I don't know whether I have mentioned this in the past, but in addition to my regular teaching load, I also teach a course each semester at the maximum security prison about an hour from Asheville. This semester, I have been teaching a course called "The Legacy of the Harlem Renaissance." We read from the 1920s works of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, as well as the work of artists who seem to have inherited the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance: Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Amiri Baraka's Dutchman, Gloria Naylor's Bailey's Cafe. The primary theme that weaves through the course is the representation of African-Americans in the arts, as well as WEB DuBois' idea of "double consciousness" and his argument with Langston Hughes over how to represent black experience.
As a culminating class, this Monday we watched Spike Lee's brilliant film Bamboozled. If you haven't seen this film, I recommend it highly. It is the story of Pierre Delacroix (played by Damon Wayans), a Harvard-educated TV producer whose white boss informs him that his shows are not "black enough." Angered by his boss' attitude, Delacroix decides to get himself fired (he can't resign due to a 5-year contract) by pitching an idea for the most extremely offensive "black" show he can think of: "ManTan: the New Millennium Minstrel Show," complete with blackface, a watermelon patch set, tap dancing, and racist stereotype after racist stereotype. In a plot twist similar to The Producers, Delacroix is horrified to find that his boss loves the idea, and tells him to go into production. The show becomes a national sensation, with studio audiences, both black and white, arriving to see the show in blackface and proudly proclaiming, in the pre-show warmup, to being niggers. Like Dr. Faustus, Delacroix ends up selling his soul to the devil for wealth, fame, and power, and like Faustus ultimately ends up being dragged into hell.
As I said above, I think this film is brilliant. But as I drove home, I found myself wondering how it fit into many of the things I have written on this blog. Several of my students noted that they thought the message of the film was "You can't escape the power of money," followed by the conclusion, "You just need to make sure you get yours." They were not angered by what they saw, or motivated to change the racist stereotypes Lee says lurks barely beneath the surface of American society, but rather they came away with a sense of hopelessness. I have written that I think art ought to help people to find order and meaning in experience, to present an option to the speed and abrasiveness of everyday culture. This film is as abrasive as the culture, and seems to be an angry expression of frustration at the ultimate corruption of everybody. It really doesn't fit into my artistic world.
And yet, I think it is a brilliant film. It doesn't fit my stated aesthetic values, yet I think it is an excellent work of art. How to accomodate this seeming contradiction?
In one way, I value it because Lee has a complex moral vision. Despite the central theme of selling one's soul, the film is not a moral melodrama where the Good People confront the Bad People and lose (a melodramatic tragedy). Rather, each character is flawed: white as well as black, educated as well as uneducated, rich as well as poor, powerful as well as powerless. Indeed, it is interesting to look at the central character as standing in for Lee himself, and the dangers that he faces each time he makes a film in Hollywood -- the temptation to sell his soul for success. No hands are clean in this film. Lee's Swiftian thrusts skewers not only white TV execs, but also (and perhaps most brutally) black revolutionaries (in this case, a group called the Mau-Maus, who are simultaneously dumb as a rock and dangerous as a rocket). Lee's eye is critical, and unblinking.
So I ended up questioning my values, both personal and aesthetic. And perhaps ultimately that is what good art does: makes you go into your philosophical closet and try on all the clothes to see how they look with this new addition -- how does this old pair of pants look with this new shirt? If those of you who have written about making an audience "uncomfortable" mean this -- mean providing the impetus for the audience to reflect upon its assumptions and suppositions -- then I can walk along your road with you quite happily. Bambaoozled certainly made me think and think again, and that was a real pleasure.