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Scene from "Bamboozled." Photo courtesy Courtesy of Warner Bros/New Line/40 Acres and a Mule and Criterion.

Black History Month: Spike Lee and “Bamboozled”

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Spike Lee has been making films that respond to “The Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s influential 1915 film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan and made extensive use of blackface, throughout his career.

In the early 1980s while still in graduate school, he made “The Answer,” a short film about a Black filmmaker who is given $50 million to remake Griffith’s film. In 2018, he co-wrote and directed “Black KkKlansman,” based on the true story of a Black cop who infiltrated the Klan. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including for best picture. (Lee and three other writers won for best adapted screenplay.)

And then there was “Bamboozled,” his 2000 satire about Black actors in blackface in a television series. The show’s creator, a Black television writer, intends it to be a scathing condemnation of blackface, only to see the show become a massive hit. The film, which Lee intended as a direct response to “Birth,” was inducted into the National Film Registry in December, his fifth film to be so honored.

His focus on “Birth” stems not just from its role in the early 20th century, but how it was being taught at the end of it. The day the film was screened for his class at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, he says there was nothing about the film’s glorification of the KKK, its demonization of Black people or its proud embrace of white supremacy.

“All they talked about was the great techniques, or how D.W. Griffith was called the father of cinema,” he said in an interview for the film registry. “But they never talked about the fact that this film gave new life to the Klan. This film was directly responsible for Black people being lynched, killed. … It brought back the Klan’s prominence.”

“Birth” was the nation’s first blockbuster, so much so that it is credited with being the birth of Hollywood as the film industry’s headquarters. Based on Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel “The Clansman” and the hit play that ensued, the three-hour film version portrays the South as being the victim of Reconstruction, with white women in danger of lecherous Black men. The Klan comes in to save the day.

While the book, play and film all drew strong condemnation from several quarters of society, including Black social organizations, much of white America loved it, many thinking it to be an accurate history. This included President Woodrow Wilson, who screened it at the White House and famously called it “history written in lightning.”

Klan membership boomed across the country. Lynchings and violent racist attacks grew. In 1925, some 30,000 Klansmen marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. As late as the 1970s, Klan leader David Duke was showing the film to potential recruits.

Blackface entertainment, meanwhile, was accepted by white audiences for most of the 20th century, before eventually becoming reviled — if not career-killing — by the turn of the century, when “Bamboozled” came out.

Not surprisingly, the film was controversial upon release, opening to mixed reviews. People just did not want to see blackface in any context, Lee remembers. The film’s advertising poster, showing caricatures of two Black children happily eating watermelon, was so shocking that Lee says The New York Times initially refused to publish it, even as an advertisement.

“ ‘Spike Lee’s off his rocker, why is he dredging all this stuff back up from the past?’ ” is how he remembers the general reaction.

He didn’t pull any punches in the movie, although he did make the film’s satirical intent plain in the opening scene, in which the movie’s main character gives the definition of “satire” in voiceover. He didn’t want anyone to miss the point.

But time has a way of telling the truth, and the issues in “Bamboozled” remain persistent. One example: “American Fiction,” the new film about a Black novelist whose book mocking Black stereotypes is also accepted as a straightforward hit, is up for several Oscars, including best picture. It’s based on the book “Erasure,” which was published the year after “Bamboozled” came out — more than two decades ago.

“Eventually people see what I was trying to do at that time and understand it

somewhat better,” Lee says. “One of the most powerful sequences I think I’ve ever done is the closing scene of ‘Bamboozled,’ where we show historically, visually, the hatefulness of white people in blackface — Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby — just the debasement of who we are as a people.”

It’s a stark message, he says, that’s been current in cinema since “The Birth of a Nation” and the birth of the film industry.

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