Dark, biting satire of the television industry, focusing on an Ivy-League educated black writer at a major network. Frustrated that his ideas for a "Cosby Show"-esque take on the black family has been rejected by network brass, he devises an outlandish scheme: reviving the minstrel show. The hook: instead of white actors in black face, the show stars black actors in even blacker face. The show becomes an instant smash, but with the success also comes repercussions for all involved. Written by
N. Cognito <nobody@noplace>
I am absolutely embarrassed right now that I have never watched a Spike Lee film before. I have always wanted to see Do the Right Thing, which is generally considered his best film, and I even rented it once, but never got around to watching it. When Bamboozled opened last year, it sounded very interesting, but after the critics dismissed it as a failed attempt at satire, I decided to catch it later on, perhaps after I saw Do the Right Thing. Then I saw it was going to be played on television, so I found the time and sat down to watch. What I saw was something absolutely amazing.
And that's not to say that Bamboozled doesn't have its flaws. I would personally deem it a flawed masterpiece, a very flawed masterpiece. The critics were right: Lee's satire is misplaced. He's far too hotheaded an artist to have realized this immediately, but he should have when the New York Times refused to run the movie's add, which depicted a sambo character eating a watermelon, because they feared protests. Bamboozled asks us to suspend our disbelief - a disbelief which Spike Lee may not have had himself
and accept that a TV network would produce the New Millennium Minstrel
Show and that the public, a la Mel Brooks' The Producers, would eat it up. Lee's argument in the press is that this was already happening. His targets were rap videos and a show on the WB network that only produced something like 6 episodes (the show was about Abe Lincoln's black servant who single-handedly ran the country; Lincoln was the buffoon). The reason that the New York Times didn't run Lee's add is the exact same reason Lee wrote the film in the first place: African American political activists, including Lee, often have very knee-jerk reactions to such things. The show about Lincoln, which Lee argued was set during the "holocaust" of his people, actually showed the white people to be the buffoons and the blacks to be their manipulators. He missed the point (which could very well have been due to the fact that the show sucked anyhow). Add to this the fact that, besides clips of Good Times and The Jeffersons, both of which, I ought to add (in my own opinion), Lee is taking out of context (he would have been much better off to feature Diff'rent Strokes, which is somewhat offensive), all of the clips he uses to demonstrate the abuse of his race must have been downright difficult to dig out of film archives. None of these cartoons or movies that are shown, nor most of the sambo toys, have been seen for some thirty years or more, most probably not since before Spike Lee was born. We all know they exist, and, as Sloan (Jada Pinkett Smith) says in the film, we oughtn't to forget whether we're black or white, but it doesn't work as satire to show these things. They aren't at all harmful now, not until you drag them up again. Then they're only offensive when knees start jerking.
None of this matters, in fact. Not to me, anyway. In my opinion, film today has become far too complacent. Bamboozled is an enormous jolt to our current, apathetic world. The fight may be misdirected and wholly fabricated by a paranoid man, but Spike Lee is indeed a masterful director. In fact, I would very favorably compare this film to Jean-Luc Godard's Le Week-End, which was also somewhat misdirected in its satire. Both of these films are excellent. Bamboozled moves with a speed and passion almost completely foreign to the world of filmmaking today. It's angry, it's brazen, and it makes your heart pound with fear, sadness, and intensity. It also raises more difficult issues than any film I've seen in a very long time. It manages to do this while remaining funny, too, although I was always wondering whether Spike Lee would slap me for laughing at this stuff. I especially loved the Tommi Hilnigger Jeans commercial. But even the New Millennium Minstrel Show is presented in a humorous way. A lesser artist, I believe, would have made it more clearly offensive. As it stands, it's difficult not to laugh at Mantan and Sleep-N-Eat (probably the most jaw-droppingly funny and ballsy name I've ever heard) as they perform. Tommy Davidson and Crispin Glover put enough energy in these stage performances to electrocute you. Their performances are awesome - often the dialogue they do have is cliched, but in many small moments their faces clearly express, and subtly, too, how their lives are crumbling. I would also like to compliment Jada Pinkett Smith, who turns in the film's finest performance. I have a feeling she's just going to get better and better, if someone would give her another decent role. Michael Rapaport, although perhaps a little too cartoony, is still very funny. Damon Wayans has the most difficult part. I'll bet money that he and Lee KNEW that the critics would immediately jump on Wayans' fake white accent. I can't imagine they thought it was all that funny or believable. However, I'm not sure why they did it. It does detract a little from the film, though not as much as many critics claimed it does. Personally, I would have either had that accent fade as the film went on. It sounds especially bad when it comes back at the end, after all those powerful (if pointless) scenes of African Americans in the cinema. Although, as that very phony voice is brought back, we recall the way the film began...
Other aspects of the filmmaking are excellent as well. I have already praised Lee's direction. It is quickly paced and he really knows how to move his camera. The editing is fantastic. A powerful rhythm is established right away and never abandoned. In fact, the film pulls a daring change from satire to melodrama about halfway through, another aspect of the film that people complained on end about. It is all done with gusto, especially in the editing. The cinematography - wow! This and Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark show how worthwhile digital video is. Lee and his DP use it to an amazing degree! When characters are moving fast, which happens most often when Mantan is tap-dancing, a blur is left on the screen for a split second. Late in the film, when Mantan is trying to free himself from the show, Lee causes these blurs to remain onscreen for a prolonged period of time. The effect is simply powerful. One major complaint I have is the score. It's often manipulative. I think it would have been better to have had a minimalist score, which would have made the film seem even more immediate.
Like I said, there are many major and legitimate complaints against Bamboozled, but critics and audiences forgot what's going for it: it is EXCELLENT CINEMA. 9/10.
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