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A Brief Guide to 21st-Century Blackface

Twenty years ago, Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” skewered America’s love of minstrelsy. Has Hollywood learned anything about blackface since?

There’s a scene in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” in which embittered TV writer Pierre Delacroix, frustrated by his white boss’s frequent rejection of his scripts and eager to be let out of his contract, pitches the most outrageous idea he can think of: a minstrel show.

The idea backfires. The show, with its ugly stereotypes and deeply offensive jokes, becomes a hit. In doing so, it reveals America’s ease with what is, ostensibly at least, supposed to be the ultimate taboo: blackface.

Mr. Lee’s charged, biting satire was released 20 years ago this fall; this summer, we were reminded how right “Bamboozled” was. In response to the national reckoning over Black Lives Matter, the internet dug up a number of TV shows and movies — from “30 Rock” to “Tropic Thunder” — that, over the last two decades, have employed blackface. As a result, several have scrubbed the evidence of these burnt cork episodes from the internet.

The instinct to scrub away the shame of past blackface is understandable — but it’s not productive. Because what a look back at these episodes shows us — and what “Bamboozled” teaches us — is that there are always layers to that burnt cork.

While the origins of blackface as an American tradition are built on insidious stereotypes of Black people, it is too complex a tradition to ever mean and represent a single thing or idea. As Racquel Gates, an associate professor of cinema and media studies at the College of Staten Island, CUNY, puts it, “It’s important to back up and ask, ‘What do we think blackface is, and what do we think that it does?’” Sometimes it’s self-aware; sometimes it can be a scathing critique; other times, an unnecessary provocation. It can tell us how we’re supposed to perceive a character or make us question the creators’ judgment. It can do several of these things at once. Considering the use of blackface within its distinct narrative context — and not just as a referential snippet or meme — reveals that the mere presence of it does not necessarily mean something offensive is taking place.

Which is why it’s a disservice when creators and streaming services try to erase the evidence of their use of blackface from the internet, when what we should really be doing is trying to understand it: why it persists, and what, if anything, it’s trying to say. As Mr. Lee said while promoting his movie: “I acknowledge that we’re dealing with a very ugly part of American history. Ugly, but nonetheless not something that should be buried in the ground, six feet under.”

And so I’ve attempted with this project to do the opposite: to drag the modern manifestations of this very American tradition into the light, to try to understand them and unpack what they reveal about Hollywood’s relationship to racism. This is a brief taxonomy of blackface in a post-“Bamboozled” world.