Hypertextual Semiotics:
The "Jolly Nigger Bank" of Spike Lee’s

Sebastian Mahfood
May, 1999

Discursive tropes of racial otherness striate Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. In portraying the most negative media images of blackness that have shaped national racial consciousness since the production of Birth of a Nation in 1919, Lee creates a discourse between the present and the past that follows the pragmatics of the cooperative principle, which states that any functional discourse will be cooperative with itself. This means that present-day motifs illustrated by Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), the television writer who tries to get himself fired by creating the most racist television program he can imagine, must be cooperative with the most shocking motifs of the past century. This makes Lee’s iconography hypertextual in the sense that it takes the images that served our society in one chronotopic medium and uses them to generate meaning in another. No icon is more conducive to this end than the "Jolly Nigger Bank" (JNB), a cast-iron wooly-haired black head with thick lips, a hungry mouth and an expression of insatiable yellow-eyed lechery designed to show jubilant glee in the act of eating the wealth of its owner. Formed as a physical icon in 1882 by Pratt and Company, it was advertised as a toy savings bank "presenting a very attractive appearance" (Roberts), and it remained in production until the 1960s. Lee’s use of it in his 2000 production of Bamboozled, then, sutures the eight decades of its production with the past few decades of selective national amnesia, which explains why many of the images presented in the film seem as shocking as others seem natural. Because of the various contexts in which it is depicted in the film, the JNB of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled becomes a motif for racial bigotry meant to remind Black audiences that their concepts of identity are fundamentally rooted in the unconscious perception of themselves through the gauze of white iconography.

It is not just in Bamboozled that we see Lee’s instructive attitude toward Black America, for his consistency with other filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen in using the medium to address issues of his ethnic group is apparent in his other films. His 1988 School Daze, for instance, is set at an all-Black college with fair-skinned co-eds called "wannabes" who straighten their hair and dark-skinned co-eds called "jigaboos" who sport afros. His 1989 Do the Right Thing, furthermore, explores race relations in New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto that culminates in the murder of a Black man, which leads to the destruction of a white business. In 1991, the year that Jungle Fever, a movie that in part depicted the worst excesses of Black drug culture, hit the box office, Black columnist Earl Caldwell wrote in the New York Daily News that "Lee is accused of consistently presenting Blacks in a way so negative as to conjure up images of Blacks from long-ago Hollywood films" (Patterson 181). If there were any argument as to whether this was true in 1991, as Hollywood’s early depictions of Blacks did not allow them to be as autonomous in their initiative as these earlier films, or even the later crime and drug scenes of Malcolm X (1992) and the Black mafia of Clockers (1995), seem to demonstrate, there can be no argument about its veracity ten movies later in 2000. Bamboozled shows a conscious effort on Lee’s part to do that very thing with as much imagery as he can find available, and there seems to be no dearth of it throughout the film. In fact, as if the point were not already stressed by the film’s conclusion, Lee stitches together a quarter of an hour’s worth of old Hollywood video clips in which Blacks are represented in a demeaning and denigrating manner. This suturing of past themes out of context with their original purpose in order to advance an opposing racial agenda is what makes Bamboozled itself into a hypertext of the past—a text that shows how the present attitudes of tolerance and social cohesion in America serve only to mask the continued aims of white cultural hegemony.

The JNB, therefore, serves as an overt signifier of continued racial discord. Since the icon can still be found in the marketplace, the implication is that negative attitudes can still be found in the social consciousness of white America. Once Pierre Delacroix finds himself the fountainhead of an extremely successful television program, his assistant Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinckett Smith) presents him with his first physical icon of Blackface, which moves money into its mouth through a thumb-pressed device on its backside. As reductive images like that represented by the JNB are recycled into Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, Dela’s office gradually becomes clustered with similar icons of the past, all caricaturing various stereotypic features of Black culture and physiognomy. Yet, in spite of his growing collection of sordid Black paraphernalia, Dela’s most significant attachment is to the JNB, which he imagines at one point as autonomously feeding itself in a greedily and devouring manner. If we consider the basic function of the JNB as being one of a toy savings bank, then the significance Dela gives it could be explained in his desire to manipulate the means of production through economic success. A savings bank for the pennies, nickels, half-dimes, dimes and quarters of the children to whom it is given serves as a way to raise children with the idea that money should be respected and saved. The value placed on a savings bank, therefore, is one of capitalist accumulation of wealth. A JNB would have been purchased primarily by whites who could afford to give their children discretionary income, and the use of the JNB would have commodified Blacks for white consumption. So, not only is the physical stereotype present to serve as a secondary alienating barrier against the integration of the races, but an economic impresa dictates that property must be safeguarded against Black consumption. The ability to open the JNB and take all the money out signifies the ability to harvest Black consumption to serve white needs and to keep Blacks from accumulating wealth. This message is not lost on Dela, who finds himself catering to the racist subconscious of white America, using Blackface imagery for his own financial gain and preying on his own race in order to satisfy the lusts of white voyeurism. The JNB, therefore, acts as a reminder to Dela of what it is that his minstrelsy show is doing, which is why he sardonically refers back to it whenever he reflects on the success of his program.

To this end, the JNB serves as an iconic signifier of both cultural politics and identity politics. Douglas Kellner defines Lee’s cultural politics as focusing "on the specificity of African-American cultural style and identity as the key constituents of a black politics of identity," which he claims are valuable "for providing awareness of the distinct forms of oppression suffered by subordinate groups and for making the production of an independent cultural style and identity an important part of the struggle against oppression" ("Aesthetics" 89). Kellner then qualifies this value by adding that "cultural politics might [also] deflect attention and energy from pressing political and economic issues and may well produce a separatist consciousness that undermines a politics of alliance that would mobilize distinct groups against oppressive forces, practices, and institutions" (89). While Lee’s approach to this film is indeed separatist (for there is not one likeable white character in the cast), Bamboozled’s sense of cultural politics is intended to uplift the race by reminding it that Black/white cohesion is as much a myth as Black intraracial cohesion and that such a memento mori of the past should result in a desire for a Black cultural hegemony that can identify with itself at whatever stratum of society it finds itself. It is this desire that makes the film postmodern and the icon of the JNB a postmodern signifier. According to Denzin, one of the phenomena signified by postmodernism is "a new form of theorizing the contemporary historical moment," which creates "complex, contradictory fields of experience…connected to a series of cultural formations which revolve around the definitions brought to human subjectivity, the family, sexuality, social class, race and ethnicity, work, wealth, prestige, love and intimacy" (3). Our contemporary historical moment is one that claims to be culturally sensitive but is in reality culturally blind. In legislating multiculturalism, white America has articulated the us/them dichotomy in such a way as to make it politically incorrect to make notice of it. Without an examination of our cultural history, there can be no examination of cultural values, and this is what Lee is trying to accomplish in his blatant reappropriation of the negative images of Black culture that had at one time been used by white culture to perpetuate its ascendancy.

Lee’s politics of identity, then, is signified by a separatist philosophy that heralds Black cultural identity over the identity of the greater society of which he is a part. A reason for this can be found in his belief that Black identity needs to be articulated and examined before it can come to terms with white identity, which had for so long culturally colonized the spirit of the Black man. Kellner, however, takes issue with Lee’s political direction. He writes that "the central problem with Lee’s politics is that he ultimately comes down on the side of a culturalist identity politics, which subordinates politics in general to the creation of personal identity" ("Aesthetics" 97). Perhaps, though, that is what is needed in Black America, and what Lee is trying to signify is not deleterious to the interests of Blacks, who are individuals first and members of a cultural group second. Before Black individuals can involve themselves on a level of parity with white individuals, they must first come to an understanding of self that will put that relationship in perspective. The necessity for achieving a sense of self before working toward a greater cohesion between the races lies in the need to undo the process of conversion, the thing that lumped them into a homogenous category in the first place, imposed upon Blacks at their arrival in America. Kim F. Hall quotes Michael Ragussis in her explication of this point as follows:

’Conversion…represents the institutionalization—that is, the legitimization—of one group’s mastery and absorption of another group. The triumph of one group over another is marked by a festival of incipient conjugals in which propagation and propaganda become one. In other words, the end of the struggle between the groups is made complete when the audience is persuaded that the life sources of one group have been transferred to another…This pattern takes the form of converting both the property and the identity of the marginal group—depleting its wealth, transferring its goods ‘legally’ to members of the hegemonic group, and finally erasing its religious and legal identity through a set of procedures that the culture regulates under the aegis of the institution known as conversion.’ (56)

This is done to prevent the possible ascendancy of the other and to keep the values of the non-hegemonic group from infecting those of the dominating race. "The transference of goods," Hall adds, "and the erasure of a cultural, if not legal, identity are an integral part of the conversion motive and remove the fears of cultural absorption by the other" (56). While all the blacks are presented in the film as individuals with distinct identities, personalities and goals, they are stereotyped as a "converted" group by Dela, who accepts the role of the Blackface pimp (the JNB of the television studio) he has come to play, and by the whites in the audience of the Minstrelsy Show, who blacken their faces to become part of the anonymous mass of Blackness.

The greatest point of the JNB lies in the fact that it does not operate of its own accord but is operated by the hand of another. Like a marionette, the JNB can perform only those actions commanded of it by a puppetmaster, but even the flexibility of the marionette’s movement is denied it as it can move only one of its arms, the other laying amputated at the elbow and bound to its side. The arm can only move toward the mouth, signifying that it is not a creator of wealth but a consumer of it when it is placed in its hand. Lacking power of creativity, the JNB lacks also a motive power, or soul, that grants it humanity though it is carved in the truncated likeness of an, albeit disfigured, human. Bereft of intellectual powers, it must succumb to its carnal desires and is, therefore, based solely on immediate gratification of its bodily appetites, which include eating, sleeping and having sex. What this JNB represents becomes the truth for those created by the representation as internalization of the denial of self-worth. Consequently, sexuality, not intellectual achievement, becomes the greatest sign of manhood because, unlike sleeping and eating, it is power exerted over another. Kellner writes that "the larger sexist society associates success with manhood, and in consequence the structural denial of success to black men particularly takes a heavy toll on their sense of self-worth. The only realm available for attaining it is culture or sexuality" (Camera Politica 124). Hedonism, therefore, is the result and not the cause of oppression, but the JNB shows only the results and exaggerates them to the point that all elements of Black culture are stereotyped as wanton, shiftless and subhuman. Kellner adds that when

representations are…taken from the culture and internalized, [they are] adopted as part of the self. When internalized, they mold the self in such a way that it becomes accommodated to the values inherent in those cultural representations. Consequently, the sort of representations which prevail in a culture is a crucial political issue. Cultural representations not only give shape to psychological dispositions, they also play an important role in determining how social reality will be constructed, that is, what figures and boundaries will prevail in the shaping of social life and social institutions…Control over the production of cultural representation is therefore crucial to the maintenance of social power, but it is also essential to progressive movements for social change. (Camera Politica 13)

The inability of Black culture to control its own imagery, or even to discern between imagery that is truly representative of its own goals and that which is not, creates a crisis for Black individuals, who identify with their own cultural representations only at a loss to their own dignity and who identify with the standards of white cultural hegemony only at a loss to their own souls.

The meaning of the JNB is that which is put into the stars of the Minstrelsy Show, Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson), who play Mantan (the tap dancer) and Sleep ‘n’ Eat (his sidekick), respectively, and that which is emulated with such glee by the participants in the carnivalesque response to the program. The dehumanization of Black culture being brought about by such caricaturing, Lee’s emphasis lies on reversing the caricature to show how it dehumanizes both races. The excesses of caricature, those things that white America considers to be the basest elements of its own soul, is what white America imposes on the other in the hopes of cleansing itself. If an individual can dress in Blackface and become a raving and sensual maniac, then it is only due to the mask that such behavior is manifested. Cultural standards and taboos can safely be re-adhered to once the makeup has been removed. When Manray confronts the Blackfaced audience without his makeup, the whites in the audience suddenly feel like they are masked (and, ironically, exposed), regardless of the fact that Manray’s face is Black anyway. No longer can they hide behind the illusion that their hedonism comes from emulating the Black man but that it comes from the darker side of their own natures that they had for so long imposed on the otherness of Black identity. Denzin argues this phenomenon generates a semiotics of despair, for

in such a world all too often ‘the self is confused with its image’ [Finkelstein, 1991: 193]. When such reductions occur, the postmodern self is defined in terms of its surface reflections which are shaped by race, gender, and class. When the picture becomes the reality, and when that reality is ideologically coded, then the essential humanity of human beings is reduced to a code. That code strips each of us of our dignity and pride. It reduces us, in the end, to signs which bear the traces of racism and sexism. This is the dilemma of the postmodern self: to find an essential humanity in a forest of signs which deal only in reflections. (18)

Eventually, though, all the characters tire of the game because each comes individually to realize he or she has been bamboozled into perpetuating the myth of Black cultural inferiority. Dela has a daymare about his JNB force-feeding itself and, subsequently, is prepared to allow his murder at the hands of his assistant Sloan to be considered a suicide. Sloan herself has snapped and not only shoots Dela, but also forces him to watch a series of Hollywood clips destroying Black dignity and self-respect in exactly the same way he has been doing it. Womack quits the program when he sees the effect it is having on both himself and Manray. Manray, having stripped himself of his Blackface in order to dance on stage as himself and not as a caricature of himself, is thrown from the amphitheater (ousted from white cultural Blackface) and immediately replaced by another Black man who is still willing to dance Blackface for white America. Sloan’s brother, Julius (Mos Def), who has changed his name to Big Black Africa, kidnaps Manray and televises "Mantan’s" execution over the Internet. And that is just the black characters. The owner of the studio, an ethmix racist called Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), realizes the significance that Manray’s refusal to wear Blackface will have on his new-found economic power base and effectively kills the character to prove that all Black men are alike and that Manray’s "talent" can be replaced by anyone. Thus, buying into white cultural hegemony, accepting the JNB as culturally representative, is fatal to all involved, for it dehumanizes the white man as much as it destroys the spirit of the Black man.

Semiotics as a discourse theory, where the signifiers speak to the things they signify in addition to their speaking to diverse audiences in different ways, creates multiple significances predicated upon the views of conflicting classes. This multi-accentuality is defined by Bakhtin as "the capacity of the sign to elicit variable social tones and ‘evaluations’ as it is deployed within specific social and historical conditions" (Stam 13). The JNB, therefore, should represent different things to both cultural groups, and it does. To the white culture, it represents the base inferiority of Blacks and the need to maintain the Black population within its traditional boundaries, and to the Black culture, it represents the forced ascendancy of whites and the need to rise above the social conditions that entrap it. The sign of the JNB is a Blackfaced signifier, then, of a whitefaced signified, and the dialogue between the signifier and the signified must be defined in those terms. Because it does represent both cultures (in this case, it does so through the dichotic nature of its creation—the oppressor having sought justification for the oppressed and the oppressed having internalized its state of oppression), it has to speak to itself in cultural terms by positing first the question, "What/who am I?" In doing so, it becomes both a mirror and a lamp, reflecting and creating racial consciousness in both the oppressor and oppressed groups, attempting to anchor one culture’s understanding of the significance of the sign onto the other culture. In Lacanian terms, this mirror-gaze by which we come gradually to recognize where we end and where the world around us begins, ultimately forms our character. Steadman explains the concept as follows:

Lacan tells us that this act of recognition is ultimately a misrecognition: that is, by seeing my self in the mirror - by saying this, what I see with my eye, is I - I glance over the fact that the existence of this "I" assumes a split between the self and the (mirror-image) other: I glance over the fact that the "I" does not, in any way, pre-exist. In recognizing my self - in accepting the image before me as my self (but then, there is no choice; there would be no "I" to reject my self), I create a self before the mirror: this is I, as I must have always been. But this is also a misrecognition in another sense: I recognize the "miss", the gap between my self and my image, and, in doing so, I am alienated from myself.

The same thing happens when we look at cultural icons that are meant to be representative of either our own culture or of another culture. Hall explains this phenomenon by stating that "the gap in understanding between cultures is [always] rewritten as a gap within the ‘other’ culture, which thus appears incomprehensible rather than not comprehended, uncivilized rather than civilized in a different (non-European) way" (48). The first thing we do is determine whether the thing we see is an accurate representation of who we are, and we disqualify it as self if we notice too many differences. The white child who receives the JNB as a gift disqualifies it as self based on its color, but the Black child cannot do that. The Black child, in fact, comes to identify with the exaggerated features as features that characterize him, regardless of the fact that his lips are not as thick and his nose is not as flat. The white child, who recognizes the JNB as possessed other, immediately comes to the recognition of difference as deficit based on the fact that he owns the JNB and the JNB does not own him. Even if a Black child were to have owned a JNB, his ownership of it would not include a comparable vision of his superiority over it. If anything, he would come to regard it as a sign of his own oppression. This is what is happening in the film when Big Black Africa’s group, the Mau Maus, looks upon the Minstrelsy Show and recognizes within it signs of its own oppressed state, which is a different interpretation of it than that held by the initially shocked white audience to whom the television program is catered. The JNB, then, represents a dichotic cultural myth in a biracial society, one that entraps both the Black and the white cultures, and which can be represented without its metonymic suturing to other comparable signifiers. Stam, however, poses a difficulty to this Lacanian assertion in delineating Levi-Strauss’s point concerning the intertext. He explains that

the conceptual necessity of the intertext is foregrounded in Levi-Strauss’ analysis of native American myths. The anthropologist found that a particular myth could be comprehended only in relation to a vast system of other myths, social practices and cultural codes. The individual story came to be seen as a fragment, existing in extended articulation with other systems, such as kinship structures, village planning, body art (tattooing), as well as with other myths. (204)

These other myths include the artificial construction of a binary relationship between Blacks and whites that presupposes white ascendancy to the detriment of Black self-actualization. Put into this context, the JNB can only have meaning if that meaning is culturally tied to a common societal tradition. The reconciliation with Lacan comes in the fact that the child who views the JNB as other is already subscribed to the presupposed network of cultural racism through his having been born into the dominant race, and the child who views the JNB as self is already a member of the subordinate race. Indeed, if the JNB were green instead of black, with no cultural significance attached to its physiognomy or coloring, it would be as innocuous as Mr. Potato Head.

The gauze of white iconography, therefore, that entraps both cultures in the image of the JNB is a hypertextual manifestation of premodern values in postmodern film-making. Lee does this to prove the point that Blacks must gain interpretive control over the images that represent them, the language used to define them and the technological means used to explain them. Hall writes that "language itself creates differences within social organization and that race was then (as it is now) a social construct that is fundamentally more about power and culture than about biological difference" (Hall 6). Without securing a locus of control that can transcend the social consciousness of the past four centuries, Black hegemony, to say nothing of ascendancy, will never become a reality even within the Black culture itself. Spike Lee’s use of the minstrelsy motif as the backdrop to his message makes of Bamboozled an important social reminder that we still have an incredible journey ahead of us in reaching equality in race relations, no matter how funny we find that JNB.


Denzin, Norman K. Images of Postmodern Society: Social Theory and Contemporary Cinema. London: Sage, 1991.

Hall, Kim F. Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England. London: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Kellner, Douglas. "Aesthetics, Ethics, and Politics." Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Ed. by Mark Reid. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

                    Patterson, Alex. Spike Lee. New York: Avon Books, 1992.

Roberts, Bruce. "Jolly Nigger" Mechanical Bank Trade Cards. Online 27 November 2000. http://www.tradecards.com/articles/mb/jollyn.html, http://www.tradecards.com/articles/mb/stump.html http://www.tradecards.com/articles/mb/accident.html

Ryan, Michael and Douglas Kellner. Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Stam, Robert, Robert Burgoyne, and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis. New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Beyond. New York: Routledge, 1992.

                    Steadman, Carl. "The Mirror Stage." Online 27 November 2000. http://www.freedonia.com/~carl/lfb/

Appendix A
Jolly Nigger Bank Cards

Issued by Courier of Buffalo 1882       Courier Litho Stump Speaker 1886

Bad Accident Bank. Gast Lith. and Eng. Co. of Buffalo, New York, issued in 1889.
(This one is eating a watermelon and loses control of his plow when a Boy jumps into the road.)