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 have been rejected by network brass, he devises an outlandish scheme: reviving the minstrel show. This is 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 come repercussions for all involved.Written by
N. Cognito <nobody@noplace>
I want to like Spike Lee. He's an important film-maker whose work refuses to let us forget our past or ignore the present it's created. His career has been devoted to asking questions no one wants to answer, and such courage rare in Hollywood - is something to value. What frustrates me is that his films rarely live up to the ideas behind them, and Bamboozled is no exception.
It presents his most interesting idea and biggest disappointment to date. Harvard-educated screenwriter Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) is frustrated. The sole black writer at his network, his ideas for shows featuring the black middle class are rejected one after the other. His white station manager wants something more real real meaning poor, undereducated and armed, the kind of `real' we see in gangsta rap videos. In reply, Delacroix creates The New Millennium Minstrel Show, a black-face variety show that will fail so badly and outrage so many he'll be freed from his contract. Hosted by Mantan and Sleep n' Eat, the show is set in a plantations watermelon patch, filled with sketches where the duo steal chickens from their overseer's coop. The pilot is a hit and suddenly Delacroix finds his creation out of his control.
Bamboozled was a hard film to finance and its struggle points to its importance, but despite its wealth of ideas the execution is poor and reeks of an opportunity missed. Much of its failure comes from the central performance by Wayans, a frankly bizarre turn that irritates from the first word. His Delacroix, uncomfortable in his skin, has changed his name and much of his accent. What remains is an impression of an upper-class white man which is just that an impression. It's a superficial performance, a pantomime out of place among the more subtle performances that surround it. I appreciate its point, that Delacroix is ashamed of his origins, but it misses the target and does nothing but grate.
Beyond that, Bamboozled is underwritten and feels under-rehearsed. The character development is sloppy, huge changes in personality coming without warning and with little credibility. Add to that a clichéd friendship-not-surviving-success subplot and big ideas apparently lifted from The Producers and Network, and there seems little left to praise.
But while it fails on many levels, the good ideas remain and allow Lee to explore two main themes the past degradation of black performers and the position they hold today. We learn that black artists in minstrel shows or movies had little choice but to degrade themselves if they wished to pursue a career in entertainment. They were only allowed to be greedy, lazy, bug-eyed buffoons, stripped of their dignity so white audiences could enjoy them without addressing their prejudices. Willie Best, an actor from the 1930s who himself performed under the name Sleep n' Eat once asked 'What's an actor going to do? Either you do it or get out."
Addressing the status of today's black performers in a number of interviews, Lee has accused gangsta rap of being `the 21st century minstrel show'. It's an interesting argument, seeing that its lyrics and videos give overwhelmingly negative images of contemporary black culture that are lapped up by young white audiences. Theft, drug use and abuse, violence against women, murder as entertainment; these are the means by which the rappers degrade themselves for their listeners. The Mau-Maus, the gangsta rappers in the film who take issue with the New Millennium Minstrel Show represent these ideas, though how well they do so is questionable. On the subject of blacks in film, Lee has condemned the use of `Super Magical Niggers' in the likes of The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance, men who `use magic to help white people but can't help themselves.' Hollywood is still limiting the kinds of black films they'll make, choosing mostly gangsta, hip-hop shoot-em-ups or lowbrow comedy. The same is true of TV, where `about 95% of blacks on television now are working on sit-coms.' Where are the all-black dramas? With gangsta rap, the dominance of lowbrow comedy on TV, and simplified fairytale roles or drug-centred grit in cinema, it seems that black entertainment in the white world still relies on degradation, stereotype or cheap laughs. And although much of Lee's argument can be countered by a number of positive roles or by seeing gangsta rap as only a small part of the black music that dominates the charts, these are the things Bamboozled wants to make us think about. Unfortunately, Lee's interviews that publicised the films are far more interesting, persuasive and thoughtful than the film itself.
Perhaps that's the problem. He's an interesting thinker but seems to have difficulty in wrapping his arguments around plot, pace and character. The finest moments in Bamboozled come when he's not weighed down by those burdens. The last few minutes feature a fantastic montage of film and TV's shameful past. We see the obvious clips from Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer but are surprised to see Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Bing Crosby applying blackface. When these films are shown on US television these moments are edited out Lee even came across a cartoon of Bugs Bunny in blackface that Warner Brothers wouldn't allow him to include. The end credits house an equally shocking montage of racist memorabilia such as `The Hungry Nigger Bank' from Lee's own collection. Had Bamboozled boasted that intensity throughout, had it not been let down by a script that fails to make its points, by Damon Wayan's superficial take on the lead role, and its betrayal of supporting characters for its finale, it would have been a fascinating film. As it is, the message is powerful; the film is not.
But when his films work and when they don't, Spike Lee is at least consistent in one thing; he makes you think long after the credits have rolled. That's a responsibility and an opportunity that too many filmmakers are afraid to take on.
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