This Spike Lee film examines the life of an aspiring actress in New York. She is upset by the treatment of women in the movie industry during one of her screen tests with 'QT'. Out of work ... See full summary »
Spike Lee's take on the "Son of Sam" murders in New York City during the summer of 1977 centering on the residents of an Italian-American Northeast Bronx neighborhood who live in fear and distrust of one another.
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 come repercussions for all involved. Written by
N. Cognito <nobody@noplace>
Towards the end of Bamboozled, Spike Lee lets go of his narrative for a minute and turns to the film over to a parade of archival material. From classic films and cartoons, this footage shows the image of African-Americans that the white media constructed for decades. Dancing wildly or alternatively lazy, eyes popping out of their heads and stupidly eating watermelon. For a brief moment, Spike Lee is showing the audience, rather than telling us and the result is incredibly powerful. In these moments, Bamboozled reminded me of Marlon Riggs's 1991 documentary, Color Adjustment. Using similar material, Riggs showed the way that the mediated images of African-Americans helped to maintain the political status quo. Riggs relied on the primary sources and on traditional talking-heads documentary style to make his point. And I can't help but feel that his approach was far more effective in its subtlety than Lee's in his bombast.
Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) is a low level television executive at a floundering network. His boss (Michael Rappaport) thinks that Delacroix's work has been suffering because it hasn't been black enough and he sets him to creating a truly black show. In his frustration, Delacroix plots a revenge by suggesting a revival of the minstrel show with one major twist -- the show would feature black actors in blackface. He brings in two street performers (Tommy Davidson and Savion Glover) as his stars and he assumes that the show will never actually make it on air. But much to his chagrin and the dismay of his assistant Sloan (Jada Pinkett), the show is a massive success.
Spike Lee's criticism is against black performers and image makers who allow the negative representations of their people. The film is a harsh indictment not only of Delacroix, for letting down the African-American community, but of talented tap dancer Manray (Glover), who prostitutes his talent towards the negative depictions of his people. The hubris of Manray and Delacroix is juxtaposed with the guilt and better judgment of Womack (Davidson) and Sloan. Strikingly, the film actually takes its strongest stand against the brilliant artist Manray, suggesting that his was the greater betrayal.
Delacroix is doomed from the beginning in Lee's loaded didactic script. He's Harvard educated, wears ugly suits, and speaks with a goofy accent. It's unclear whether the accent is an example of a horrible performance or a horrible decision by the director, or possibly both. The accent is annoying in ways that distract the viewer from his true character flaws. I can't image that Lee meant for me to forget Delacroix's reprehensible actions to concentrate on his stupid voice. It certainly pulled me out the of the movie and directed my antagonism at the filmmaker who didn't have any better ideas, rather than at the character of a TV executive whose ideas were evil.
Lee's script (always the downfall of a Spike Lee movie) goes off in too many directions. It touches on Delacroix's father, a comedian who plays what appears to be a modified version of the old Chittlins Circuit. Naturally the father doesn't think much of Delacroix. And it touches on the Mau-Maus, a group of rappers/revolutionaries who naturally don't think much of Delacroix. And the script finally makes Pinkett's Sloan into a school marm of a woman who's the overly-erudite symbol of all of the wrong done to both blacks and women. Sloan's character plays like Lee's response to perpetual criticism that he can't write for women. It's worth pointing out that he still can't.
The movie's failings are made all the more unfortunate by the importance of its lesson. When Lee steps back and teaches the audience about lawn jockies, Amos and Andy, Mantan Morland, and other negative racist depictions, he's doing a great service. Among the film's documentary moments are pieces of brilliance, including a touching scene in which the two minstrel performers burn cork and add water, following the traditional recipe for face-black. But for every time Lee educates us, he bashes us over the head with references to his own movies (even though Bamboozled is shot on digital video, it has moments clearly borrowed from Mo' Better Blues and Do the Right Thing) or, even worse, he makes too-obvious references to Network (Including a repeated misquoting of the famous "mad as hell and I'm not going to take *this* anymore" line). Lee never lets anything, however powerful, rest on its own merits.
Wayans is just horrible playing a character who wouldn't have been compelling even in an In Living Color sketch. And Pinkett is forced to suffer through Lee's dialogue and several awkward, seemingly improvised scenes with Mos Def as her Mau-Mau brother. But as the performers, Davidson and Glover are excellent, with Davidson giving the film its only true center of regret, and Glover combining acceptable acting with his outrageous tap dancing skills.
I wish I could recommend Bamboozled. I wish I could say that its message and material were of sufficient merit to make the movie required viewing. But probably the Marlon Riggs documentary (Color Adjustment, if you've already forgotten) should be the required text. Spike Lee continues to need lessons in trusting the intelligence of his audience. The alternative is a film like this film, an important idea unsalvaged by a bad execution. This is a 4/10.
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