Hallelujah for the Bamboozled Cult of Actor Willie Best (Part One)

*contains spoilers and strong course language

“My show is about racial healing,” says actor Damon Wayons (1960-)  in Spike Lee’s (1957-) movie Bamboozled (2000). This film, which was dismissed back when it was first released, is now regarded as some sort of cult film. It hints at the possibility that you can be white on the inside and black on the outside as well as the other way around… It also questions a soul’s aspirations to create art within a certain medium and whether they nail it or fail miserably. It also spells out the history of the black man as he was portrayed in Hollywood since the movies began, especially before the civil rights movement took hold and so-called progress was made.

Bamboozled (2000) poster uses the stereotypes of The Great Depression in the 1930s

There were three men who had to suffer apparent the indignity and humiliation of being ‘bamboozled’ in movies in the 1930s and 1940s and even television took over for a little while until around 1955. They were Stepin Fetchit (1902-85 pneumonia and heart failure), Willie Best (1913/16-62 cancer) and Manton Moreland (1902-73 cerebral haemorrhage). But they were paid for their work and they were stars in their own right nonetheless.

Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled tells of Wayans’s black white-bread sit-com writer named Pierre Delacroix whose real name is Peerless Dothan who has the idea of producing a new hit show for his network production house which would be called Man Tan: The New Millennial Minstrel Show which would feature black characters wearing blackface, or black make-up on their already black skin. The title Man Tan being inspired by Manton Moreland.

Actor Stepin Fetchit aka Lincoln Perry as he appeared off-screen
Actor Willie Best celebrates another pay-check
Actor Manton Moreland was an accomplished comedian

The title is spelt out in this rather ‘black’ comedy, through the use of a clip of Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s very own Malcolm X (1992) movie (Malcolm X 1925-65 murdered by guns), as Denzel as Malcolm X says the black man is “being bamboozled”. This word means to cheat or deceive another person and one language expert says the word comes from the French “embabouines” which has a literal meaning of making a monkey out of someone. Spike Lee uses the title with a double-edged meaning to his film which is about the dangers of empowerment of the black man within the entertainment industry and his obligations to a mass audience as a result. No wonder this cult comedy is misunderstood.

Bamboozled, in terms of the word, is also just what appeared that the white producers of the 1930s made out of Stephin Fetchit, Willie Best and Manton Moreland as they were portrayed as uneducated and lazy to use some descriptions… Both Fetchit and Best had their names changed for the public taste just like Peerless Dothan in Bamboozled changed his name to make it in the wide world of entertainment in the present day.

The real Malcolm X (left) and Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s biographical movie Malcolm X (1992). No Oscar nomination for Lee.

Stepin Fetchit’s original name was Lincoln Perry but to succeed in comedy in show business he had to become a trickster of sorts and call himself a shortened version of “stop and fetch it” like some sort of servant or dog. As for Willie Best, which was his original name, it was turned into Sleep N’ Eat as though he was some sort of character who didn’t think and just needed three square meals a day and a place to sleep. The success of Best as this character led to him reverting back to his real name of Willie Best after a couple of years and he had a respectable career which got many screen credits while many other character actors – even white ones at the time – didn’t. Manton Moreland didn’t have to change his name but was also known as Mantan and Man Tan at times and it is the characters of Sleep N’ Eat and ‘ManTan’ which become the obsession of Pierre Delacroix in Bamboozled. He insists on changing the names of the actors selected to star in The New Millennial Minstrel Show to the now long politically incorrect monikers of Sleep N’ Eat and Man Tan. But the idea is sold to the network and put into production.

“I know this is out there, but it’s satire,” says Pierre of his new show, and we learn he is the son of a comedian who has found contentment in doing stand-up and keeping a woman and a little money in his pocket, rather than have the lofty ambitions of his son in showbusiness.

Damon Wayons (right) in the tv show In Living Colour was perfect to play the ‘serious’ role of Pierre Delacroix in Bamboozled (2000)
Spike Lee wins an Oscar for BlacKkKlansman (2018) but not for Best Picture or Director

“Did I want to end up as he was? Emphatically, no…,” the uptight Pierre tells himself about his dreams of success and not seeing eye to eye with his father. Just as Pierre says, it’s satire but nobody seems to have gotten the joke when Bamboozled first came out and it was dismissed summarily by all awards shows and critics as if it were a Minstrel Show itself.

“Nobody in any way, shape or form should be censored… It is art,” says Pierre about the tv product he has produced for a white middle-class demographic which now includes a black middle-class element which had already been immortalised in The Bill Cosby Show. Man Tan: The New Millennial Minstrel Show would bring the audiences together forever and create racial harmony! It is that divide between tv and the movies and what was once seen as legitimate art and the illegitimacy of tv. Lee even ingeniously shot Bamboozled on HD video and transferred it to film to give the movie that between those two worlds feel. Perhaps that era is gone now as Lee now has created content for Netflix and the nature of cinema and tv is changing.

The Cosby Show had white writers at the helm and led the way to Will Smith appearing in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
Wayans as Pierre Delacroix aka Peerless Dothan wants to make an artistic statement with his new tv sitcom in Bamboozled (2000)
Even if it uses the politically incorrect blackface makeup on black people… It’s a concept too much for television but acceptable in Bamboozled (2000)

Pierre fantasizes of being on an award show and even his acceptance speech in his mind turns into one of sycophancy and forgetting to make a valid point which is so often the case of award winners black or white at Oscar time. Jennifer Lawrence and Joaquin Phoenix never mentioned or tried to raise awareness of mental illness during their award speeches as they were consumed by themselves and their own agenda rather than what their performances were about in the first place.

“Delacroix the grateful negro,” says the character once known as Peerless Dothan about himself and his plans to be employed forever by pleasing his mass audience and impressing the award shows. Bamboozled shows that Lee wasn’t afraid to do otherwise and this movie was made very cheaply with a budget of $10 million, so that even if it was a box office turkey, it wouldn’t ruin Lee’s career in the eyes of producers forever. This comment by the man formerly known as Peerless seems to suggest in terms of the movie business that the African American who produces popular product to make both a black and white audience laugh at the black experience is a fool. Or it can’t be done? Are there really characters like Pierre Delacoix? The struggle otherwise still goes on… Then Spike made BlaKkKlansman!

But when we compare Peerless/Delacroix to Willie Best, we know that Willie Best wasn’t a stupid layabout as he was portrayed and neither is Pierre. Best obviously took time to learn his lines and turned up on time. He had comic genius and timing. Bob Hope called him “the best actor I know” in public and it may have been true, as the pair appeared together in a couple of hit movies where the chemistry was good – The Ghost Breakers (1940) and Nothing but the Truth (1941). But I’m sure Best wouldn’t have been allowed to play golf at Hope’s local golf club. But I’ll get back to Willie later…

Willie Best (left) and Bob Hope as they appeared in Nothing But the Truth (1941)
A young Spike Lee

As Delocroix fails to make a point during his Emmy dream speech, so director Spike Lee missed out on making a point at the Oscars back in 2018, or did he? Lee made a protest by walking out or turning his back on the Oscar winners after his very good and funny black comedy BlacKkKlansman (2018) lost the award for Best Picture. Oscar just doesn’t get the fact that you can desegregate an audience through laughter perhaps even more powerfully than through a drama which relives the bad times of the 1960s with little humour amid the general insight. Lee’s first Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for Do the Right Thing (1989) lost to Dead Poet’s Society (1989) way back in the year of Driving Miss Daisy (1989) which had Morgan Freeman chauffeuring an old white lady. When Lee’s BlacKkKlansman lost Best Picture to the white man driving a black man movie called Green Book (2018) … Lee said the ref got the call wrong! However, Lee’s BlacKkKlansman won the consolation prize of Best Original or adapted Screenplay which is so often meted out by Oscar to those auteur directors whose films don’t fit the classic message mould. When Lee lost the Best Picture and Director that year it must have been like being told by Leonardo DiCaprio’s plantation owner in Django Unchained (2012) something like: “You’re not one of us, but you keep trying, you hear?” Just like Tarantino has heard over the years with his inability to win Best Picture. It is the script that counts and Lee lost perspective in terms of coveting the main award like Pierre Delacroix dreamed of an Emmy or whatever. Meanwhile Bamboozled may have been ahead of its time but it didn’t impress Oscar or the American public but it was a nominee for the Golden Berlin Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. It also predicts the small screen freedom of Netflix.

The lead character dubbed Man Tan/Mantan, like actor Moreland, in the show within the movie, finally makes a protest against being in such a demeaning show by proclaiming in Network (1976) fashion: “I’m sick and tired of being a n*#ger and I’m not going to take it anymore!” before being escorted from the studio… something which leads to his death at the hands of the hip hop band the Mau Mau which has reverberations for Pierre who is also shot. Pierre laughs at the irony of it all as he quotes black writer James Baldwin within his mind and with his dying breath: “People pay for what they do and still more for what they allowed themselves to become and they pay for it simply by the lives they lead” and adds, as “my father always told me, always keep ‘em laughing.” But as Lee hammers on home, Pierre is laughing at himself but he still misses the point of his father’s life that success is determined by the self and you must live within your own values and means which ultimately determines your happiness or contentment. Or am I re-quoting Baldwin? Poor Pierre dies in blackface perhaps as a misguided martyr assassinated once more by a member of the black community albeit a woman this time. The lesson of the true assassinated martyrs of Medgar Evers (1925-63 shot) Malcom X (shot) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-68 shot) is there in the background. The black community has many other martyrs like Pierre who appear to have been misguided over the years… and perhaps the Willies Bests, the Manton Morelands and Stephin Fetchits are among them… Then there is the white liberal film director King Vidor who I’ll mention later…

One of Manton Moreland’s starring roles was in Mantan Runs for Mayor (1946)
The quotable author James Baldwin
Minister Medgar Evers’ widow, Myrlie, comforts the couple’s 9-year-old son, Darrel, at her husband’s funeral after he was murdered

Bamboozled shows what was the present day divide in the portrayal of African Americans as either hip-hop gun carrying drug dealers or The Cosby family/Pierre Delacroix. Let us not forget the Christian community which has been the backbone of the country. Nor the jazz and music communities which have morphed into hip-hop. We won’t remember Pierre Delacroix and his Minstrel Shows except for their infamy, his genius is misguided by the attempt to cross popular art with ratings and send a message as well. Spike shows the ultimate defeat of such items in terms of acceptance and long-term cult affection.

We have come a long way though in the portrayal of black people even though it is the liberal movies about black homosexuals which seem to win the major Oscars and not Spike Lee. But isn’t that kind of the point of Bamboozled?

And it had all started out so damn promisingly just before the Great Depression came along in terms of the portrayal of black people in the cinema in the United States…

The Birth of a Nation (2015) was revived at the movies in the 1920s
Al Jolson performs in blackface in the late 1920s

Once upon a time as we all know there was a civil war over the abolition of slavery and then the movies came along and they made the movie The Birth of a Nation (1915) which was a box office smash and portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes and the African Americans were mostly men in black face who were shown as seriously unintelligent and sexually aggressive. Perhaps it was that fear that the black man had a bigger erection? Anyway, nothing had really changed since Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and segregation in the community as well as the cinema even saw movies made with all black actors thrive within cinemas patronised by black only communities while the whites lived in their ‘catholic’ paradise without them.

With the coming of sound there was still no mainstream black movie star except in terms of blackface which was featured in the first full sound movie The Jazz Singer (1927) with comedian and singer Al Jolson (1886-1950 heart attack) singing Mammy in black make-up.

Poster for King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929)
Director King Vidor in braces on the set of Hallelujah (1929). It was the first step towards a dream of racial equality in the cinema.

But by 1929, there was the production of a couple of mainstream movies with all black or near all black casts such as the Fox-Films Corporation film Hearts in Dixie (1929) which featured Stepin Fetchit, while at MGM there was Hallelujah (1929). Hallelujah was meant as a mainstream musical movie which like Hearts in Dixie featured black music. As awards go, the black actors got ignored but socially conscious director King Vidor (1894-82 heart ailment) got an Oscar nomination for putting his own salary into the production. The nominal black star of Hallelujah, Daniel L. Haynes (1889-1954), was quoted at the time as saying: “I cannot say what our race owes to King Vidor and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer – there are no words forceful enough for that. Hallelujah will, as Moses led his people from the wilderness, lead ours from the wilderness of misunderstanding and apathy.” It could have been a press release but Haynes later became a minister. As for Hallelujah, it was banned in the American South upon its release and even today there is a disclaimer by its current copyright holders on the DVD that its depiction of blacks as being cotton picking hard workers who believe in Christ is purely dated and prejudicial.

Hallelujah may have a family saying goodnight to each other like the 1970s tv series The Waltons, but these rural blacks weren’t just meant to please, they were real in this movie… Hallelujah shows that black waiters served at black restaurants just as white waiters served in white restaurants back in 1929… It also shows that black people take advantage of black people just like homosexuals take advantage of other homosexuals as portrayed in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s (1945-82 drug overdose) Fox and his Friends (1975). It’s universal human nature. And the women are just as manipulative about sex which is also universal. Hallelujah also contains the symbol of the gun killing your own brother which underlines man’s inhumanity to man… All this long before Boyz N the Hood (1991) by director John Singleton (1968-2019 stroke) who was the first African American ever nominated for an Oscar for Best Director – and the youngest!

Homosexuals exploit other homosexuals for gain in Fox and his Friends (1975). It is a universal theme.
The ever-present gun in Boyz N’ the Hood (1991) also makes a point in Hallelujah (1929). Another universal symbol.

There seems to be a lack of spirituality in South Central Los Angeles today compared to the ‘country hicks’ in Hallelujah but at least they aren’t portrayed as watermelon munching and dancing country hicks in blackface like in the tv show within Bamboozled or later in Kate Smith’s (1907-86 respiratory arrest) song Pickaninny Heaven in her movie Hello, Everybody! (1933). I’m sure the Catholic League of Decency approved that movie! They are really not the same thing. And for the time Hallelujah was the best that white modern liberals in concert with the black community could come up or get away with! Compare this with the art of the misguided Pierre Delacroix which is somewhere in between. Or is it Green Book? I don’t think that movie will become a cult.

There is a sense that the justice of Martin Luther King Jr. will prevail in Hallelujah. It’s interesting that King was born the year this film was released and The Great Depression and the return of blackface, and being the butt of white jokes the following year in 1930, happened at the time his father Martin Luther King Sr. studied to be a minister which is what Hallelujah is ostensibly about. The role of religion being symbolic as having a stabilising effect for a family and the black community. Star of the movie Haynes, as I mentioned, became a minister in real life just like he does in the movie… Haynes even moonwalks on stage as he gives his sermon in one scene in Hallelujah long before Michael Jackson (1958-2009 drug overdose) perfected the move. The minister is also all too human just like the younger Luther King with his alleged philandering. Whites do it too, you know!

Kate Smith’s song was something even Pierre Delacroix possibly couldn’t dream up
Minister Haynes in Hallelujah (1929) showed he was all too human like the alleged philanderer Martin Luther King Jr.

The deep voice of star Haynes reminds me of actor William Marshall (1924-2003 Alzheimer’s disease) who was a key player in the blaxploitation film revolution of the 1970s in films such as Blacula (1972) and Abby (1974). I’ll come back to him later.

Hallelujah premiered on 20 August 1929 and it was not an obvious success in that it is forgotten in terms of history along with Hearts in Dixie directed by Paul Sloane (1893-1963). America went through the great tragedy of the great Wall Street Crash a few months later which triggered The Great Depression. Talk about a set-back for civil rights! America didn’t want to know about it and instead wanted to laugh as comedy seemed to be king. Stepin Fetchit was cast in an Our Gang short while directors Vidor and Sloane also immediately directed comedies. Hallelujah was turned into a kind of swear word as the song Hallelujah, I’m a Bum was revived from the depression era of the 1890s when it was originally written and was turned into a movie starring former blackface comedian Al Jolson. The song is about unhelpful moralising and the white community was poor and often out of work and didn’t need or want to identify with poor hardworking blacks as depicted in Hallelujah. They remained competition and inferior in the eyes of the American mainstream moviegoer.

Stepin Fetchit in the Our Gang short A Tough Winter (1930). The winter of 1929 was a tough one for the nation.
Then along came Amos’n’Andy on screen in Check and Double Check (1930). The magpies Heckle and Jeckle were more fun.

The black community suddenly became the butt of white jokes in such films as Check and Double Check (1930) which doubled its investment with its blackface characters of Amos’N’Andy played by actors Charles Correll (1890-1972 heart attack) and Freeman Gosden (1899-1982). Their long-running radio show containing these characters would continue until the late 1950s. Black musician Duke Ellington appears with his band in this movie and any idea of racial integration was hidden by lighter skinned band members being covered in blackface.

For some reason Stepin Fetchit’s contract with the Our Gang shorts was terminated after only one short was filmed – he was meant to do nine – and history records him as being “difficult”. Fetchit was dubbed when he sang the inspirational Ol’ Man River in Showboat (1929) but this was forgotten as the old stereotype was reinforced of blacks as uneducated and lazy like they were in The Birth of a Nation and only capable of domestic or service work. Fetchit was reportedly the first black actor to earn a cumulative million dollars but he reportedly squandered it…. Friends and high living? Who knows? Major films with black casts had evaporated almost as quickly as they had begun in 1929.

Stepin Fetchit smokes a hookah while Willie Best faces a drug arrest but there’s a bright side in PART TWO.

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