FEBRUARY 23, 2015
SPIKE LEE’S FIRST MOVIE of the 21st century, the much maligned Bamboozled, explores the history of African Americans in the entertainment industry through the repetition of a provocative and emotionally charged image: a black street performer applying burnt cork to his face in the fashion of Al Jolson and Brudder Tambo. The fictional television show at the center of Lee’s film, called Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, features an all-black cast tap-dancing, performing plantation humor, and eating watermelons — all in blackface. Though Mantan is initially conceived as a way of exposing exactly how white audiences want to see black entertainers, its overwhelming popularity results in a dark return to the racism that generated the early minstrel shows of the 20th century.
Though Lee employed similar elements in his earlier films, Bamboozled’s over-the-top use of satire makes this film particularly challenging. In the film, during the first production meeting for Mantan, producer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) addresses the all-white team of writers before him: “Now I know that it may be hard for some of you liberal-minded good white folks to write such offensive material. Yet, I want you to tap into your white angst. I want you to go back to the O. J. Simpson verdict. I want you to deal with those emotions. How did you feel when the glove didn’t fit?” This is all it takes for the writers to free themselves from the bonds of political correctness, and they begin to talk about playing the race card, and how Sanford and Son was their first exposure to black people. Once that white angst is tapped, once America’s innate racism is exposed through the blockbuster success of Mantan, Delacroix and the other characters, as well as the movie itself, spin out of control, until Delacroix’s violent death at the hands of a radical black power group, the Mau Maus.
Although the film is both genius and uneven, Bamboozled — despite its bad reviews — set the tone for racial discourse in the early 2000s, anticipating the success of black satirists like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle. But the violence at the end of the film, like the violence at the end of many of Lee’s films, serves as a warning, in this case about the form itself. Satire allows artists to say what they couldn’t otherwise, but from Lee’s perspective, once those things are said, the results can be dangerous.
In his second novel, the funny and complex Welcome to Braggsville, T. Geronimo Johnson takes up the torch of race satire. Freed from his conservative, small-town upbringing in Braggsville, Georgia, white teenager D’aron Davenport is admitted to the University of California, Berkeley, where he is thrust into a new world of unbridled left-coast liberalism. This world is expertly skewered by Johnson (he himself is a professor at “Bezerkley”), with its hippies, crunchy academics, gutter punks, PC police, and what Johnson calls, in a characteristic formulation, “desiccated, squirrely girls who foraged at the co-op, standing in the center of the aisle as still as Lady Justice with a container in each hand while deliberating the benefits of garbanzo miso versus soy miso.” D’aron suffers from culture shock until he becomes roommates with Luis, a Chinese American San Francisco native who wants to be the first kung fu comedian, with the stage name of Lenny Bruce Lee. The two attend a dot party, where students are required to wear a sticker on the place they want to be touched. There, they and two others, Charlie and Candice, are charged with being culturally insensitive for wearing the dots like bindis, and an instant friendship is formed among the self-proclaimed Four Little Indians.
In class one day, D’aron happens to mention that his town does an annual Civil War reenactment. Candice, smarting from a recent failure at political performance art — a botched attempt to release the ashes of a Native American martyr at Six Flags — convinces the rest of the Little Indians to travel to Braggsville to protest, this time staging a lynching of one of the group members. There is much hemming and hawing over which member will be lynched — Charlie, the black Little Indian, would be too literal; Candice’s lynching, as a woman, could be sexualized — until it is determined that Luis the kung fu comedian will be the chosen one, and he will do it in blackface.
Luis’s provocative humor illustrates the very clear benefits of using satire to open up racial discourse. On the first day the Four Little Indians arrive in Braggsville, Luis does a stand-up routine at a Davenport family barbecue, performing racially offensive jokes to the white audience of D’aron’s Southern family. (“Tiger Woods? The black part was cheating, and the Chinese part was driving when he hit the tree.”) This humor allows D’aron’s family to warm up to Luis and Luis to them. The point of comedy, Luis says, is “to wake people up — with a full five-finger slap when necessary.” But Luis doesn’t feel this applies to D’aron’s small-town Confederate family: “It’s your fam,” he says, “and they’re good peeps. Comics want to offend assholes.”
On the day of the lynching, Charlie and D’aron back out — Charlie because he’s uncomfortable with the racial parody and D’aron because of loyalty to his family and the town. Luis is hoisted up the tree in blackface and Candice pretends to whip him until a group of Civil War reenactors catches sight of them. What happens next, in the heat of the confrontation between the students and the townspeople, is never made clear, but it results in Luis’s death. This changes the course and tone of the novel. When Luis’s brazen comedy is removed, so is satire as a tool, leaving the rest of the characters to soberly deal with the repercussions of his death.
What D’aron learns in the aftermath of Luis’s death is that racism is so pervasive and deeply ingrained in America that it’s impossible to escape, no matter how many classes at Berkeley he takes. The Civil War reenactment is part of his town’s insidious underbelly, and his parents and everyone he knows and trusts are implicated. Johnson makes clear the connections between slavery and contemporary institutional racism, and shows that good intentions can’t get far without acknowledging that the effects of slavery are still deeply impacting black men and women today. These revelations are inherently not funny, and without Luis’s ability to shed light through humor, D’aron’s journey into understanding is harrowing and dangerous.
But Braggsville is not just a satire of the way we talk about race; it also addresses who gets to have those conversations. Like Bamboozled’s portrayal of the entertainment industry, the cordoned-off and over-policed halls of academia are ripe for satire. Johnson’s frustrations with the academy as a tool for social justice are clear throughout the novel, particularly in a chapter written as D’aron’s seminar paper, entitled “Residual Affects: Race, Micro-aggression, Micro-inequities, (Autophagy) & BBQ in the Contemporary Southern Imagination at Six Flags.” The Four Little Indians’ staged lynching is sanctioned by their American History X, Y, and Z: Alternative Perspectives professor, indicating how unaware he is about the American South. Similarly, Johnson allows a few digs at some of the more easily parodied clichés about this region (everyone is fat; they all have guns), but his portrayal of Braggsville, and Braggsville’s initial reception of the diverse group D’aron brings home, is more nuanced:
The Davenports were big men and women. Two generations in the mill. Before that, three generations of farming, his father liked to say Yeoman. Yo-man! His uncles would kite their arms like they were steering a bullwhip and declare, We’re the original Georgia Crackers. But next to Charlie, his father looked puny. He never thought of Charlie as large until he saw him next to other people, or recognized the look of closeted alarm some people wore as they tried to avoid being next to him. In The City, rarely did anyone sit beside him on the subway, even during rush hour. At night, women clutched purses, crossed streets; guys steered wide. Charlie would occasionally whistle Vivaldi to reassure bystanders because no one expects to be mugged by a dude who knows classical music. More than once he claimed to enjoy the extra space. D’aron never believed that. Today, no one behaved like that.
Johnson employs acrobatic narrative tricks to deflect us from judging his main characters: nonlinear sequencing, for instance, or entire chapters of unattributed dialogue that jump perspectives without attributive tags. While these are sometimes disorienting and difficult to follow, the result is achieved. When D’aron first sees Candice return from the lynching, bloodied and with torn clothes, he assumes that she was raped by the black residents of the Braggsville Gully. Yet this kneejerk response is set off by his tender, evolving relationship with Charlie. Johnson’s portrayal of D’aron’s racism parallels his complicated depiction of the South: there, racism may be more visible than in San Francisco, particularly because the region’s bloody past tends to be sanitized and repackaged as historical memory, but exposing the underlying racism in any region is important to addressing it.
Bamboozled and Braggsville are both neatly divided into two acts, the first biting, over-the-top satire and the second a tragic realization of what satire can unleash. The difference is that in Braggsville the perpetrators of the satirical crimes are never really punished. Still, Johnson hints that Luis’s death and the resulting exposure of the town’s racism will have long-felt consequences, both in Braggsville and for the surviving members of the Four Little Indians.
Recently, when discussing a Daily Show segment starring Jessica Williams, another genius of racial satire, my friend asked a question that seems to be at the heart of Johnson’s novel: how long do we have to laugh before things change? What is productive about humor in the face of seemingly insurmountable social ills like racism in America? In a particularly sober moment in Braggsville, D’aron, overwhelmed by what he has discovered about the racist history of his town, reflects on a long list of recent civil rights atrocities, landing on Trayvon Martin’s name. It is a stunning and poignant moment in the novel, one that counters the morass of racial discourse both inside the academy and in the hollers of Georgia, reminding readers what’s really at stake. Even though Johnson’s novel may not have the answer to the problems he’s addressing, it’s clear that he’s asking the right questions.