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Transition 10.4 (2001) 38-65

Black in the Box
In defense of African American television

Kelefa Sanneh

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In October 2000, the African American director Spike Lee released a racist film called Bamboozled. I'm a fan of Spike Lee, and I love a good controversy, so I trudged down to my local deca-plex on opening night. Bamboozled had one of the year's most intriguing plots: in a rage of insubordination and self-loathing, a black television executive convinces his white boss to broadcast a "new millennium minstrel show," complete with blackface performers and century-old jokes about chickens and watermelons. Audiences across the country eat it up, and the show is a hit.

Unfortunately, the movie wasn't. I should have known something was wrong when the reviews ended and a voice read out a dictionary definition of satire: "a literary work in which human vice or folly is ridiculed or attacked scornfully." Why was Spike Lee apologizing for the film before it even began? Lee's star, the comedian Damon Wayans, didn't help matters any. He portrayed television executive Pierre Delacroix with a foppish accent that made his scenes nearly unwatchable. By the time Bamboozled skidded to its heavy-handed climax, the satire had drowned in the sermon: Spike Lee wanted to make sure everyone knew that minstrelsy was a bad idea.

But if you left the theater while Pierre was receiving his inevitable comeuppance, you missed the best part. Throughout Bamboozled, an unanswered question hung in the air: What's a minstrel? I suspect many viewers had never seen an actor with his face painted black. The history that so agitates Lee is profoundly foreign to a generation raised on rap records and Eddie Murphy movies. And so, in an effort to familiarize viewers with this sordid story, Lee concluded the film with a montage of scenes from the bad old days. Jada Pinkett-Smith, the film's female lead, slips a tape into a VCR, sobbing, "Look at this shit." The black minstrel pioneer Mantan Moreland [End Page 38] [Begin Page 41] bulges his eyes suggestively, Bing Crosby applies greasepaint to a reluctant costar, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson bends and shakes himself into the most spectacular positions. I'm sorry to say I couldn't quite share Jada's anguish. I was too busy gawking at the wild images on the screen. This is the true revelation of Bamboozled: despite his anti-minstrel agenda, Lee's film can't help but celebrate the singers, dancers, and actors who created black entertainment as we know it.

* * *

Maybe it's only appropriate that Pierre Delacroix is a TV executive. In a country with no shortage of diversions, television is the one thing that nearly everyone makes time for, every night. Not coincidentally, people hate it. Its power to rot minds has come to be accepted as fact, and its ubiquity only bolsters its bad reputation. But to those who think of television as the exclusive domain of stultifying soap operas and stale suburban sitcoms, Lee's secret history will come as something of a surprise. Since when was television a black thing?

Since the beginning, it turns out. But you'd be forgiven for not knowing. When it comes time to compile the canon of African American culture, sitcoms never make the cut. While even the most obscure Harlem Renaissance poetasters get dusted off and re-examined, black television stars from Eddie "Rochester" Anderson to Queen Latifah, from Redd Foxx to Jamie Foxx, languish in pop-culture oblivion.

Two recent books attempt to bring black television into the mainstream of African American scholarship. In Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television (1999), Kristal Brent Zook tells the story of black television in the 1990s. Her short, disjointed chapters often seem more like term papers than essays--indeed, the book began as a doctoral dissertation. Donald Bogle, on the other hand, is more ambitious. In Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network...


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