- "Business as Usual"1:Sex, Race, and Work in Spike Lee's Bamboozled
In the beginning of Spike Lee's 2000 film Bamboozled lead female character Sloan Hopkins is an articulate and promising young professional. Critic Ray Black has called Sloan the film's "historical conscience," constantly reminding the male protagonists of the implications of their actions.2 By the end of the film, however, we see Sloan stumbling into her boss's office mumbling, "This is Sloan, listen to Sloan day," before losing control of her gun and shooting the film's narrator. How are we to understand a character shift that has baffled critics since the movie came out? A simple acceptance of Lee's inability to create believable female characters does not suffice; after all, Lee has acknowledged his past exclusion of women and stated that he intentionally made Sloan "the most sympathetic and the most intelligent" character in the film.3 Yet critical and casual viewers alike remain clueless as to why Sloan behaves as she does. While demonstrating his racial insight with the nuanced lead male characters of Pierre and Manray, Lee abandons Sloan to the stereotype of a mad black woman. From such a perceptive director this failure is jarring.
Bamboozled centers on Pierre Delacroix, an African American television writer. Pierre has recently faced an onslaught of rejections of his show proposals. Frustrated, he creates the New Millennium Minstrel Show to showcase the blackface stereotypes white-run networks and audiences want to see. Pierre hopes that the racist show will earn him a pink slip and a free pass out of his contract. Throughout the creative process Pierre relies heavily on the work of his personal assistant, Sloan Hopkins. While wary of the minstrel-show premise, Sloan supports Pierre and helps connect him with Manray and Womack, two homeless street performers whom Pierre wants on the show. Throughout the film Sloan's voiced disapproval is instructive, for both the lead characters and the audience: she contextualizes blackface for Manray and Pierre, providing historical research that reaches back to American slavery. Meanwhile, Dunwitty, a white network bigwig and Pierre's boss, takes [End Page 1] great pains to ensure that the show is an absolutely uncritical representation of classic minstrelsy characters. The Minstrel Show premieres and rapidly becomes a hit, drawing both loyal spectators and vociferous protesters. At first dismayed, Pierre gradually begins to glory in the critical praise for and success of the show.
The show's success doesn't last long. The Mau Maus, a hip-hop group led by Sloan's brother Julius, show their disgust at the Minstrel Show by kidnapping its star, Manray. In front of a television audience that includes nearly all of the main characters of the film, the Mau Maus force Manray to dance and eventually shoot him multiple times. The Mau Maus, in turn, exit the building and are immediately gunned down by the police. Sloan, hysterical after Manray's and Julius's deaths, sets out with a gun to find Pierre. After some unintelligible final commentary Sloan accidently (?) shoots Pierre and runs away.
This final scene of the film obliterates any residual confidence the viewers may have had in Sloan—residual because, throughout the movie, Lee has already naturalized her lack of agency by highlighting her apparent inadequacy as the moral linchpin. Sloan mainly operates as a sort of facilitator of the men's contributions to the social message of the film. What's more, since she sleeps with the show's star and used to sleep with her boss, her status is that of an object of sexual desire (and professional lackey) in a predominantly male working environment, not that of a capable player in race relations. Every time Sloan tries to break the cycle of this systematic castration, the male characters of the film (namely Pierre, Manray, and Dunwitty) degrade her further. They refer to her with a plethora of demeaning terms ("black princess," "little lamb," "the help," "opportunist," "house nigger,") or they try to get her into bed, or they accuse her of getting into bed with someone else. The men of this film employ these strategies when Sloan...