The Keys to Spike Lee: Ashley Clark on Bamboozled

AFS screening and signing unpacks Spike Lee’s ugliest and most misunderstood movie

Damon Wayans in Bamboozled (Courtesy of 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks)

When thinking of Spike Lee and his capturing of the African American experience, films like Inside Man, BlacKkKlansman, and Malcolm X may come to mind. Since his 1986 breakthrough She's Gotta Have It, the African American director has continually created movies with box-office success and high esteem for their racial commentary. Bamboozled, however, was an exception: On its initial release in 2000, many viewers were offended and many critics – white critics in particular – dismissed the film as heavy-handed.

Twenty-two years after its premiere, film historian Ashley Clark, author of Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee's Bamboozled, will explore its depth and overlooked importance in a screening and book signing at AFS Cinema on Feb. 19.

Bamboozled chronicles a Black TV producer with a mission to create a show offensive enough to make him lose his job, but the resulting modern-day minstrel show is a success. In themes and aesthetics alike, the film is ugly. "I'd be disingenuous if I said I thought it was a surprise that the film was quite poorly received," said Clark. "It's a very hostile film. Lee proved to be unafraid of engaging with difficult issues like interracial relationships, gentrification and violence, but his films were always quite digestible. Bamboozled was not."

“It’s a very hostile film.”   – Ashley Clark

Clark first saw Bamboozled in 2001 as a teenager in his hometown of London, England, and he was disturbed and unsure of what to make of it. The more Clark experienced the realities of racism in the media and society, the film kept coming back to him for depicting the ugly subject, raw and ruthlessly. "With Bamboozled, you've got the keys to everything Spike Lee: aesthetically, politically, stylistically. I think it's all kind of there in a very confrontational and quite unguarded way. The ugly truth of it is all there."

From minstrelsy to exploitive stereotypes, Bamboozled delves into the history and lineage of what Black representation has been onscreen and how it's taken root in the imagination, showing what American entertainment has done to the Black image. "When you look at someone like Kanye West wearing a 'White Lives Matter' jacket and talking about how he wouldn't have been enslaved himself, it is clear that there really are characters today that seem larger than life, completely outrageous and bamboozled," said Clark. "In terms of media commentary in the new age of Donald Trump, the film started to look less crazy, which is really unsettling given what happens in the film."

Clark originally wrote his book as an opportunity to express his feelings on the heavy film. First published by the Critical Press in 2015 to celebrate the film's 15th anniversary, Facing Blackness was re-released last October by Film Desk Books with a new foreword. "It's an invitation to people that it's really rewarding to wrestle with difficult films to unpack," said Clark. "Bamboozled is a good one to do that with because it's easier to just dismiss, as I did when I was 15."

AFS Cinema (6406 N. I-35 #3100) presents Bamboozled Sun., Feb. 19, 6pm.

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Ashley Clark, AFS Cinema, Bamboozled, Spike Lee, Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee's Bamboozled

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