Overlooked: Bamboozled — Spike Lee’s “satire about a failed satire”

A critique of Black racial stereotypes

Overlooked: <i>Bamboozled</i> — Spike Lee’s “satire about a failed satire”

In 1604, Mephistopheles, a devil acting as Lucifer’s messenger, tricked the educated and well-meaning Doctor Faustus into selling his soul in exchange for endless power and — little did he know — eternal damnation. While Christopher Marlowe’s classic morality tale was about the tragedy of turning one’s back on God, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled addresses the morality of turning one’s back on oneself.

When asked why he chose to showcase this film at the Toronto Black Film Festival this year, Lee said that it encapsulated the fundamental question embedded within all of his works: “is your soul for sale?” Following a pause, he added, “and if so, at what price are you willing to sell it?”

Bamboozled is Spike Lee’s turn-of-the-millennium satire about a Black television executive, Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) who creates a reincarnation of the wildly racist minstrel shows — which were nineteenth century theatre shows built on the comic enactment of Black racial stereotypes — in order to get himself fired. This was done with the aim of exposing his network for its bigotry. His plan failed miserably as the show turned out to be a massive hit, drawing in ardent fans who unironically relished in the degrading stereotypes of the minstrel show.

Delacroix hires a homeless tap dancer, Manray, and his friend, Womack, to be the central characters in his show. The two men agree to take up the roles, which would require them to don blackface, seeing it as an opportunity to make money and survive. Lee specifically referred to them as the “casualties of capitalism” stating that these are the people who “wear the burden of the past” on their face. The types of people who, in poverty, are left with no choice but to sell out.

Delacroix eventually caves into the show’s newfound popularity, celebrating his success and defending the satirical nature of the show. As the story progresses, the characters are haunted by what they have done, and in the process of defending their decisions, they all spiral into their own crises of identity.

Characteristically of Lee, the film ends with an explosion of violence, which exposes the hazy juncture at which the abandoned stereotypes of the minstrel show meet institutionalized racism.

Lee dedicated a large amount of screentime to the process of putting on makeup in the dressing room. Before every show, the camera focuses on the ritualization of the the application of blackface. Lee painstakingly documents every aspect of it: lighting the cork, watching it melt into a thick black paste, the spoon mixing it in, the sponge dipped into the paste and smeared onto a face looking in the mirror. This scene repeats itself before every performance, and each time the actors are burdened more than the last. The hand applying the makeup is less steady, and the face that bears the mask is worn out. One scene sees Womack applying blackface, covering up his tears.

The strangeness of the film lies in the fact that Lee made a satire about a failed satire. In fact, the film begins by defining satire as “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn.” Bamboozled clarifies that satire can only be called such if it is successful. That is, its ridicule and criticism must be understood by the audience. While Delacroix ceaselessly defends his show as satirical, its irony is lost, not just on the viewing public, but on the television executives and writers producing it. The success of his blatantly racist show lies in unearthing the American consumer’s craving for the very caricatures that were thought to have been shut out and left in the past.

At the heart of it, Lee examines the complicated relationship between race and popular culture in our capitalist society. The difficulty faced by creatives like Delacroix is that, unable to produce the stories they want, they are forced to ‘give the audience what they want’ by making compromises in order to be commercially viable. It is a problem strongly mirrored in Lee’s decades-long career. His unwillingness to back down from controversial material or alter his abrasive and confrontational style has led to him not only being underappreciated and misunderstood, but also unable to gather funds for his films despite his successes.

Delacroix sold out the moment he struck his Faustian bargain by succumbing to the pressure of executives, making a compromise. Most crucially, he sells out by lying to himself: maintaining that the show is merely satirical and not a further degradation of his race, sold as entertainment. Thus, he fell victim to an industry bent toward corrupting truths and ideals.

This is exactly what Lee himself has relentlessly tried to avoid. In 1990, the year Driving Miss Daisy, widely regarded as having pandered to white America, won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Spike Lee’s groundbreaking film Do the Right Thing was largely snubbed.

At the end of his interview at the festival, while explaining the importance of his work and why he does what he does despite being, at times, overlooked, he wanted to draw attention to the words of James Baldwin, quoted at the end of the film: “People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.”

Overlooked: Speechless

Centring disability: ABC’s best cancelled family sitcom

Overlooked: <em>Speechless</em>

“Inspiration porn, what’s that?” asked Kenneth.

“It’s a portrayal of people with disabilities as one-dimensional saints who only exist to warm the hearts and open the minds of able-bodied people,” answered Ray.

“I blame Tiny Tim,” JJ added.

This humourous and to-the-point explanation comes courtesy of the ABC show ​Speechless. A couple years ago, in my NEW241Y1 — Introduction to Disability Studies course, my professor played this clip. I remembered being drawn to the show out of curiosity. I originally dipped into it with a purely analytical purpose; as a student studying equity and disability, I was intrigued.

What I encountered was a thoughtful, well-written, and genuinely funny show that quickly became one of my favourites. Micah Fowler stars as JJ DiMeo, a teenager with cerebral palsy. He uses a wheelchair and is non-verbal, hence the title of the show.

The series follows his family: his mother Maya (Minnie Driver), father Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), and younger siblings Ray (Mason Cook) and Dylan (Kyla Kennedy). The series begins with a move to an upscale new town in order to allow JJ to attend a more accessible school.

Cedric Yarbrough plays Kenneth Clements, the school janitor-turned personal aide. Being racialized, Kenneth is able to connect with JJ using their shared experiences of oppression.

The show is for all audiences, as the driving story arcs are common and relatable problems for most families; they just have the added element of disability and access. Something I distinctly love about ​Speechless​ is its depiction of a low-income household: the DiMeo’s make ends meet, but they certainly can’t afford nice things, and their working-class poverty becomes a point of contention throughout the show. The representation of such a common experience is profound for mainstream television.

Speechless​ is in a league of its own; centring a disability narrative has never been done in this way. On the rare occasion a disability does appear in mainstream television or movies, it is often as an afterthought, a threat, or a portrayal of some sort of trope. Characters with disabilities often exist only to aid the journey and build the character of the central figure who doesn’t have a disability. Disability is portrayed as something undesirable, and rarely as a viable, livable reality.

Scott Silveri, the creator of the show, based the story on his own experiences, as his brother has cerebral palsy. It’s also important to note that Fowler is an actor with a disability playing a character with a disability — something relatively unheard of. Fowler is a wheelchair user and has cerebral palsy.

Speechless ​asks the real questions. Will JJ ever be able to live independently? Can he ever have a family of his own? Will he graduate high school and continue along a normative path of education to success? The conversations are uncomfortable at times, and the answers are not always black-and-white, but this is exactly why we, as viewers, must challenge our beliefs and grow toward uncertainty.

Even though we are in the midst of a cultural awakening, much too often disability oppression is left out of our activism. Speechless is a breath of fresh air and exactly what we need right now. And it’s actually funny — trust me!

Everyone should be watching Speechless.

Overlooked: Anne with an E

From a children’s classic to a Netflix original, literature’s favourite Canadian redhead finally reaches our favourite procrastination tools

Overlooked: <em>Anne with an E</em>

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, set in Prince Edward Island, is about a unique orphan who wins the hearts of siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert.

The book is treasured not only by Canadians, but by people all around the world. I remember growing up and falling in love with Anne’s flamboyant personality.

I laughed when she got into trouble for dyeing her hair green and adored the love-hate relationship between Anne and Gilbert Blythe. Over the years, there have been many television adaptations of this series, however, Netflix and CBC’s diamond-in-the-rough Anne with an E offers a fresh new perspective on Montgomery’s beloved novels.

Despite being renewed for a third season, the show is still vastly underappreciated. The first season offers us a look into Anne’s life before she arrives at Green Gables and sets a grim mood to the show.

Anne copes with post-traumatic stress disorder flashbacks, which reveal the trauma she has endured at the hands of her previous foster parents. Although this adaption is different from the previous light-hearted depictions of Anne, it sheds light on the challenges that children in the foster care system face.

The second season delves into other important topics, such as racism, homophobia, and misogyny. We are introduced to the show’s first Black character Sebastian ‘Bash’ (Dalmar Abuzeid), who Gilbert befriends while working on a ship together. We get to see Gilbert develop into a fully fleshed-out character who has a life beyond being Anne’s love interest.

At the same time, we see Gilbert learn what it means to be an ally to Bash against the racism he faces. Queerness is examined through the role of Diana Barry’s aunt Josephine who had a partner called ‘Aunt Gertrude.’ Aunt Josephine holds a queer-friendly party which sets the scene for Diana Barry, Anne’s closest friend, to grapple with her feelings about her aunt’s sexuality. The show also flirts with feminism by introducing the new teacher, Miss Stacy, who breaks gender norms by being single and wearing pants.

Anne with an E dives into our cherished novel and updates the classic tale with vibrant new characters and themes. The show does not shy away from exploring painful topics which is what sets it apart from previous adaptations.

Overlooked: The Image Book

Godard represents the Arab world without a Western gaze

Overlooked: <em>The Image Book</em>

The Image Book is exactly what I expected it to be, and also something I couldn’t possibly imagine. The latest video essay by French-Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018.

It is about Western representations of the Arab world. The Image Book is so endlessly complicated that unless you have a grasp of the political situation in the Middle East, an understanding of France’s foreign policy, a mastery of dense film theory, and a mental backlog of hundreds, if not thousands, of films that you can recognize in a heavily distorted visual cue, you will probably be disoriented during the 84 minute run-time of this film.

Even trying to give an account of the film is challenging, given how the history of art — from Faust to Vertigo — bubbles beneath each shot. But it is precisely the film’s impenetrable nature that allows it to penetrate deeply in our cultural moment.

The first half of the film explores the problems with representing the Arab world through Western eyes. However, an explanation of how Godard conducts this exploration is impossible through the written word. In fact, it would do a disservice to this erudite film to attempt to interpret it.

Instead, the charm of The Image Book lies in its ability to collapse discourse around the Middle East in a sprawling landscape of maximalist intertextuality. Simply put, the meaning of The Image Book is so complicated that a viewer would be lucky to understand a single frame of the work.

Through its complication and disruption of Western modes of interpretation and meaning-making, The Image Book gives us a representation of the Arab world emptied of Western hegemony. By frustrating our prepossessed understanding of the world, The Image Book allows us to re-imagine the world in terms that are open to other voices. For example, one frustrating but fascinating detail is that the film’s subtitles translate only about half of the content. So for people who are not fluent in French, only half of what is said in the film is understandable.

Cinema is not here for us to pontificate about in cocktail parties, but is part of a global struggle for human expression. While artsy French films are easy targets for educated people to sound smart about, by making a film where talking about it only reveals a critic’s ignorance, Godard makes sure that we do not consume The Image Book, but that it consumes us, thereby complicating our presuppositions of the Arab world. Perhaps it’s all-too Western to think of the Arab world as a war-torn place in need of saving, but my preconceptions crumble in the beautiful images that Godard has masterfully curated.

Godard possesses a knowledge of cinema and philosophy that few could match. His ability to inject a healthy dose of confusion in our cultural representation of the Arab world penetrates our culture’s skin of prideful ignorance.

He unabashedly complicates everything, barraging his film with so many images that we are forced to question our assumptions about the world. In the absence of judgement and in the suspension of hermeneutics, The Image Book gives us a representation of the Arab world that subverts the colonizing eyes of the West.

There is nothing to say about the film; all we can really do is watch and listen.

Overlooked: Lee Daniels’ Star

Star acts as a convenient distraction from the first week of classes

Overlooked:  Lee Daniels’ <em>Star</em>

Star is the new-and-improved version of the musical drama Empire. It’s more thrilling and has a killer soundtrack and a flawless cast. 

The show follows an aspiring girl group, Take 3, as they navigate their way through the ins and outs of Atlanta’s music industry to achieve stardom. Take 3, however, is not your ordinary modern-day girl group. They do not benefit from the exposure that comes from participating in televised singing competitions like Fifth Harmony and Little Mix. Nor do they start off with a budget, or rely on ghost writers to produce their music. 

Rather, the trio — comprised of two half-sisters who grew up in foster care and their new songwriting friend who is trying to escape her life as the offspring of musical royalty — come together with nothing but their ambition and love of music to become Atlanta’s hottest sound. 

The group’s journey is far from easy. The girls deal with adversity that is all-too-common for any musical group, including jealousy, creative differences, romantic distractions, and their own individual demons that they must learn to conquer. Further, the girls must find a way to stick together in light of their individual musical achievements in the ruthless music industry that pits artists against each other. Yet, with an amazing support system to keep them in check and focused on their initial goals, the girls are able to overcome the hurdles thrown their way and stay true to themselves.

As a typical musical drama, Star exceeds the unexpected. With its unpredictable storylines that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat in disbelief, this show will have you constantly guessing. However, unlike the other dramas, Star aligns with reality by addressing a broad range of issues that have become increasingly relevant to society today. 

The show’s predominantly Black cast features celebrities such as Queen Latifah, Brandy, and Quincy Brown. The series tackles issues such as police brutality, racial profiling, and the acceptance of LGBTQ+ members within the Black community. Star also sheds light on other important issues such as sexual abuse, immigration, human trafficking, drug abuse, gang violence, and the flaws of the foster care system. 

Star is the show to watch on Netflix this fall. With a mixture of comedy, drama, crime, and romance — as well as a catchy soundtrack — this series will have you laughing, crying, singing, and dancing every episode. Additionally, with a jaw-dropping season three finale, you will be inspired to join the tens of thousands of fans who have already signed a petition to get the show renewed for a fourth season. 

Overlooked: The Banana Story of Agony

A children’s book we should all read by fourth year

Overlooked: <em>The Banana Story of Agony</em>

I found The Banana Story of Agony in the children’s section of BMV Books. Something about it called to me. It was probably the words “banana” and “agony”: the former being my favourite fruit and the latter being my perpetual state of being. So naturally, I bought it without so much as a glance at the blurb. After initially abandoning it in the corner of my room next to an empty Pepcid bottle, I stumbled upon it again days later, and to my surprise found that I had purchased a masterpiece.

The Banana Story of Agony is a picture book, written and illustrated by Lesley Johnson and published by Conundrum Press, an independent publisher known for its graphic novels. However, it would be folly to assume that The Banana Story of Agony can be classified as anything other than high art.

On a superficial level, this book looks like any other children’s book. Illustrations are accompanied by large, simple text running along the bottom, and the stories all feature children, personified objects, or mythic persons such as Santa Claus. Upon looking closer, however, one discovers that it not only appears to be written for a child, but also written by a child. The illustrations are simple and unpolished, and you can see the white space where the watercolour paper shows through. In fact, the pictures are oddly reminiscent of locker murals painted by middle school art clubs.

Even the text, which Johnson created using both her left and right hand simultaneously, mimics a childlike scrawl. But this isn’t a criticism. This precisely shows how the work blurs the line between child and adult literature, art and kitsch, satire and seriousness.

One of the work’s most obvious blurred dualities is that of innocence and disturbance. The childlike simplicity of the illustrations are juxtaposed with the absurdity and undeniable creepiness of the four stories: “Love”, “There’s No One Home: A Story of Indifference”, “Susan had a Chicken on her Butt”, and the titular “Banana Story of Agony.” The plots of these tales resemble that of an uncomfortably vivid and particularly bizarre dream, one that you wake up remembering and later recount to an annoyed group of strangers while on acid at a house party.

Like Daniel Johnston’s cassette covers, Mark Perry’s Sniffin’ Glue, and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Lesley Johnson’s The Banana Story of Agony is undeniably punk rock in its defiance of conventional norms of art and literature. It is art from the ground up, born from the grassroots, from a place where there are no rules and where we are all a little “bananas.”

Overlooked: Derry Girls

Another show surrounding four gal pals trying to live their best lives

Overlooked: <i>Derry Girls</i>

What happens when you have four out-of-their-mind teenage girls and their pitiable English tag-along and set them up against the backdrop of civil conflict? You get the brilliant show Derry Girls!

The show follows Erin and her friends as they cross the usual hurdles of being 16: parents, independence, romance, school. But where Derry Girls stands out in its references to checkposts, army officers, and the ever-present threat of clashes between Irish republicans and British unionists.

Maybe unexpectedly, Derry Girls is absolutely hilarious. Bad luck seems to constantly follow Erin and her gang, putting them in awkward situations, which include witnessing a false miracle, housing a Russian immigrant, and finding a stowaway in their car while crossing the border to the Republic of Ireland.

The teenagers are ridiculous in their comedy and actions, but the stars of the show are their school’s headmistress, who is sarcastic and clearly has put up with fumbling teenagers for too long, and Erin’s family, which has a realistic and quirky dynamic. Needless to say, each scene is jam-packed with action even if it is the most mundane of situations.

Derry Girls is unique in the fact that not many Irish television shows have gained its level of international success, especially as it features young women in starring roles. It shows us how even in places of conflict, ordinary lives exist and still have to go on, though interrupted as they are.

It resonates especially with me because I grew up in conflict-ridden Lahore, Pakistan, but our day-to-day life continued nonetheless. I wish someone made a series like this about Lahore!

The show not only made me laugh but also taught me about an important historical decade that I did not know much about, which led me to research more on the issue. You’ll fall in love with the characters, that’s a given, but you’ll also begin to love Derry itself.

With only six episodes at about 20 minutes each — which are all readily available on Netflix — what are you waiting for?

(not) Overlooked: Romantic comedies

The best genre of film, fight us xoxo The Varsity’s A&C section

(not) Overlooked: Romantic comedies

Palpable and undeniable chemistry, long witty banter, brazen declarations of love, and unlikely pairings followed by actions laced with infinite empathy are just a few of the key pieces that embody the essence of a romantic comedy to me. Characters who seem emotionally incomplete without the affections of their person of interest — a habitually regressive trope that can seem rather fluffy in our recent era of heralding self-love, which is by the way also important and its about damn time — gets me every time. As I tell all my friends while planning my weddings with every guy who has ever returned a pen that I unknowingly dropped or held a door for me for an extended time, I can’t help it — I love LOVE.

My love of the genre can be traced back to my tween years in Nigeria as a fairly socially awkward schoolgirl. Being African, but specifically Nigerian, it was, and still is, rather bizarre to not be as abrasive and unabashedly confident as every other person you come across on a daily basis. So you can imagine how I stuck out like a sore thumb with my reserved nature and tendency to only speak when I needed to — a rare phenomenon back home. Instead, I used coming-of-age romance novels and the occasional Mills & Boon-esque books lent to me by my aunt — as inappropriate as that may sound — to escape into a world of stories that only I could imagine myself in. They ranged from summer love pieces and stories of best friends who unknowingly had feelings for each other, to fantasy stories about a princess recently hiring a stable boy who somehow constantly misplaced his shirt and needed her to keep him warm. I know, I know. But I went to an all-girls high school, so what we lacked in everyday interactions, we sought elsewhere. The whole romance thing fascinated me and I craved to understand and interrogate the nuances and intricacies of love.

The romantic comedy is as important a genre as any other, including science fiction, drama, and action. But, over the years, it has been afforded less cultural legitimacy than its counterparts. Romantic comedies are regularly degraded in favour of stories that highlight more heavy-handed topics. Though these lighthearted stories are equally as important, this stigma deprives the genre’s most ardent followers of the opportunity to be as openly self-indulgent about depictions of everyday romance as, for instance, Star Wars stans. Why should we diminish our declarations of love for one genre over another when, rather, we should be able to embrace them all without shame? Romantic comedies allow their audiences to delve into stories that touch on everyday human connections and the complexities of our interactions. Though it may be considered predictable or cheesy, there is a comfort in knowing what to expect, something that real life regularly fails to give us.

Nevertheless, the current sociopolitical climate has forced us to look at our most relished romantic comedies and re-evaluate what should be considered problematic. The recent box office successes of Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Warner Bros. Pictures’ Crazy Rich Asians sent messages to Hollywood about the lack of diversity in our most adored romantic comedies and that inclusive movies can be just as successful. The audience, including myself, craves representation on-screen. I grew up watching romantic comedies that mostly featured people who didn’t look like me, and that is a problem. Love and Basketball, The Best Man, and Think Like a Man stand out as some of the few features that encapsulated Black love on screen for me.

Having matured and experienced adult romantic connections, romantic comedies mean all the more to me now. Now, they are a reflection of lived realities, more meaningful than they were in past times of preferred realities. But I am now able to embrace myself, along with my awkwardness and its complexities, and forge my own stories outside of what I see in film. Romantic comedies served as an escape for a younger me to imagine a reality outside of my immediate world, and they are still just as significant to me now.

So yet again, it’s important to recognize that romantic movies are as important as the umpteenth period drama in the cinemas every year. Love is essential and even more special because it can be redefined in so many funny ways. Dismissing the quintessential plot of two unlikely individuals falling in love with each other in spite of themselves robs you of the comforts of revelling in the most basic of human connections. And that should be considered a crime in itself.

Need a hand getting started? Here is a list of my most loved romantic comedies, in no particular order — don’t make me do what I cannot do!

Also, the ’90s had the best romantic comedies, don’t deny it!

  • When Harry Met Sally…
  • Notting Hill
  • My Best Friend’s Wedding
  • The Proposal
  • Silver Linings Playbook
  • Jerry Maguire
  • Crazy, Stupid, Love