Spike Lee Festival brings together the director’s most incendiary and accessible work

From February 24 through 26, WUD Film is hosting five films in the Marquee Theater in addition to a panel on Black representation after their first screening of “Bamboozled.”

From February 24 through 26, WUD Film is hosting five films in the Marquee Theater in addition to a panel on Black representation after their first screening of “Bamboozled.”

Header Collage: A photo of WUD Film’s promotional poster for the festival on the left. On the top right, a still from “Bamboozled,” where Manray or Mantan (Savion Glover), performs on stage in exaggerated blackface. Below him, a promotional shot of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) of “BlacKkKlansman” confidently raising Black Power fists to the camera.

While attending NYU Film School in the early 1980s, Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee shocked his professors and inflamed the first of many audiences with The Answer, a 20-minute black-and-white short film about a young Black screenwriter hired to direct a multimillion-dollar Hollywood remake of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation (1915). Ever since then, this uncompromising and visionary filmmaker has been committed to radically changing the face of the American film industry by any means necessary.

Throughout an illustrious career that spans more than 35 years, Spike Lee has become a prolific, internationally acclaimed auteur, a cultural icon, a tenured professor of film, a powerful entrepreneur, and a catalyst for Black cinema. His bold, brutally honest films entertain viewers as much as they provoke controversy, promote difficult dialogues, and penetrate the social and psychological complexities of race relations in the United States. As the late actor (and Spike Lee regular) Ossie Davis once said, “Spike is one of those few people who could have sat at the same table as Cecil B. DeMille, Samuel Goldwyn, Jack Warner, and all those guys who invented Hollywood.”

In celebration of Black History Month, WUD Film has organized a five-film Spike Lee Festival at the Marquee Theater in Union South that showcases some of his most influential works, including Bamboozled (2000) on Thursday, February 24 at 6 p.m., BlacKkKlansman (2018) and School Daze (1988) on Friday, February 25 at 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., respectively, and finally Clockers (1995) and He Got Game (1998) on Saturday, February 26 at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. “Melanin in Media,” a panel of speakers discussing the representation of Black culture in film, will follow Thursday’s screening of Bamboozled at approximately 8:30 p.m.

Arguably Lee’s most groundbreaking, confrontational, and misunderstood movie, Bamboozled has long been dismissed as little more than a mid-career curiosity in the director’s filmography. A bizarre, caustic, multifaceted satire of American television, this timelessly important piece of experimental filmmaking examines the complex relationship between race and popular culture.

Bamboozled centers on the rise and fall of Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a pretentious, Harvard-educated, and upwardly mobile Black executive for a struggling television network. His ideas for aspirational Black middle-class sitcoms are continually rejected, so he decides to get himself fired. Thus, he creates the most outrageous and offensive spectacle he can think of—a grotesque vaudeville show in which Black actors wear exaggerated blackface makeup while singing, tap dancing, chattering nonsensically, telling crude jokes, and pilfering chickens. Pierre naively believes his project, The New Millennium Minstrel Show, with its flagrant racial excesses and distortions, will expose the racism of the white writers and producers. To his bewilderment, the program becomes an instant smash hit and launches a national craze for wearing blackface.

Lee’s absurdist black comedy brings to light harsh historical truths that many people either are  ignorant of or would prefer to conveniently forget. At the same time, his film demonstrates that racial stereotypes from that supposedly bygone era are still deeply embedded in mainstream media, even if actual blackface minstrelsy does not persist. In a 2001 interview with Cineaste editors Gary Crowdus and Dan Georgakas titled “Thinking about the Power of Images,” Lee explains that he wanted to show that “from their birth these two great mediums, film and television, have promoted negative racial images.” He contends that “racism is woven into the very fabric of American society, and it just makes sense that it’s going to be reflected in sports, in movies, in television, in business, and so on.”

A jagged, challenging picture shot primarily on digital video that exempts no one from criticism in the perpetuation of dehumanizing stereotypes, Bamboozled was naturally met with critical and commercial indifference upon its release. At the turn of the century, many critics completely missed the point of the movie and suggested that Lee had needlessly reopened old wounds. Roger Ebert found Bamboozled to be “perplexing” and predicted that “viewers will leave the theater thinking Lee has misused” Black images. Ugly in both form and content, Lee’s film confused Black and white audiences alike, grossing only $2.5 million on a budget of $10 million.

Nevertheless, the ensuing years have seen Bamboozled earn the belated respect it deserves. Criterion Collection released a new 2K director-approved digital restoration in 2020. This flawed, incendiary, and altogether fascinating masterpiece has proven not only vital to understanding the Black minstrel tradition in mass entertainment, but also alarmingly prescient. Ashley Clark, author of the 2015 book Facing Blackness: Media And Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, observes, “In a fraught contemporary climate where the mediation of the [B]lack image in American society is at a crucial juncture, Bamboozled’s trenchant commentary on the importance, complexity and lasting effects of media representation could hardly feel more urgent.” Indeed, Lee’s lurid satire has become increasingly relevant with each passing year.

Screening the following day, February 25, BlacKkKlansman (2018) dramatizes the improbably true story of Ron Stallworth, the first Black detective in the history of the Colorado Springs Police Department. Based on Stallworth’s 2014 memoir Black Klansman: Race, Hate, And The Undercover Investigation Of A Lifetime, the movie mostly takes place in the early 1970s against a backdrop of momentous social upheaval as the struggle for civil rights continues. Determined to make a name for himself and a difference in his community, Stallworth (John David Washington) fearlessly embarks on a dangerous mission to infiltrate and expose the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

This vibrant, striking, and darkly comic re-enactment of Stallworth’s strange journey finds the director at the top of his game. Lee deftly weaves the factual details of his tale and the real-life horrors of racism into a thrilling cinematic experience with layers of intrigue and suspense, while integrating black humor, political polemics, and various cultural references. Although he takes some liberties and embellishes Stallworth’s account, Lee draws direct parallels between the detective’s experiences and contemporary racial issues to reveal deep truths about American life.

The climax of BlacKkKlansman involves a screening of The Birth Of A Nation, the controversial silent epic film that at once inspired the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and essentially invented the modern language of cinema. Here, Lee comes full circle to his first student effort as he brilliantly shows us that the art of film has always been inextricably intertwined with the legacy of racism.

After Bamboozled and BlacKkKlansman, check out Lee’s other three films in the festival, such as his second feature School Daze, based in large part on his experiences as a student at the historically Black Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia during the 1970s. On Saturday, catch Clockers, a gritty crime drama adapted from the 1992 novel by Richard Price that addresses the “war on drugs.” Lastly, see He Got Game, which examines poverty and professional basketball.

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