Bamboozled
Reviewed in November 2000 / Update from July 2009 here / Click Here to Comment
Director: Spike Lee. Cast: Damon Wayans, Jada Pinkett Smith, Savion Glover, Tommy Davidson, Michael Rapaport, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Paul Mooney, Mos Def, Gano Grills, Charli Baltimore, Canibus, DJ Serch, DJ Scratch, Dina Pearlman, Jani Blom, Gillian Iliana Waters, Danny Hoch, Sarah Jones, Gary Byrd, Matthew Modine, Mira Sorvino. Screenplay: Spike Lee.

Click here for an end-of-the-decade conversation about Bamboozled that I had with Tim Robey of Mainly Movies and the Daily Telegraph.

Photo © 2000 New Line Cinema/40 Acres and a Mule
Spike Lee's Bamboozled begins with its main character, an affected TV programmer named Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), providing a definition of satire. Ironically, it is exactly as a satire that Bamboozled works least effectively, which is probably one reason why critics have responded so harshly and audiences haven't responded at all. (At the time of this writing, Bamboozled has earned fewer than $2 million in five weeks of release.) As is typical of Spike Lee when he gets hot piping angry, Bamboozled has an uncertain focus in the beginning and a complete lack of focus by the end. That said, however, I think the film is far better than the popular press has portrayed it to be. Setting aside the category of satire, since Lee never seems positive whom he is satirizing—likely because there are so many deserving candidates—the film's ambitions and tones can be roughly categorized into tragedy, comedy, and archaeology. If it eventually crumbles in the first respect, it has some fine, pointed examples of the second, and is invaluable as the third. The problems Lee attacks are so under-addressed in cinema and society, and his filmmaking so challenging even at its messiest, that I'd call Bamboozled successful even after the point where its screenplay totally collapses.

Delacroix, the Wayans character, works as a programming developer at a flagging network called CNS that desperately needs a hit. Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), a head programmer at the network, goads him with casual, totally self-deluding bigotry to write a "blacker" show than the pilots he's submitted about black middle-class life. Delacroix thinks he can write a show so overtly racist, and therefore of such marginal appeal, that its inevitable failure will teach Dunwitty and the other white executives a lesson about cynical niche-marketing. Despite the extreme ambivalence of his loyal secretary-assistant Sloan (Jada Pinkett Smith), Delacroix devises Mantan, the New Millennium Minstrel Show, a variety revue set in a watermelon patch that follows the escapades of two blackfaced Southern layabouts named Mantan (Savion Glover) and Sleep-n-Eat (Tommy Davidson). The supporting cast features a hip-hop-dancing Aunt Jemima and a band called the Alabama Porch Monkeys.

The show, either to Delacroix's horror or his pleasant surprise—a major problem with the character, and therefore with the film, is that his persona oscillates so wildly—becomes a monstrous hit, and I do mean monstrous. Audience members begin appearing in blackface. Delacroix's own parents condemn his work. Meanwhile, Sloan's brother Julius, who has chosen for himself the moniker Big Black Africa, becomes a leading opponent of the program. He and the Mau Mau's, the overtly political, Roots-style rap group of which he is a leader, auditioned to be a part of the show before they realized what kind of show it was; after minstrelsy undergoes a national popularity revival, the Mau Mau's go to increasing lengths to sabotage it. Meanwhile, most of the secondary characters responsible for Mantan experience crises of conscience. Sloan and Womack, the talent manager and sometime actor playing Sleep-n-Eat, bail from the project. Mantan himself, né Manray, enjoys his ballooning fame and the renewed opportunity to dance for an audience; before being hired by CNS, he and Womack lived on the streets, where he tapdanced for money.

I don't want to talk much about Bamboozled's final half-hour, because it emphatically doesn't work. Just like Sidney Lumet's Network, an explicit point of reference for this film, Bamboozled reaches too far in portraying television run amok—so much so that, by association, its earlier skewerings of TV convention lose more credibility than they deserve to. A climactic series of violent incidents implies that Lee considers the omnipresence of gun violence in popular entertainment images of "black life" to be just another sort of minstrelsy—the reckless, degrading display of black bodies for the profit of white-run media conglomerates. Still, by this point in the picture, the lines of argument are hopelessly blurred and the motivations for key actions hard to divine.

Fair enough—but let's rewind, because Bamboozled is a fascinating if flawed picture for a great deal of its 2 hour and 15 minute running time. The thicket of controversies and stereotypes that haunt nearly every image of black people that reaches the television airwaves essentially defies any clear, neat presentation, and in that sense, the sprawl of Bamboozled is not just permissible but perhaps a necessary outgrowth of Lee's subject. For example, though Pinkett's character seems shockingly inconsistent, for a long while that inconsistency reflects several contradictory agendas, all of which a woman in her position would have to take seriously: outrage at the humiliation of her people for profit; allegiance to the only black person with a position of any prestige at the network; sympathy for her brother, combined with impatience for his sometimes reckless outrage (he calls her a "house ni***r" for playing it safe with her job).

Lee is similarly ambitious, and much more scathing, in his presentation of other characters. The Mau Maus, though we admire their unrelenting hostility to such debased and debasing entertainment as Mantan, often settle for the image of political insight and artistic integrity instead of the real article. They drop phrases like "keepin' it real" and the "n"-word with un-self-conscious frequency and vapidity. Even Savion Glover himself, not just the character he plays, becomes an eligible figure of re-evaluation in this context. Certainly, Spike Lee pulls no punches in lambasting black celebrities who use their fame to deflect honor toward their white colleagues, as when Ving Rhames gave the Golden Globe Award he won to Jack Lemmon, or else to engage in physical histrionics that border on minstrel displays, such as Cuba Gooding Jr.'s famously exuberant Oscar acceptance speech. Both Rhames and Gooding are explicitly taken to task during a montage in the center of Bamboozled—but what of Glover, whose enormously successful Broadway tap-dancing show Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk played almost exclusively to privileged white audiences? Lee isn't fudging his material or losing control of his film in raising questions like this; he is disclosing just how loaded and uncertain race has become as an aspect of public performance.

The only character Lee truly bungles is Wayans' Delacroix, whose contradictions are too vast to be credible as "ambiguity." Bamboozled is never sure whether Delacroix is a victim or a perpetuator of The System, whether his supercilious demeanor constitues a selling-out of his black identity or a necessary broadening of stupid, narrow definitions of what black people should be like. (It's hard to imagine Roger Ebert duplicating his claim that Delacroix "isn't very black" in the context of a white character.) I'm not sure how Delacroix could have been most effectively played as written—I suspect the character is fundamentally paradoxical—but I'm certain that Damon Wayans' broad, grating affectations, though an admirable blow against typecasting, don't help endear Delacroix to the viewer or elucidate how we are meant to understand him. Occasionally, the visual scheme of Bamboozled itself, which was shot on video using mostly handheld cameras, seems likewise too conspicuous, too intrusive a presence. As in the better moments of the Dogme 95 films, however, the gritty texture of the images smartly compliments the roughness of the subject matter.

I mentioned earlier, though, that a major asset of Bamboozled, perhaps even its greatest strength, is the energy and force with which it displays a whole catalogue of racist art and artistic conventions from the last hundred years. Not only does the movie conclude with a sick-making montage of stereotyped black figures from early Hollywood movies and revues, but as the film goes on, the apartments and offices of the characters start to accumulate trinkets, statues, and other curios that depict African Americans as voracious eaters, indolent workers, and imperturbable grinners. More even than the specter of blackface in the Mantan sequences—though the impact of that image is not to be underestimated—this crash course in racist iconography shows Lee at his most didactic but also, in this case, at his most urgent. Bamboozled, despite deep flaws of structure and execution, makes an incontrovertible case that its subject demands recognition and conversation. The sharper, funnier, and therefore more horrifying first half of the movie makes that case more strongly than the scrambled conclusion, but Spike Lee has made one of the few films in the year 2000 that is actually about something, and for that he deserves great credit. B


Awards:
National Board of Review: Freedom of Expression Award

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