". I kind of figured out that in this 21st century, you don’t need black- face on to be a minstrel show." -Spike Lee
Bamboozled, Spike Lee’s latest, is, in a lot of ways, a unique film. With a boldness few directors today possess (and even fewer critics are comfortable with), Lee here delivers a fascinating, funny, probing movie that plays to two of his strengths; writing comedy and sparking debate. It does so brilliantly.
I should outline the plot before I get any deeper into this. Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), is the only African American writer working on the staff of an upstart network (think WB or UPN.) He’s been unable to get any of his work, which features black, middle class settings and situations, onto the air. His "I’m down" boss, Dunwitty (Michael Rappaport), issues him an ultimatum; come up with an outrageous, "urban" hit or he’s out on the street. Frustrated and pushed to the brink he comes back with a stunningly offensive premise in order to get out of his contract. His pitch? "Mantan: The New Millenium Minstrel Show" a modern reworking of the minstrel show with one very traditional element, black-face. Dunwitty loves it, puts the show on the air and "Mantan." becomes not just a ratings bonanza, but a cultural phenomenon. Think Jerry Maguire and "Show Me the Money" except swap out T-Shirts and Cuba Gooding jr. for black-face Halloween costumes and a gleeful, participatory, mixed race audience donning black-face and proclaiming "I’m a nigger!" on the air. As you can imagine, trouble starts to flow Delacroix’s way.
Lee begins all of this with the definition of satire. A move which he says "was for you guys [critics.]" He needn’t have bothered (with me at least.) From frame one the daring with which he attacks and examines the history (and current state) of African Americans in the entertainment industry leaves very little room for doubt as to his intentions. From the "Mantan." show itself, a numbing array of stereotypes, to the real world antics of the Mau Mau’s, a blunt smoking, 40 oz drinking "militant" rap group, the montage section showing everyone from Judy Garland to Bugs Bunny in black-face, and the collection of black memorabilia that grows like a cancer in Delacroix’s office during the course of the film, Bamboozled is an ironic, absurdist assault.
Did I mention it was a comedy? It really is, although as Lee touched on during a recent visit to Boston it takes something of a unique approach.
"There is humor. hopefully. it’s like halted, or a stilted humor. Where you’ll laugh and you’ll say, what am I laughing about?’, or you’re about to laugh and you’ll say, ‘should I be laughing?’ That was what we hoped.
"Consequently that is why we changed the tone of the film three quarters of the way in. I felt that- I still feel this way- if this had been laughs from beginning to end I would have been just as guilty as Pierre Delacroix. I knew had to get the last quarter of the film- get serious, change the tone and show the consequences for everybody involved in the show."
I personally felt the apprehension that Lee alludes to above. I can’t remember being so self-conscious simply watching a movie. And from the seemingly random placement of laughs throughout the theater for many bits I’d guess the rest of the audience felt the same. Something this well-written producing so few unified, big laughs is remarkable. You could do a fascinating sociological study on audiences for this film.
This real world audience reaction also parallels the on-screen action. During the taping of the "Mantan." pilot, the audience is shown as stunned and uncomfortable. The white people in the crowd are shown looking around trying to gauge the "correctness" of the situation. When a young African American man lets fly the rest of the audience begins to let go and laughter slowly builds.
There are purely funny moments, mind you. I don’t want to completely scare folks off. The fake ads Lee threw together for the film are a fine example of that. One for a malt liquor product sold in a bomb shaped, 64 oz. tub called "Da Bomb" (it bills itself as a Viagra alternative) was at once bluntly critical, on target and hilarious. Funny doesn’t mean Lee can’t find is way into trouble however. One ad, as funny as anything in the film, peddling the clothing designs of Timmy Hillnigger (Danny Hoch), spoofs the high price tag penetration of hip hop culture by designer Tommy Hilfiger. Amazingly (to me at least) it produced a bit of a negative reaction which Lee related, ".people don’t care what we said about President Clinton watching the show, Mother Theresa, the NAACP, Whoopi Goldberg, Diana Ross… I didn’t know [Hilfiger]was a national treasure… People let me know. ‘How could you do that to Tommy Hilfiger.’"
I guess you really never know what people are going to have issues with.
From top to bottom, the performances in this film were excellent. Jada Pinkett Smith, Michael Rappaport, Tommy Davidson and Savion Glover especially stand out. Pinkett Smith, as Sloan Hopkins, Delacroix’s assistant, is pivotal as her intelligence, grace and natural charm allow her to successfully serve as the conscience of the film. Sloan is torn throughout between her convictions, her allegiance to Delacroix and her desire to succeed. Of this Lee says, "[she’s] a lot like Patricia Neil in A Face in the Crowd, [a film] which we owe a lot more to, even more than Network." Glover, the tap virtuoso, and Davidson, the "In Living Color" alum, both delivered complex, organic performances as the stars of "Mantan…" (Glover as the title character and Davidson as his sidekick- Sleep N’ Eat.) As the divergent paths their characters take is a key element in the film (whatever way you look at it) that was a necessity and thankfully they delivered. Davidson, particularly turned in an eye-opening performance. Finally, Rappaport plays the role of Dunwitty with just the right combination of bluster and stupidity to make it work. A little bit either way, he’d have become weight on the film, as it stands he’s one of the highlights, serving as an absurdist fulcrum around which the other characters reactions are made all the more priceless.
The chemistry in the cast was also a standout. Individual performances aside, the connections between the characters was oftentimes seamless. The unique approach to rehearsal for the film may have had something to do with that.
"What was interesting about the rehearsal process. we spent very little time going over the text. We mostly watched a lot of those old shows, clips, and documentaries. Tommy, Jada and Damon traded war stories of their dealing with the TV and film industries. So we really got that bond in the rehearsal process. Which is what you want."
So, there you have it. In case you couldn’t tell this film still fascinates me after nearly a month. It may not be your kind of movie, and you may not be comfortable with some of the things that you’ll see when you walk into the theater, but at the end of the day, this is a great film and one that does much more than entertain.
Most highly recommended.
Originally published in Boston's Weekly Dig (now digBoston) in October 2000.