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  • It Takes a Village Idiot: And Other Lessons Cynthia Willett Teaches Us
  • Andrew Cutrofello

In Bamboozled (2000), Spike Lee’s satire about a modern TV minstrel show, an auditioning actor named Honeycutt tells the show’s writer, Pierre Delacroix, “I even do Shakespeare shit. . . . To be or not to be, you know? That’s the motherfuckin’ question. . . . There’s a scene where this brother was—Laertes was asking the king, that he wanted to go to Paris and shit. The king asked his daddy, and his daddy say, ‘He hath, my lord, wrung from me by laboursome petition. . . .’” Impatiently, Delacroix interrupts: “Was there any more to it, or was that pretty much . . . ?”

Delacroix’s interruption of Honeycutt’s Polonius ironically echoes Polonius’s interruption of the speech of the First Player: “This is too long.” Hamlet rebukes Polonius with a caustic rejoinder—“It shall to the barber’s, with your beard”—apologetically explaining that “he’s for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps.” At the comparable point of Bamboozled, Spike Lee could have had Delacroix’s assistant, Sloan, say something similar. Sloan is the film’s conscience, the one character with the moral authority to see through the minstrel show that is Bamboozled’s play within the play. Instead, Honeycutt responds by translating the pedantic words of Polonius into street vernacular: “Basically he was saying, Let that motherfucker go. [End Page 85] Let him go, you know?” The Harvard-educated Delacroix doesn’t need a hip-hop translation to understand Shakespeare’s language, but Honeycutt’s remark may have deeper significance for him. In a later scene, Delacroix’s father, the comedian Junebug, scolds his son for his pretentiously “white” speech: “Where the fuck did you get that accent?” Unlike his son, Junebug refuses to sell out, restricting his career to playing small gigs for predominantly black audiences. His homey stage name contrasts with the affected French name that Pierre Delacroix has given himself. Like Laertes, Delacroix’s “thoughts and wishes” symbolically bend toward France. Yet it is he who plays the role of the pedantic father, condescendingly asking Junebug what he’s going to do with his life (“Where do you go from here?”). Junebug reasserts his paternal authority by redirecting the question back at his son, pointedly calling him by his given name: “What are you going to do, Peerless?” Then he asks him where the fuck he got that accent. Having played the part of “an attendant lord” or “easy tool” (“Almost at times the Fool”), Delacroix is called out by his father for his inauthenticity. The same message is hinted at in the earlier scene with Honeycutt. In the Lacanian ’hoods of Paris and shit, one would say that Delacroix receives his own message back in an inverted form—or, pace Marx, that what he first indifferently hears as high tragedy (“He hath, my lord, wrung from me . . .”) returns as low farce (“Let that motherfucker go”). The inversion is funny, but Delacroix doesn’t laugh. His eventual demise is less sublime (like the death of Hamlet) than ridiculous (like that of Polonius). As a satiric comedy, Bamboozled ironically indicates the underlying tragic parameters that define Delacroix’s life and death, namely, the antinomies of racial identity in America at the turn of the millennium. Satire’s potential to avert tragedy is one of the lessons that Cynthia Willett teaches us in her provocative book Irony in the Age of Empire.1

Satire is one of three comic genres that Willett examines. The others are farce and romantic comedy. Each, she argues, can be used to promote a respectively different kind, or aspect, of freedom. She derives her threefold conception of freedom from a critical engagement with Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between negative freedom from external constraint and positive freedom to promote a rational life plan. Berlin considers, but ultimately rejects, a third conception: “social” freedom, or the (supposed) freedom of being governed by a member of one’s own “race or social class.”2 Berlin rejects social freedom on the grounds that it is closer to a feeling of pride in one’s social status than to a genuine capacity or achievement...


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