The trailer for Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq came out yesterday. The film has been a fraught topic since Lee announced it in April, with the mayor and aldermen lining up to criticize its title and comment on its contents. Lee even called Rahm a “bully” when discussing the film with Chicago magazine’s Bryan Smith.
The trailer’s release hasn’t lessened those concerns; quite the opposite. A good example is this dialogue between Eryn Allen Kane, a Chicago artist who will appear in the film, and Malcolm London, a poet-activist in town, in which the two discuss what this film adds to the conversation of gun violence in Chicago. Eve Ewing, a local writer and artist, cited a passage from Smith’s interview suggesting Chi-Raq will lack a structural critique of city violence. And a lot of the criticism ran along the lines of Neil Steinberg’s reaction in the Sun-Times:
The two minutes-and-change trailer makes it seem like “Schindler’s List” done as a Warner Brothers cartoon, with Bugs Bunny in the lead.
(Spike Lee doing a Quentin Tarantino version of anything? Them’s fighting words.)
All this reminds me of a Spike Lee movie that I’ve had in my head since I first saw it 15 years ago: Bamboozled. It’s getting new attention thanks to a new book on the film by prolific young film critic Ashley Clark as well as a retrospective series at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, going on now. Which is a funny thing, because Bamboozled was a massive critical and box-office failure, immediately filed into the misses of a director whose epic grasp sometimes fails his even more ambitious reach.
And Bamboozled was the most difficult project Lee has ever conceived, until, perhaps, Chi-Raq. Borrowing explicitly from Network and The Producers, it’s about a black TV executive who, weary of the implicit and explicit racism of his job in the industry, proposes an outrage in order to get fired: “the new millennium minstrel show.” If you’ve seen The Producers, you know what happens next.
Even in the pitch scene, one of the less outrageous in the film, you discover what a strange film this is. There’s Damon Wayans, who delivers his character in a highly stylized, self-consciously theatrical performance, playing across from Michael Rapaport in a more straightforwardly satirical vein. There are the perverse angles—shot with consumer-grade digital video cameras—as Michael Koresky describes:
High angles flatten and obscure heads and figures, low angles demonize; Wayans’s fingers, used alternately as weapons of condescension and extensions of false deference (watch how he enunciates the words “we have three-dimensional characters” during his initial pitch meeting with his cowed, curled knuckles) seem mottled and elongated…. [T]he camera could be anywhere at any time, perched from any odd angle, to bear witness to this just slightly tweaked dystopia.
That’s a lot already, without even touching on the shock of blackface, or the supercut of minstrel shows. At best, critics were wildly divided; it lost money, even on a modest $11 million budget. Roger Ebert thought it failed as satire:
The film is a satirical attack on the way TV uses and misuses African-American images, but many viewers will leave the theater thinking Lee has misused them himself.
That’s the danger with satire: To ridicule something, you have to show it, and if what you’re attacking is a potent enough image, the image retains its negative power no matter what you want to say about it. “Bamboozled” shows black actors in boldly exaggerated blackface for a cable production named “Mantan–The New Millennium Minstrel Show.” Can we see beyond the blackface to its purpose? I had a struggle.
After Danson’s flop [a Friar’s Club roast in which he performed in blackface, comedian Bobcat Goldthwait summed up the mood: “Jesus Christ, Ted, what were you thinking of? Do you think black people think blackface is funny in 1993?” No, and white people don’t, either. Blacks in blackface eating watermelon and playing characters named Eat ‘n Sleep, Rufus and Aunt Jemima fail as satire and simply become–well, what they seem to be. Crude racist caricatures.
But, perhaps, Lee didn’t want the audience to see beyond the blackface but through it. In the DVD extras, the historian Clyde Taylor shares a memory of seeing minstrelsy in the theater. “I remember when I was watching movies, way back in the black-and-white days… I would be there to see Bob Hope, or Clark Gable, maybe Humphrey Bogart. And then the Stephin Fetchit character would come in, and my friends and I would, like, duck. It’d be like a storm—you’re in this Edenic island, and then this storm of black denigration would come across us, and we’d just sort of, like, wait, until the storm was over. We’d giggle, but we’d be giggling out of self-anxiety.”
And that’s the experience of watching Bamboozled, from beginning to end.
Stanley Crouch also has a perceptive comment in the extras. “Minstrelsy was on its way out when the Civil War ended. But when the black people came into it, they revitalized it. Because they danced extremely well. They were funny. They did sing well. In an interesting way, it’s as though they reinforced the bars of the cage they were in through their talent. I thought that one of the most courageous and artistically successful decisions made in Bamboozled was to actually allow them to be funny.”
“There’s a lot of stuff in this film,” Lee adds on the DVD reel, “whether you’re black or white, where you want to laugh, but you don’t want to laugh, because it’s not funny.”
Despite all this, Bamboozled still endures. “Some failed films burrow their way deep into the subconscious, lingering furtively in the psyche long after better, more accomplished films have faded completely,” writes Nathan Rabin, who wrote about it for the Onion’s A.V. Club. "Not a week goes by that I don’t think of Bamboozled in one context or another.” Ashley Clark finds echoes of it throughout popular culture today, from Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout to ABC’s Black-ish.
This is different from it being good, mind you. Some people still can’t stand it; Ta-Nehisi Coates files it under “crude, provincial protest literature.” Even Clark, who took years to come around on it, calls it ”very knotty, awkward.”
The trailer for Chi-Raq brought Bamboozled to mind because of intimations that it might be similarly divisive in its showiness, theatricality, and use of humor. The last of those is one of the few things Lee has spoken about, to Chicago:
It is possible to address a very serious subject matter and still have humor. I’ve done it before. Do the Right Thing was serious as hell. It was so serious you can still show that film today—it’s still contemporary. But Do the Right Thing was also funny as a motherfucker. Another example—one of my favorite films, one of my favorite filmmakers: Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove. What’s more serious than the planet’s destruction? But that movie was hilarious. There are many examples—music, plays, novels, movies—where humor has been injected into very serious subject matter.
None of this is a guarantee that Chi-Raq will be a success, or any good at all. (For starters, the diffuse, surreal scenario of the Cold War lent itself to satire in Dr. Strangelove; Chicago violence is neither.) It could be a fiasco. It could also be a fiasco that, in moments, succeeds in awe. It could seem like a fiasco now, but evolve in the minds of critics like Clark and Rabin in years to come. But given the outcry already, expect to hear a lot more commentary when the film comes out on December 4.