- Falling Back into HistoryThe Uncanny Trauma of Blackface Minstrelsy in Spike Lee's Bamboozled
…nobody, black or white, wants to revisit this stuff. I know there'll be a resistance to this film, like, "Why is Spike bringing this stuff back? That was the last century; we're in a new century, a new frontier." I think it's important that we look at this stuff. It has to be confronted. Blackface is part of American history.—Spike Lee, in a 2000 interview about Bamboozled
He is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of … remembering it as something belonging to the past.—Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle
To be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or event.—Cathy Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory
Late in Spike Lee's Bamboozled, the uncanny figure of Abraham Lincoln in blackface steps forward onto the stage of Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, the wildly popular, all-black cast variety television program at the center of the 2000 film. Dressed in Lincoln's traditional hat and black suit, Honeycutt (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), The New Millennium Minstrel Show's African American emcee, declares: "Four score and seven years ago, they was kicking our black asses. Boy, I mean, they had a whip, and they was kicking our black asses from can't see in the morning until can't see at night. But this is the new millennium!" As he sustains the final syllable of his last phrase—"this is the new millennium"—Honeycutt strikes a haunting pose: he leans backward toward the stage's rear curtain, which displays the larger-than-life image of a minstrel character, whose distorted face, twisted nose, crimson lips, and gaping mouth threaten to engulf Honeycutt and overtake the screen. Approaching the audience assembled in the studio for the show as the segment continues, the emcee extends both of his arms horizontally, tilts his head back, and assumes a cross-like posture that invokes the specter of a nearly falling body, a visual echo of Honeycutt's descent into the stage backdrop we saw a few frames earlier. From the aerial view that the camera provides as it lingers on this tableau, it seems as if we witness Honeycutt, his movement suspended in time and space, in the moment before he will fall backward. [End Page 1093]
Phantasmagorically raising Lincoln from the dead, this scene in Bamboozled signifies on the lines and likeness of the sixteenth president, deploying the form of entertainment he himself enjoyed. But here minstrelsy serves as a vehicle that reworks Lincoln's conventional image as the political figure who, so the official narrative goes, instituted black freedom and, instead, makes him suffer the nation's (still very much open) "wounds" of slavery, which in his Second Inaugural Address the president wanted so much to "bind up" (333).1 In its overlaying of touchstone chapters in the racial history of the United States—the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and, most significantly, the centuries of slavery that prepared the way for these events—Honeycutt's blackface Lincoln exposes the lie of racial progress in America, rewriting the traditional narrative of black liberation in which the epoch of slavery gives way to that of freedom, and testifying that to be black in the "new millennium" is still to be subject to physical and psychological abuse, to have one's "ass kicked" and psyche wounded by the "master," who, in the case of the film, assumes the guise of the white media establishment that coerces African American actors to perform in blackface in order to earn a living in the entertainment industry. Just as Honeycutt's figure continually threatens to fall in this scene, Bamboozled stages what this essay terms a fall back into history: a collapsing of the temporal boundaries between the nineteenth century and the new millennium, between the eras of slavery and freedom—in short, between past and present.
That Lee's film resurrects the blackface caricatures of the putative "past" even as it presumably sets out to critique them has been the subject of significant controversy and debate.2 Yet critics...