his role in propagating hegemonic racism, his final words showing what he had become. Quoting James Baldwin, he states,
“…people pay for what they do and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become, and they pay for it very simply by the lives they lead.” (Barlowe 1991, 11)
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Bowser, Pearl + Spence, Louise. “Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, his silent films and his audiences” New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
Barlowe,Jamie. "You Must Never Be a Misrepresented People": Spike Lee's ‘Bamboozled'.; Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 33, issue 1, 2003
Butters, Gerald. “From Homestead to Lynch Mob: Portrayals of Black Masculinity in Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates.” Journal of Multimedia History, Volume 3, 2000
Green, Ronald. “Oscar Micheaux's Interrogation of Caricature as Entertainment.” Film Quarterly. Vol 51, No.3. 1998