From New Deal to No Deal: Blackface Minstrelsy, Bamboozled, and Reality Television
By Alice Maurice
From the Introduction: Like Williams and Sammond, Alice Maurice takes on just one film, exploring its use of blackface from every conceivable angle, in the process engaging with many of the roots and branches of the minstrel tradition, along with its legacy in places where (as with Sammond’s Mickey) it appears not to be. The film is Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. Maurice points out that critical response, surprisingly similar to the attitude taken toward Griffith’s films, labeled Lee’s use of blackface in this film too narrow, dated, and therefore disengaged with contemporary issues. On the contrary, in “From New Deal to No Deal: Blackface Minstrelsy, Bamboozled, and Reality Television,” Maurice argues persuasively that Lee uses all the tools of the formalist filmmaker he is to explore the persistence of the tradition in contemporary cultural practice. The use of blackface as a narrative device exposes all similar practice satirically. (The film makes no secret of this, defining the word “satire” in its opening voiceover.) We are taken through a series of examples of Lee’s use of composition, editing, set decoration, and acting style, all of which manipulate and complicate our attitudes toward the use of blackface. Maurice draws comparisons between Lee’s deployment of blackface and the origins of the Virginia Minstrels, the career of the great Bert Williams, and the notable use of “automaton” collectibles as figures of dehumanization and commodification (resonating clearly with—and illustrating—Chude-Sokei’s contribution in this volume). Maurice argues that, far from being “irrelevant,” the film is prescient. Drawing from the rich tradition of audience participation and identification in popular culture—and, as we see in this volume’s earlier essays, important to the minstrel tradition—Lee’s film looks forward to the explosion of “reality” television, with its own variations on the “consumable identity” so explicitly exemplified by “blacking up.” Maurice ends with the dissection of an episode of Deal or No Deal in which the “models” (arranged not unlike the performers in the larger nineteenth-century minstrel concerts) all don wigs resembling the black contestant’s, to troubling effect. Maurice identifies what she calls a “soft racism” that Lee exposes through his use of “archaic” blackface. The racist past of blackface—by extrapolation its entire chaotic, contradictory tradition—is “forgotten but not gone.”
Alice Maurice is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Toronto. She is the author of The Cinema and Its Shadow: Race and Technology in Early Cinema, forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press (2013). She is also Associate Producer of two documentary films: A Healthy Baby Girl (1997) and the Academy Award-winning short Defending Our Lives (1994).