Director: Spike Lee
Messy? Unfocused? Incoherent? Grotesque? Yes, Spike Lee’s ‘Bamboozled’ are all these things and more. On the other hand, it’s an angry, biting satire on racism in the visual media since the advent of cinema and television. Always one of the most controversial and confrontational of all American film makers, Lee pulls no punches. What he places on screen over two and a quarter hours will stimulate debate and divide audiences. Some will loathe the film and pick apart its myriad shortcomings. Others will enthusiastically endorse it and applaud his guts. This is what cinema ought to be about.
The basic premise is a meeting of ‘Network’ and ‘The Producers’ but given the historical context of race in America. At the heart of the film is Pierre Delacroix, a pompous Harvard-educated black television writer who speaks with an implausible, presumably affected accent, and boy, doesn’t Wayans wander all over the place with his performance. Lee no doubt sets Delacroix up as the morally confused anti-hero. It’s difficult to sympathise with his actions both before and after his big break. Frustrated at being unable to get any shows off the ground, his ridiculously ‘down with it’ superior, Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) challenges him to create something ‘hip’, something ‘fresh’, something ‘black’. The answer? A modern-day black and white minstrel show…..with, get this! Black actors in blackface! Of course this show ought to appal anyone with liberal sensibilities and even those without, but in true farcical style, ‘Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show’ becomes an unlikely, but wildly successful hit.
Critics who’ve been supportive of Lee’s motivations behind making the film have been reluctant to endorse this aspect of his film. The misjudged behaviour of Ted Danson, when he blacked up when dating Whoopi Goldberg probably lingers in the mind. Lee has a serious point to make though and goes to extreme lengths to make it. Think about it for a second. With the exception of ‘Roots’, how often does American television produce serious dramas about the black community? Why are all shows that feature the black community comedies, that usually involve black characters at the butt of any jokes. It’s hardly the place to go into it but try dissecting ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ for a second and consider the precarious ground it stands on under scrutiny. With the Mantan minstrel show, Lee satirises this depiction of blacks in the visual media, grotesquely exaggerating it by using the single most offensive depiction of blacks ever – the cotton plantations – that nefarious symbol of slavery and oppression. The manner in which audiences, initially bemused, come to accept this nasty set-up is frighteningly plausible. Decades of normalised race relations seem to be paper-thin and wear down easily.
Beyond the initial premise, there is a case that Lee can’t keep a reasonable grip on his material and that the developments in the narrative thereafter seem a bit contrived. Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett-Smith), Delacroix’s assistant, whom Lee establishes as the film’s moral centre, has a pivotal role in events getting out of hand – she romances Manray, AKA Mantan (Savion Glover), whilst her ‘gangsta’ brother, Big Blak Afrika (Mos Def) kidnaps and organises the execution of Manray once he’s fired by the studio for rejecting the racist nature of the show. Although difficult to swallow, these events come to bring Delacroix to his senses, having been consumed by his own success. Lee ends his film with a recording Hopkins made for Delacroix, which remains the film’s strongest and angry segment, and none of it is Lee’s original work. It’s a lengthy montage of racist and demeaning clips from Hollywood and television, including ‘Birth of a Nation’, ‘The Jazz Singer’ and ‘Gone With The Wind’. It’s a powerful statement in its own right, and although Lee’s film wavers in quality, it lends it credibility and authority. ‘Bamboozled’ won’t be everyone’s cup of tea – Lee had to produce it on digital video when studios naturally avoided it like the plague – but one can’t deny it’s one of the most important American films of the decade.