Spike Lee’s "Bamboozled": The Depiction of African-Americas in US Popular Film and Television and its Traditions

Seminar Paper, 2007

22 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of content


I Bert Williams and George Walker: black entertainers in blackface

II Today’s situation of the black underclass

III The Huxleys: black upper middle-class family with dignity

IV Mantan Moreland: the man with the fastest eyes in the West

V Gangster Rap and the Hood movies

VI In Living Color: the satirical black point of view

VII The slave as an entertainer

VIII The traditional stereotypes

IX Power structures in the entertainment industry

X The Minstrel scenes and the ‘Old South Myth’



Once many plantations grew cotton; today some grow movies.[1]


Throughout their history in the United States, African–Americans had never been in charge of their own image.[2]

When in Kentucky in 1928, Thomas ‘Daddy’ Rice, a white man who performed in black-face ‘ Jim Crow ’, a song that he had heard before in the South from a black performer, a new genre was born: the minstrel show – a white imitation of black culture.[3]

In his movie Bamboozled (2000), Spike Lee confronts us with the question, if these racist nineteenth century depictions of African Americans still exist today in contemporary popular media. In this case we have to ask the question of responsibility for these representations: In the 1990s 340 billion dollars had been spent on media and entertainment in the United States. The entertainment industry today has become the fastest increasing factor of economy.[4] Since the 1970s television is the largest and most influential entertainment medium in North America[5] and occupies a crucial space in practices of everyday life, “where important social encounters and cultural transformations are possible.”[6] The concept of ‘ seeing is believing ’ obviously is a major factor here.”[7] A majority of Americans only came to know and understand the American racial order through media representations of the black ethnic other.6

This research paper will try to give some proof of the historical continuity of the stereotypical racist representations of African-Americans from the days of minstrelsy and vaudeville until today- a “racist film and television history”[8] as Spike Lee compactly exhibits it in his film.

The analysis will not take place in historical order, but, more or less, in the succession these topics are treated within the film. The first chapter will deal with the situation of black entertainers of early 20th century followed by a brief summary of the socio-economic conditions of the black ‘underclass’ of today (chapter II). Chapter III will deal with the African-American middle-class and its depiction in The Cosby Show, whereas chapter IV gives an overview of the 1930s and 1940s models for Manray and Womack, the two main minstrel actors in Bamboozled: Mantan Moreland, Willie Best, Stepin Fetchit and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. Chapter V and VI will give a voice to contemporary forms of film and television which show the African-American point of view towards their own race: The genre of the Hood movies and the sitcom In Living Color. In chapter VII and VIII the historical continuity of the expectation of African-Americans to be ‘naturally’ entertainers, and the traditional stereotypes will be analyzed. Chapter IX investigates the interracial power structures in the entertainment business of today. The transformation of the ‘ Old South Myth ’ into contemporary popular media representations of African-Americans will be the topic of Chapter X.

Finally, in the Conclusion paragraph, I will try to sum up director Spike Lee ’s point of view and give an outlook on the future.

I Bert Williams and George Walker: black entertainers in blackface

Bert Williams and George Walker were two black entertainers, who performed around 1900. They toured around the country successfully for several years and were even invited by Queen Victoria of England. They popularized the Cake Walk, a dance with origins on the slave plantations of the South. Walker ’s character of the dandy darky produced hundreds of imitators. Williams wrote one of the most popular songs of these days, All Coons look alike to me[9]. Announced for a certain period as Two Real Coons[10] in order to distinguish themselves from white comedians in black make-up, they dressed as twentieth- century versions of Jim Crow and Zip Coon, classical minstrel characters. Jim Crow was the character of the Southern, happy, water-melon eating plantation slave, full of love and devotion for his master, whereas Zip Coon represented the lazy and foolish Northern Negro, discoursing foolishly and holding speeches full of malapropisms. He appears ridiculous because he tries to imitate western civilized culture, but fails because of his obviously inferiority[11]: “Often the humour was derived from the simple juxtaposition of an African-American in ‘middle-class clothes’ or a ‘middle- class situation’[12]

Concealing a strong and healthy body with shabby clothes and slouching posture, Williams played the stereotypical looser – the lazy, dull-witted, uneducated Negro who somehow made everything go wrong.

Dressed in faddish, impractical street clothes, a silk cravat, and gaudy two-toned shoes, singing comedian George Walker played the accompanying role of the Broadway swell.[13]

Restricted by the values and tastes of their white audience, who were not ready to accept anything serious from them[14], and financers that dominated big time show business, African-Americans were given a very narrow set of stereotyped characters they could perform on stage. The role of the ignorant, stupid, foolish, wide grinning, loud-laughing, shuffling, banjo–playing, singing black character had become “a race institution”[15]. Many African-American performers of these days “participated in their own degradation simply for the money”[16].

After emancipation, when many African- Americans moved to cities in the North, the entertainment and music business were among the few employments they could join. Skilled black ex-slave workers could not get similar jobs in the North. “Business Unions turned down blacks, preferring recent immigrants from Europe to the black migrants of the South.”[17]

100 years later, the homeless tap dancer Manray (Savion Glover) and ‘his brain’ Womack (Tommy Davidson) engaged by Pierre Delacroix (Daymon Wayans), the only African–American screenwriter at CNS, a television station with rating problems[18], are faced with exactly the same situation. The white boss of main character ’ Dela ’ (Wayans), Dunwitty (Michael Rappaport), has very concrete images about the representation of blacks on the screen. When Dela suggests to create a ‘real niggershow’ to get the network out of its declining rating numbers, Dunwitty ’s reactions on Dela ’s most stereotypical and racist ideas speak for themselves. Delacroix ’s original plan to deconstruct the prejudices against his people by creating a show which is offending in a most racist manner, fails. The executives and the audience’ reaction was more than positive. The show and its further commercial exploitation were becoming a big success.


[1] Guerrero, Ed. Framing Blackness: the African American Image in Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993: 9

[2] Goings, Kenneth W. Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994: 89

[3] Nederveen, Jan Pieterse. White on black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992. 132-135

[4] Lemke, Sieglinde. HS: The Rise of the Entertainment Industry. Albert- Ludwigs- Universität. Freiburg. 12 February, 2007

[5] Van Deburg, William L. Slavery and Race in American Popular Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1984. 153

[6] Gray, Herman Watching Race. Television and the Struggle for “Blackness Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1995. 133

[7] Smythe, Mabel M: The Black American Reference Book. New Jersey: Englewood Cliffs, 1976. 875

6 Gray (1995) 7

[8] Distelmeyer, Jan: “Bamboozled“. Spike Lee. Ed. Landgesell, Gunnar, Andreas Ungerböck. Berlin, 2006. 226-230

[9] Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Blackface. A Source Book on Early Black Musical Shows. Metachen, N.J.: Scarcrow Press 1980. 76-90

[10] The word ‘coon’ comes from the South, a shortening of ‘racoon’. This scavenger steals food at night, has enormous whites of the eye that contrast with its dark face, and is best when ‘chased up a tree by dogs.’

Goings (1994): 43

[11] Toll, Robert C.: “The Evolution of the Minstrel Show”. Blacking up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth- Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. 25-57

[12] Goings(1994): 14

[13] Van Deburg (1984): 118-120

[14] Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Blackface. A Source Book on Early Black Musical Shows. 1980. 3-4

[15] George Walker quoted in Van Deburg: (1984): 119

[16] Goings, Kenneth W.: Mammy and Uncle Mose. Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press 1994. 47

[17] Nederveen (1992): 135

[18] This might be an allusion to the ‘Fox Broadcasting Company’, a new network in the 1990ies, which at first experienced program cancellations, cost overruns, internal management conflicts, and battles between stars and executives. All these problems threatened Fox’s ability to establish itself in the industry. Fox took risk with an unconventional comedy – variety show about African – Americans with a largely unknown multiracial cast (including Daymon Wayans!): In Living Color. see: Gray, Herman: “Spectacles, Sideshows and Irrelevance: In Living Color”, Gray (1995): 130–146.

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Spike Lee’s "Bamboozled": The Depiction of African-Americas in US Popular Film and Television and its Traditions
University of Freiburg
Hauptseminar The Rise of the Entertainment Industry
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ISBN (Book)
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Spike, Lee’s, Bamboozled, Depiction, African-Americas, Popular, Film, Television, Traditions
Quote paper
Ulrich Ackermann (Author), 2007, Spike Lee’s "Bamboozled": The Depiction of African-Americas in US Popular Film and Television and its Traditions, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/144965


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