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Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay: Spike Lee
Stars: Damon Wayans (Pierre Delacroix), Savion Glover (Manray / Mantan), Jada Pinkett Smith (Sloan Hopkins), Tommy Davidson (Womack / Sleep'n'Eat), Michael Rapaport (Dunwitty), Thomas Jefferson Byrd (Honeycutt), Paul Mooney (Junebug)
MPAA Rating:R
Year of Release: 2000
Country: USA
Bamboozled Poster

Spike Lee may veer into overstatement when he has the central character of Bamboozled, an outwardly successful, but inwardly self-hating, African-American TV executive, recite in voice-over narration at the beginning of the film the dictionary definition of "satire": "a literary work in which human vice or folly is ridiculed or attacked scornfully." I guess it just goes to show that Lee has become so accustomed to stirring up controversy and inciting the wrath (and misunderstanding) of conservative critics that he feels the need to explain himself before the film hits the two-minute mark. It's a defensive move, to be sure, but if there has been a movie of late that is in need of defense, it is Bamboozled.

For his 15th movie in 14 years as a feature director, Lee has put together what is possibly his most incendiary attack yet on the treatment of race in America. Bamboozled is a sharp-edged, if somewhat heavy-handed, satire about TV culture and the portrayals of blacks in the mass media.

Those not familiar with the history of black representation on screen and stage (or those who have purposefully chosen to forget it) will likely argue that Bamboozled overshoots its target. After all, Lee's central conceit, the repopularization of blackface, veers deep into dangerous territory. Blackface was a common practice prior to the mid-1920s, when only white actors portrayed African-Americans by painting their faces black with paste made from burned cork and water. It has long been considered one of the most demeaning ways to portray African-Americans, especially because it is inextricably linked to racist depictions of blacks as comical, lazy, and ignorant.

Lee's point throughout Bamboozled is a strong one, and the use of blackface, while extreme, serves as a readily inflammatory symbolic gesture of how the racism of yesterday still exists, but in different forms. He floods the screen with black representations in entertainment over the past 100 years, from D.W. Griffith's vicious black rapist in Birth of a Nation (1915), to comical caricatures like Amos 'n Andy and Stepin Fetchit, to racist Bugs Bunny cartoons, to the white-meets-black upward mobility of The Jeffersons.

It would be easy to throw all that up on screen and lament how terrible black representations used to be while basking in the glory of our post-1960s liberal awakening. Yet, as always, Lee wants to call that trump card, and he does so forcefully by pointing out that, while the characterizations of African-Americans may not be as blatantly racist as they once were, in many ways, little has changed. As one character puts it, "The network does not want to see Negroes on television unless they are buffoons." In other words, blackface is blackface, even if no make-up is involved.

The central character is Pierre Delacroix (Daman Wayans), a black TV writer who comes up with the idea for a new program that is actually a reversion to turn-of-the-century minstrel shows that had black and white actors in blackface playing comically ignorant characters for laughs. Delacroix, whose secret desire is to be fired because he is fed up working with the network, imagines a new variety show titled Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show that has all the racist stereotypes and humor of 80 years ago, right down to the setting on a Southern plantation complete with watermelon patches.

When Delacroix first comes up with this idea, it is to prove his point that no one wants to see realistic portrayals of African-American characters in the media. Yet, his polemic backfires when the show becomes a surprise hit, and Delacroix is left feeling like Victor Frankenstein, having unleashed a monster that he can no longer control.

For the two key roles in Mantan, Delacroix pulls two young black men from the streets where they earn nickels and dimes performing on sidewalks. Manray (Savion Glover), the gifted tap dancer, is renamed Mantan, and his partner, Womack (Tommy Davidson), is renamed Sleep'n'Eat and turned into his sidekick. They go along with the blackface minstrel show because they need the money, but it is obvious from the start that they are uncomfortable with the idea. This is also true of Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett Smith), Delacroix's assistant, who ends up as the film's tortured conscience.

The show is, however, enthusiastically supported by Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), the senior vice-president to whom Delacroix reports. Dunwitty is a white man who claims to have more in common with black culture than Delacroix does because he grew up with black people and has a black wife and two biracial children ("Brother man, I'm blacker than you," he proclaims). Dunwitty speaks in a bizarre amalgam of business-speak and street lingo, and he openly mocks the Harvard-educated Delacroix for being too "white."

The question of who is black and who is white is one of the interesting subtexts of Bamboozled. Lee has often been unjustly accused of being a reverse racist because his art is so intricately bound up in uncomfortable questions about the role of race in America, but it should be made clear that Bamboozled is in no way a diatribe against white people. In fact, Lee seems to go out of his way not only to question the dividing lines between blackness and whiteness (especially in the tense relationship between Delacroix and Dunwitty), but also to show that both blacks and whites are responsible for making Mantan a hit show. When the camera pans out into the television audience, all of whom are gleefully made up in blackface, it is quickly apparent that there are people of all races happily partaking in the demeaning humor of the minstrel show. In fact, one of Lee's most scathing critiques is that African-Americans are often involved in their own degradation in the media.

What Bamboozled shows most clearly is the way African-Americans have been, and continue to be, commodified in American culture. As blacks in America were once literal commodities--properties to be sold and owned--the cruel logic dictates that, since the end of slavery in 1865, mainstream culture would have to find new ways to commodify them. Lee stresses the persistence of this trend, as he makes strong connections between caricatured black trinkets and toys from the turn of the century and modern-day advertising for malt liquor and "Timmi Hillnigger" apparel, which is a thinly veiled attack on fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger.

Bamboozled is not, however, without its flaws. I have some reservations about the performances, most notably Damon Wayans' decision to play Delacroix in an overly stiff, almost cartoonish manner that resembles his imitation of "white people" on In Living Color. It may have looked good on paper within the framework of a satire, but the stark immediacy of the film (enhanced by Lee's using digital video instead of film) makes the performance seem showy and out-of-place.

Lee's basing the movie in satire was a smart move because in it he can push the envelope harder than drama or straight comedy would have allowed. However, he gets caught up in the same logic that drove Do the Right Thing (1989), which demands that the movie end in violence. In Do the Right Thing, it worked because that was the entire point of the movie: how actions and words that seem so insignificant in isolation build and build upon each other until they have to explode. In Bamboozled, everything is so over-the-top from the outset that the devolution into violence at the end seems like a desperate bid to assert significance. Lee doesn't seem quite comfortable with the idea that the satire itself is enough, even though it is precisely the jarring nature of his satire that makes the points most saliently.

Bamboozled Platinum Series DVD

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
Audio Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Dolby 2.0 Surround
Supplements Audio commentary by writer/director Spike Lee
The Making of "Bamboozled" one-hour documentary
19 deleted scenes
Original theatrical trailer
Animated art gallery
Music videos: Mau Maus, "Blak iz Blak" and Gerald Levert, "Dream With No Love"
Cast and filmmaker filmographies
Script-to-Screen: Screenplay with direct access to film (DVD-ROM)
Original web site (DVD-ROM)
DistributorNew Line Cinema

Spike Lee and cinematographer Ellen Kuras shot Bamboozled on digital video (mostly with a tiny Sony VX-1000, a consumer camera), which was then transferred to film. The digital transfer for this DVD was taken from the film element, rather than a direct digital transfer, which is wholly appropriate considering that everyone who saw the movie in theaters saw it on film (the transfer to film does change the image slightly by softening the inherent harshness of the video image). The result is of expectedly lower quality than pure celluloid, but it increases the immediacy of the film and works well with the satirical jabs at television. The anamorphic transfer on this DVD, which is in the director's preferred 1.78:1 aspect ratio, is excellent throughout. The inherent limitations of digital video are apparent, but they are kept in check by the transfer, which maintains the hard edges and the slightly flatter visual quality of digital video that gives the movie its intended feel. Video is at its weakest when filming in low light, and the darker scenes in the film betray quite a bit of grain and pixelation, none of which is the result of the transfer.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack sounds incredible. Spike Lee has an innate feel for the use of music in his films, and Bamboozled is no different. From the bass-heavy urban rhythms of the songs to Terence Blanchard's orchestral score, the soundtrack is deep, rich, and clear, with a strong use of the low-frequency effects channel and perfect fidelity. One could not ask for a better sounding soundtrack.

Spike Lee's feature-length, screen-specific audio commentary is definitely worth sitting through in its entirety, as he gives a great deal of insight into the film and what he was trying to accomplish. Because Lee's films are complex and controversial, critics and audiences often misinterpret his intentions. In this commentary, he attempts to set the record straight on Bamboozled, while also discussing more light-hearted matters such as his relationships with all the actors, the various cinematic influences that helped shape the movie, and an amusing anecdote about his running into fashion designer Tommy Hillfiger on the streets in New York after the movie came out.

The included making-of documentary, aptly if boringly titled The Making of "Bamboozled", is not the usual, run-of-the-mill featurette, but rather an extensive, 60-minute exploration of the film's production, from initial concepts to its premiere and critical reception in October 2000 (the doc is presented in anamorphic widescreen). Along with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, the documentary includes interviews with writer/director Spike Lee, actors Daman Wayans, Tommy Davidson, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Michael Rapaport, and Savion Glover, cinematographer Ellen Curas, production designer Victor Kempster, and several notable writers and critics. The documentary depicts the production process, traces some of the movie's influences in A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Network (1976), and also allows for a number of people involved both inside and outside the production to expound on what they think the meaning of the film is.

The disc includes 19 deleted scenes, most of which are fairly short. You can see why the majority of them were cut, although a few of them help flesh out underdeveloped plot points. Of these deleted scenes, only 11 would have actually fit into the film's narrative; the rest are variations on the Mau Maus music video and the advertising parodies of Da Bomb malt liquor and Timmi Hillnigger clothing.

The animated art gallery contains a combination of fictional art used in the movie to advertise Mantan and a number of conceptual designs for the movie's advertising campaign.

The disc also contains two music videos, Mau Maus' "Blak iz Blak" and Gerald Levert's "Dream With No Love." The original theatrical trailer is also included in anamorphic widescreen and 5.1 surround. DVD-ROM content includes the complete web site and the entire shooting script with direct scene access to the movie.

Overall Rating: (3)

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