"The good Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King did not enjoy seeing his people beaten on the 6 o'clock news. However white America needed to see that in order to move this country to change. They need to see this show for exactly the same reason."—Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans)
They had names like Willie Best and Lincoln Theodore Perry. They were Hollywood stars, but not under those names. While African-American mavericks like Oscar Micheaux and Paul Robeson stuck to their guns and produced an authentic black cinema in obscurity, these men, known to their fans as Sleep N'Eat and Stepin Fetchit, played the studio game, made good money, and even earned the "respect" of some of their white peers (if not their studio handlers and the public). But these men and many others- Hattie McDaniel, Mantan Moreland, and so on—labored under humiliating conditions and surrendered both their personal dignity and their public image for nebulous job security (although most died broke and reviled anyway).
This critique is dedicated to them: the casualties of America's long popular culture war.
Facts of the Case
Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) was born with the name Peerless Dothan. But now he works for a big network, CNS, as a comedy writer. He clearly hates himself and his identity as a "Negro:" he speaks in a clipped, artificial accent and pitches shows in which assimilated blacks join the white world. A sign atop his television set reads "Feed the Idiot Box." His white boss, Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), claims "to know niggers better than you," has a black wife, and wants Delacroix to produce shows with a hipper attitude. So Delacroix cooks up "Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show," recycling every vicious and denigrating racist cliché he can think of, in the hopes of so offending the public that they will return in droves to his race-erased shows. With the help of his assistant Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett-Smith), he hires two talented street performers, Manray and Womack (Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson), and redubs them "Mantan and Sleep N'Eat," after two famous blackface characters. Everyone expresses their doubts but plays along, seduced by the possibility of fame and power, and the chance to smash racist clichés.
But the plan quickly backfires, as the network stocks the show with white writers, plays the clichés with a perfectly straight face, and watches the ratings shoot through the roof. Soon, the whole country, already obsessed with buying anything it perceives as "authentically" black (which everyone ironically calls "keeping it real" at every turn), puts on blackface and plays along. But for the performers involved, the burnt cork makeup is beginning to burn…
A number of years ago, I had a friend (and I stress the word "had" here) who used to refer to people that he did not like—well, black people particularly—as "niggers." When I expressed my displeasure at the word (as well as his tendency to refer to bargaining as "jewing"), he remarked that not all black people were niggers, only the ones that acted that way. Of course, to him, every black person he met acted that way—he lost sight of whatever distinction he thought the term might have had. Nevertheless, he "respected" black athletes and actors he saw on television and liked black-influenced music (especially blues and rock). To him, it all made perfect sense.
What is the image of African-Americans in the media? What are people of color, of any ethnicity, sold by white advertisers? Indeed, what is "whiteness" to the media, and what are Anglo-Americans sold by advertisers as a construction of "black" culture? Trendy black culture is bought by whites wanting to "be black:" everything from Gershwin's use of jazz idioms to Elvis to—well, white intellectuals pretending they understand Spike Lee movies. Not that I'm naming any names here…
Yet, this very black "culture" is an invention of the marketplace: advertising that encourages African-Americans to dress alike (sports logos everywhere), drink the same drinks (malt liquor anyone?), and listen to the same music (mass-market hip-hop). This is a vicious cycle promoted by corporate capitalism. The plan: sell everyone a way to make each person feel like an individual, but sell them all the same stuff so that it is easier to manufacture and market. Be an outsider, but dress like your friends.
Television makes this problem even more conspicuous. In television comedy, African-Americans are typically either assimilated into white culture ("The Jeffersons," "Diff'rent Strokes") or portrayed as hip outsiders ("Good Times," any fast-talking, wise-cracking Eddie Murphy clone). Even the "revolutionary" "Cosby Show" in the 1980s was essentially a white-bred sitcom repackaged with black characters. Did it reflect reality, a real black middle-class? Or was it a fantasy of white television executives? How would we ever know? Since American culture is already so entrenched in "colorization" (as the long history of minstrel shows noted in Bamboozled points out), we may never tell the difference between our "real" selves and the media images.
The simultaneous reliance on social separation in the media (blacks must be poor and hip, whites rich and square) and the marketing strategy of corporate capitalism that pushes both camps to desire to be the other is the very problem at the heart of Bamboozled. In a sense, the real targets of this film—the mercenary advertisers and studio execs and the dimwitted public that insists on buying their product—are nowhere to be found (except in the guise of Dunwitty). Like my former friend, who enjoyed the "black image" sold to him by the media, but hated any actual African-Americans who crossed his path. But, I suppose such a target would be too easy. Instead, we follow the casualties of this marketing war. Are we to pity Pierre Delacroix? Despise his self-loathing and insulting condescension to the genuinely talented people (Manray, Womack, Sloan) whom he rolls over in his attempt to prove his point? Are we to cheer his assault on the racism of the media?
Of course, satire is not about finding answers or solutions. It is about pointing out our mutual responsibility for the problem. In that, Bamboozled is a success: no one gets off easily. All those who play along with the "Mantan" fiasco find themselves increasingly corrupted; and all those who attempt to fight back find themselves increasingly marginalized and desperate, swamped by the tide of "blackface" fervor. The satire is drawn in bold strokes. Delacroix (who narrates the film in a cynical Sunset Boulevard tone) and Dunwitty are not realistic characters. They are caricatures: a black man who wants to be white and a white man who wants to be black. Or at least, each wants to be what he thinks the other is. Nor does the plot unfold organically, but rather in disjointed fits that betray the contrivances required to get a show like "Mantan" on the air and a popular hit within the world of the film. All these are marks of a broad satire. On the other hand, the psychological development of the performers in the show, Manray and Womack, is subtle and gradual, as are many of the dialogue scenes that take place outside the television offices. And the devastating and violent backlash at the film's climax feels terribly real. It is almost as if Spike Lee has made two different films and attempted to combine them. The effect is not altogether successful at times, as our empathy for the more realistic characters is undermined by the scenes in which caricature takes precedence. Perhaps in a sense, this is the problem at the heart of the minstrel show itself: talented human beings must put on masks and become cartoons. But Lee's script is often itself confused as to when we are supposed to be in the "real" world or the "cartoon" world. When the script does work, it works marvelously as a blistering attack on the psychological damage of conforming to the media's definition of race. When the script fails, it seems disjointed and confusing, cutting back and forth between a brutal, documentary reality and a brightly caricatured media world without a clear sense of where we are.
But the real difficulty with Bamboozled is not its examination of the issue of ethnicity on television—a very real and complex problem worthy of both consideration and action—but that the movie really is not very funny. Effective and devastating satire is both uncomfortable and funny (as my students' reaction this past week to Fight Club will attest), and the line is admittedly a fine one. Bamboozled is uncomfortable, even quite terrifying at times: the first taping of "Mantan" is a perfect case, as the studio audience looks on in shock, then is slowly won over and begins to applaud—this is one of the most powerfully creepy sequences in recent cinema. But when the movie really wants to be funny (as in the later "Mantan" scenes, where some genuinely clever comedy appears), we are too alienated and frightened to laugh. Individual scenes can be quite good taken out of their context: an all-white writer's meeting where the writers have obviously learned everything they know from other television shows, a clueless militant hip-hop group that spouts every "black power" cliché in the book as if they just invented it, and so on. But where in other films, Spike Lee often lets his comic performers (Robin Harris in Do the Right Thing, his recent concert doc The Original Kings of Comedy) cut loose and expand on their parts, he tends to restrain his performers here, boxing them in and forcing them to perform in scenes which often clash in tone with what surrounds them. Although, in a sense, this is the very struggle of any satire: to combine the humor of individual situations with their devastating (and often depressing) social and political context. Perhaps in the case of Bamboozled, the grim history of racism is toploaded into the film to such a huge extent so early on, that it is nearly impossible for the audience to regain any critical distance in order to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
In spite of this, many of the dramatic performances are excellent. Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson turn out to be the real finds here: both turn in subtle, underplayed performances that feel quite real. Glover's brilliant dancing skills are highlighted of course, but the big surprise is how strong his acting is. In the broader half of the film, Damon Wayans and Michael Rapaport deliver carefully calculated and measured comic performances. Again, the problem is not that the performances are not great; it is that both groups seem to be operating at times in completely different movies. Jada Pinkett-Smith, as the strong point of contact between Delacroix and Manray, travels well between the two camps, holding her own. Lee's script and Pinkett-Smith's performance deftly avoid romantic clichés, allowing Sloan to become an independent woman whose complex emotional attachments are driven by both her empathy and ambition.
Lee's direction, always kinetic and self-assured, has matured in recent years (even if his material is sometimes inconsistent) into a hyperrealism marked by oversaturated color and tricky verité use of overlighting and varied focus. Bamboozled is shot entirely with camcorders (straight off the shelf) and 16mm by documentarian Ellen Kuras. As I noted in my review of Lee's earlier Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee's films are not meant to look realistic in the conventional sense, but rather naturalistic: a heightened reality where broadly drawn characters play out their parts within a staged situation embellished with the use of complex visual detail.
In short, the world of Bamboozled looks real and detailed, but the characters are not: they are types with different views of their world, thrown together into a contrived situation in an effort to generate debate among both the characters and the viewers. Yes, the plot of Bamboozled is awkward. It sounds much better on paper than it plays out on the screen. And the inconsistent sense of tone is a significant flaw. Spike Lee might have been better off paring the overlong (two and a quarter hours) script into two films, or perhaps restructured the story somewhat. But he cannot be faulted for a lack of ambition. Bamboozled is a tremendously ambitious film which tries to be a satire of contemporary television, a history of media racism, and a realistic psychological examination of the effects of that racism—all at the same time.
New Line has packed the DVD with a good lineup of extras. A dozen deleted scenes (most of which are better off gone—the film is too long as it is), plus a bunch of fake commercials for "Da Bomb" (a malt liquor which comes in plastic two-liter bottles) and "Timmi Hillnigger" (pseudo-hip clothing). The commercials are pretty funny, but again, many parts of this film are funny when taken out of context. Put back into the movie, they tend to add to the creepiness. An animated art gallery shows off advertising art for the "Mantan" show (done in a retro circus style). Two very different music videos, one for Mau Maus' "Blak Is Blak" (done low budget in full frame) and Gerald Levert's "Dream With No Love" (big budget widescreen) show the extremes of the film itself: one song is energetic but spouts militant rhetoric that was fresh a dozen years ago (compare it to Lee's video for Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" on Criterion's Do the Right Thing disc—but of course, the Mau Maus are supposed to be a parody of militant hip-hop), while the other is glossy R&B. I wish the disc had included videos for the strong Stevie Wonder songs which bookend the film's opening and closing, some of Wonder's best work in years. A theatrical trailer and cast biographies are also included. DVD-ROM features include a nice script-to-screen feature (you can match up the screenplay to the film, or print out sections) and links to the official website and a fake site for the "Mantan" show (both below).
A solid hour-long documentary on the making of the film is included. It focuses less on the actual mechanics of the film's production and more on critical analysis by film historians, writers, and critics who comment on Bamboozled's effect as a satire and the tragic history of minstrel shows. The whole effect seems a little defensive, as if we would not get that the film is a satire unless it is explained to us. In fact, the movie itself begins with a dictionary definition of satire spoken in voice-over by Delacroix. Does Lee think we will miss this point?
The audio commentary by Spike Lee is a little disappointing, knowing how much he has to say on the subjects covered in the film. While he does explain his influences (citing Budd Schulberg's A Face in the Crowd, Chayefsky's Network, and Mel Brooks' The Producers), and plugs Mark Daniel's excellent documentary Classified X, there are long stretches of the commentary where Lee either explains obvious screen action or just silently admires his handiwork. At one point he seems clueless as to why the real Tommy Hillfiger (who apparently gives to many black charities) is upset at him about the "Timmi Hillnigger" jokes in the film. And this after his own geeky "Mars Blackmon" Nike ads in the 1980s. This sort of defensiveness (seen as well in the documentary) is a bit unusual for a satirist (any good satirist knows that the writer is just as implicated in the problem as everybody else). Does Spike Lee believe he is above racism himself? I would think not, but the question, which often persists in his films, is a troubling one.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Bamboozled is a difficult and disturbing film to watch: one of my colleagues at DVD Verdict tried a hand at this review before passing it to me and expressed a sense of horror and disgust after screening the film. But horror and disgust are exactly what you should feel here—and not just out of "political correctness." If the film fails in any significant sense, as noted above, is in its failure to maintain a sense of consistency of tone, veering between naturalism and realism. In addition, its insistence that every few minutes must include some didactic lesson in media history becomes a little tiresome. At 2 hours and 16 minutes, Lee makes his point so many times you may wish he would just ease up. The point he has to make is an important one. But the overkill does become exhausting.
If you come to Bamboozled expecting to be entertained, you will be sorely disappointed. The film is a two-by-four to the head. It is worth watching (at least on DVD, where you can hit pause and take a breather) by those interested is social critique and an edgy perspective on racism in the media that you are unlikely to get from any mainstream sources. Ambitious and often brilliant, but just as often inconsistent, it is a film that is not easily forgotten.
In a satire, everyone already stands condemned for his or her own folly. But since director Spike Lee lets himself off the hook in Bamboozled, this court orders him to lighten up a bit and show us the talent we know he has, but often hides behind a strident public persona. A special indictment is handed down against American culture for its long history of crimes against race, but the court expects that to be repaid in community service for a long time to come.
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