Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Damon Wayans,
Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Tommy Davidson, Michael Rapaport
Director: Spike Lee
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: New Line Cinema
Features: See Review
Length: 136 Minutes
Release Date: April 17, 2001
In a University speech given a year or so ago, writer/director Spike
Lee expressed his disdain for modern television shows like Eddie Murphys The
PJs. He proclaimed that programs like
that were nothing more than black artists getting rich by enforcing the same black
stereotypes America had endured for centuries: rather
than show African Americans in intelligent, thoughtful dramas, they were reduced to crude,
slapstick comedies involving drugs, alcohol, guns and gangs. When one of the students pointed out that black
audiences comprised the highest percentage of those watching The PJs, Lee
responded, If you feed someone enough st, sooner or later, theyll think
its filet mignon.
Bamboozled is that point of view taken to the extreme. This is Lees most indulgent and unrestrained
effort as a director: the results on screen
are a little bit overwhelming and a whole lot disturbing.
By beginning his film with the Websters definition of satire, he makes
clear his intentions, but how funny we see the material might have more to say about us
The story centers around an African American television writer,
Pierre Delacroix (Wayans), a man who seems to have lost his sense of identity in white
corporate America (we learn he even changed his name from Peerless Dothan). He speaks with a strange accent that falls
somewhere between Ivy League and parody.
For years, hes tried to create a show for African Americans
that would be positive and fresh, much to the disapproval of his boss, Dunwitty
(Rapaport). The boss thinks Delacroix has
completely lost touch with his black side, especially when he cant
identify a picture of Willie Mays. Dunwitty
is a character we feel Spike Lee must have seen a lot of in his career: the backwards thinking white person who really
believes he understands the African American experience better than those who lived
through it. He boasts of marrying a black
woman, and the pictures on his wall are all black American heroes
though all from
sports. No George Washington Carver, no
Martin Luther King, no Frederick Douglass.
Delacroix cant walk away from his contract or hell lose
his money. The solution? Get himself fired
and he intends to do just
that by creating the most horrifically exploitive racist concoction on the airwaves: a modern minstrel show. With the help of two talented but recently evicted
street artists, Manray (Glover) and Womack (Davidson), he presents the idea for
Mantan to Dunwitty, selling it as a courageous, bold innovation in television
guaranteed to be the most talked about program ever.
Dunwitty likes what he sees.
The problem? The show,
with all its hateful stereotypes (including black actors wearing blackface, a watermelon
patch setting, hoofer numbers and characters named Mantan and Sleep n
Eat who are lazy, uneducated and unlucky) becomes a smash hit. This brings about changes for all involved,
especially Delacroix, who seems to be losing his soul in the process, and his two stars. Manray loves the success; Womack feels the burning
shame every time he dons the blackface makeup.
And what of we, the audience? I
reacted in horror to the minstrel show. I
didnt laugh. What I was seeing was not
new to me, as a student of cinema: Im
well aware of the treatment of African Americans as caricatures around the turn of the
century, when white actors donned the infamous blackface and went for cheap laughs with
racial buffoonery, or became lecherous monsters like in Birth of a Nation. These images are what they are, because
theyre a part of cultural history, for better or for worse. Theyre a part of the past. To see them resurrected for the 21st
century? Its a little extreme, and
certainly distasteful, yet Im surprised how many intelligent film critics missed the
point. By resurrecting a hateful image of
stereotype like the blackface, Lee does not undermine his statement; he enforces it. The statement is, that while cultural
sensibilities may have grown more sophisticated, have we really left these images behind? When we see shows like The PJs or
listen to gangsta rap, arent we seeing African Americans being reduced to hurtful
stereotypes for the pleasure of mass entertainment?
The difference is, and heres the point I think some critics
in the case of those latter two examples, black artists are willing
participants in selling the negative images. In
Bamboozled, the Dunwitty character is not so much bad as he is ridiculous: of all the people involved in the minstrel show
fiasco, he is the most forgivable because of his ignorance.
Delacroix, Manray and Womack are all intelligent enough to realize what
theyre doing. So are Eddie Murphy and
those specific rap artists who sell not music, but the entire image of the gun toting,
drug dealing street thug. In the film, we
watch two very talented African American performers utilize the stigma of blackface and
racial stereotypes, and react with shock and disbelief that such a program could become a
number one hit
but how far off the mark is it, really?
Consider that Lee once said, Im as hard on the black
people in my films as I am the white ones.
He doesnt dismiss or downplay the whites role in making this kind of
entertainment available. But I think he comes
down harder on those black artists who buy into and go along with it instead of standing
firm against it. The tragedy of Bamboozled
is not Dunwitty, who had no soul to begin with, but his artists who did, and who all
lost a piece of them in the process.
This hasnt even begun to touch on Lees other targets,
some of which are more humorous. On the
shows opening night, for example, there are a couple of commercials that have to be
seen to be believed. One is for Da Bomb,
which is a malt liquor product in plastic 2 liter bottles made to look like a bomb, and
professes to be the black mans Viagra. Another
one attacks a popular clothing line, whose name in the film I cant even mention out
of good taste.
One final thought: my
college Humanities professor, the late Dr. Robert Waxman, liked to teach that we can learn
more about a civilization by studying their culture rather than their history and
politics. Ive come to believe that over
the years, and never was the lesson more personally painful than in the last stretch of Bamboozled
that lasted through the end credits.
We all learned about slavery, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr.,
the George Wallace standoff for segregation and more in school, and equate this knowledge
with struggle of the African American people in this country. But history doesnt translate our ideas and
attitudes the way the works of our own hands, our art, if you will, does. What we create sometimes continues to speak for us
long after were gone
so we ought to be careful how we choose our words.
This is the lowest rating Ive given to a New Line Platinum
Series DVD, though in fairness, the video problems are not entirely their fault. For budget reasons, and partially for stylistic
ones, this picture was shot with digital video rather than film, and consumer available
cameras rather than expensive studio ones. The
video images were transferred to 35 mm film stock, and thats how its presented
on disc. As such, the image sometimes lacks
the sharpness of film, and in a few darker scenes, grain becomes apparent, possibly owing
to contrast adjustment. Colors are very good
throughout, but there are a few noticeable instances of image enhancement that arent
distracting, but still apparent. Video just
doesnt look as good as film, but with a smaller budget and the need for multiple
camera angles during the minstrel show numbers, Lee made a creative and logical choice. It works, but doesnt yield the top notch
results DVD is capable of.
The 5.1 soundtrack is quite good, and used intelligently. The rear stage remains quiet when not needed; but
it makes its presence known with a few crowd scenes early on, and even more later as
images and scenes grow a bit more chaotic and surreal. The
dialogue is clear throughout, as is the wonderful music score by Terence Blanchard and the
good songs from Stevie Wonder, Bruce Hornsby and more.
Dynamic range is quite good for a non-action picture. Overall, a very quality listen.
Bamboozled really earns its Platinum Series stripes in this
department. The disc boasts one of Spike
Lees best commentary tracks. He has a
lot to say about the making of the film, his research, the cast and crew, the music, and
the responses to his controversial creation. There
is an hour long and detailed making-of documentary, some deleted scenes, a very cool
animated art gallery showing the promotional materials for Mantan,
some music videos, a trailer, and talent files, plus some DVD ROM extras.
Bamboozled might be the most inflammatory social satire since Jonathan Swift penned A Modest Proposal. Spike Lee unleashes an indulgent, unsettling editorial on the evolution of the black stereotype as entertainment in American history, and pulls back the curtains on our modern society to reveal both the white and black artists responsible for continuing them in ways that are more subtle but no less damaging.