The idea of blackness has permeated American society since the beginning of our country’s cultural expression. White performers would present themselves in black face and exaggerated lip, assuming the role of the jolly Negro, eternally smiling and singing a song. This tradition points to a deeper, longer lasting problem than old racism or cultural ignorance. It’s an idea that still very much exists in today’s society; that there is something besides skin color that represents blackness. One can act black. One can talk black. It is something that can be put on. I recall playing basketball when an opposing black player told my white teammate that he played like a nigga- referring not to his ability but to his style of play. While that example is innocent enough, the concept of blackness can sometimes turn ugly like when you hear a black man call another black man an Uncle Tom. The implication being that the latter black man is somehow not black enough. Sidney Poitier dealt with this problem throughout his career. Poitier generally played well-spoken educated black men. He did not talk black enough. Spike Lee sees the art form that he loves as serious catalyst in our social conditioning. White writers historically have determined how black people are represented. In his film Bamboozled (2000) about an Ivy-League educated black man who finds success as the star of an old fashioned minstrel show, Lee satirizes this system. Cristy Tondeur in her review of Lee’s film, touches upon this, writing, “As the movie opens, Dela (main character) is shown shaving his head and speaking with an obscure accent that renders his cultural background indiscernible. By doing so, he forces society to deal with a different version of blackness; he has no “Afro” and deploys no slang filled vernacular that may caricature his racial difference.” Hair routinely is brought up as major force in degrees of blackness. In an incendiary segment of an ESPN talk show that led to one panelist being fired, two television personalities attempted to determine an NFL quarterback’s level of blackness. One argument for the quarterback was that he has dreads.
Even more common in judging an African-American is the way he speaks. Hip-hop culture has commercialized the stereotypical black male’s vernacular. One of Lee’s themes in Bamboozled is that black culture has been dumbed down by the media, and put up for sale. It seemed for a long time that the only black representation we were given from television is Sheneneh in Martin or various other clowns.
Perhaps the most interesting effect of black face was the appropriation of blackness and the introduction of blackness as, “a commodity” which has become a popular talking point in academic circles recently. We see it pop up decade after decade, whether it be Elvis Presley or Eminem or Iggy Azalea. Going back to the 1920’s, there was an even more complex issue of black men donning black face. This practice signifies the beginning of what Malcolm X called black society being hoodwinked or bamboozled which Tondeur opens her review with, and from which Lee found his film title.
I think a lot of the problem now is the lack of minority authorship. When one group of people writes about another group of people it can only deal in types. That is why you see a difference between when a woman makes a film about women and when a man makes film about women, or when Lawrence Kasdan made Grand Canyon (1991) and Spike Lee made Do the Right Thing (1989), both about race relations. You can see the difference when watching Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990) where all the natives are noble hearts and Smoke Signals (1999) where the filmmakers let their Native American characters just be rather than having to make them be something or about something. When we have more black men and women in positions of artistic control we will see stronger representation on screen.