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BAMBOOZLED

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

Film ****

In a University speech given a year or so ago, writer/director Spike Lee expressed his disdain for modern television shows like Eddie Murphy’s “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 s—t, sooner or later, they’ll think it’s filet mignon.”

Bamboozled is that point of view taken to the extreme.  This is Lee’s 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 Webster’s definition of satire, he makes clear his intentions, but how funny we see the material might have more to say about us than him.

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, he’s 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 can’t 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 can’t walk away from his contract or he’ll 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 didn’t laugh.  What I was seeing was not new to me, as a student of cinema:  I’m 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 they’re a part of cultural history, for better or for worse.  They’re a part of the past.  To see them resurrected for the 21st century?  It’s a little extreme, and certainly distasteful, yet I’m 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, aren’t we seeing African Americans being reduced to hurtful stereotypes for the pleasure of mass entertainment?

The difference is, and here’s the point I think some critics missed…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 they’re 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, “I’m as hard on the black people in my films as I am the white ones.”   He doesn’t 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 hasn’t even begun to touch on Lee’s other targets, some of which are more humorous.  On the show’s 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 man’s Viagra.  Another one attacks a popular clothing line, whose name in the film I can’t 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.  I’ve 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 doesn’t 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 we’re gone…so we ought to be careful how we choose our words.

Video **1/2

This is the lowest rating I’ve 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 that’s how it’s 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 aren’t distracting, but still apparent.  Video just doesn’t 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 doesn’t yield the top notch results DVD is capable of.

Audio ***1/2

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.

Features ****

Bamboozled really earns its Platinum Series stripes in this department.  The disc boasts one of Spike Lee’s 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.

Summary:

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.