Bamboozled (DVD, 2001) Reviews
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Bamboozled (DVD, 2001)

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Racism 101 with Spike

Nov 6, 2000 (Updated Nov 6, 2000)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Some strong satirical moments, excellent collection of archived material, good acting performances by Glover and Davidson, Confronts racial issues to promote discussion.

Cons:Very uneven, Meanders in tone between outrage and humor, Doesn't develop characters adequately, the ending goes wacko.


I vaguely remember seeing Little Black Sambo restaurants and hearing the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show in the 1950’s, the happy days of innocence before the adolescent 1960’s exposed these items, along with Aunt Jemima pancakes and Jack Benny’s servant Rochester, as blatantly racist and demeaning. They were an embarrassment to American ideals of justice and equality.

While we have progressed a great deal over the years in achieving racial equality, belatedly integrating baseball in 1947, de-segregating schools in 1954, and passing Civil Rights legislation in 1964, America still largely remains one of the most racially divided countries on Earth despite its cultural diversity. While it’s true that numerous African Americans have achieved recognition and status in many visible fields, including music, television, and movies, Spike Lee asks us to examine this closer with his dark satire.

Bamboozled begins promisingly enough, but it is more likely to bewilder and befuddle by the end.


Plot synopsis

Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) plays the "house nigga" for the CNS television studio. Their ratings are going straight to the dumpster, and producer Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) blames the downfall on the generic lack of creativity of his mostly ivory colored writing staff. Dunwitty’s biggest hopes rest with his lone African American writer.

But can this Harvard educated “Oreo” return to his roots to create the kind of fresh urban show that Dunwitty demands? While Delacroix has created sitcoms involving black characters, his creations have all been educated middle-class characters and don’t represent the true urban black experience that his boss wants. After all, he’s got to please the boss, who claims to be more down with blacks than Delacroix since he’s married to a black woman and has “two interracial babies at home.”

Over the objections of his assistant and voice of reason, Sloan (Jada Pinkett Smith), Delacroix decides to create the most outrageous and offensive idea possible to get fired and get out of his contract. Why not take the idea behind the Jeffersons and Cosby to ultimate absurdity, and return to the disgusting minstrel shows of yesteryear starring black actors in black face?

Dunwitty falls in love with the idea, seeing it as brilliant satire, and they take the idea even more over the top by placing the setting on an Alabama plantation in the middle of a watermelon patch. They even add a host of supporting characters -– an Aunt Jemima and dancing pickaninnies. Of course there’ll be a chicken coop on the premises to get those fried chicken jokes worked in, but who will star?

Delacroix has the answer for that with a couple of talented homeless guys who have been earning their eating money by tap dancing on the streets of New York. They are eager for regular work even if it involves changing their names to “Mantan” (Savion Glover) and “Sleep ‘n’ Eat” (Tommy Davidson), dressing in outrageous costumes, putting on black face and fire engine red lipstick, and doing the “shufflin’ for the massa” routine to portray real “coons.”

Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show takes off in ways that Delacroix never imagines, just as Lee’s film ends up in directions that the audience cannot foresee.


Reactions

No other director tackles racial issues head on like Spike Lee, so most of his films are sure to be controversial. Bamboozled should generate the most racial discussion of any of Lee’s films since his masterful Do the Right Thing, but it is far more uneven than that seminal work. Lee begins the film as satire, throws in his patented racially themed news references (like the O.J. Simpson gloved image), complicates the plot with an undeveloped love triangle, and throws in a nonsensical kidnapping and some pointless violence that muddy the waters.

For a movie that shows so much promise, I left the theater disappointed, yet Bamboozled has its merits. Much of the satire works, and Lee even pokes fun at himself in the opening. The premise combines the ideas behind two "white" films directly -- Network, with the falling television ratings and the creation of a new concept to give them a boost, and Mel Brooks farcical The Producers with its idea of deliberately creating a flop, only to see it blossom into a hit. Both of those movies worked, but Lee’s doesn’t hold together.

One reason rests with finding a suitable character to follow. The Delacroix character is undeveloped, a one-dimensional caricature of a middle-class professional black man with no soul. At least no soul that we are allowed to see, despite his narration and the meeting with his father (Junebug, played by Paul Mooney), a comedian who doesn’t shy away from confronting racial issues directly. Although we suspect that Delacroix has feelings towards Sloan, it comes as a surprise when the stiff acting character declares that he has a “relationship” with her. Where does that come from?

Sloan could be a sympathetic character, except we never get to see inside her world and Lee has her get wacky at the end. The characters that we develop the most sympathy for are the two homeless guys. Lee even allows them to change from the street guys who first eagerly approach their starring roles on the minstrel show to guys who show their uneasiness with the stereotype as they apply their black face. Especially well done is Tommy Davidson’s tearful scene before he breaks away from the show. Unfortunately, Lee doesn’t stay with these characters long enough either.

Lee slings Bamboozled mud on the wall and lets the audience decide what sticks. While this makes for a real rollercoaster ride, it does inspire thinking about racial issues and promotes discussion. It also gets other movie geeks to talk with each other about the film. As soon as I logged on to my computer yesterday after returning from the theater, another reviewer who had seen it a couple days earlier messaged me about Bamboozled. Neither one of us thought that Lee’s ending worked that well, both of us were uncertain about how we felt about the overall film, only beginning to get clarification as we talked about it. Bamboozled is that kind of film -– a relatively film that acts as a discussion starter.

One encouraging sign is that Lee experiments with a digital camera here, meaning that he can produce movies at a faster pace now. Spike’s films are often a hit and miss affair. Bamboozled takes us in multiple directions with much of the actual satire and the archived footage of black face performers along with parallel characters like Hattie McDaniel, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Sherman Hemsley working quite well. Other portions don’t. If Lee turns to making more digital movies, the odds go up for worthy footage to add to his body of work.


Finale

I still harbor mixed feelings about Bamboozled though I do like Spike’s concept of leaving open-ended conclusions on his racially centered films, most successfully rendered in Do the Right Thing.

Lee's latest creation just left me confused and took me a day to sort through my feelings. I think I was supposed to alternate between feeling amused and outraged, but I ended feeling ambivalent. I was already aware of many of Spike’s racial points with the media treatment of African Americans, so that didn't phase me. Lee also beat us over the head so much with the "keep ‘em laughing" reference that Bamboozled is obviously not meant to amuse, in case we didn't "get" that from his U-turn near the end of the film.

If Lee’s purpose relies on creating a confusing menagerie to promote thinking, he succeeds. For that, I’ll give Lee the benefit of doubt and recommend Bamboozled as a worthy discussion starter.





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