Bamboozled

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: U.S.
Bamboozled Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Bamboozled

Spike Lee may veer into overstatement when he has the central character of Bamboozled, an outwardly successful, but inwardly self-loathing, African-American television 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 is a defensive move, to be sure, but if there has ever been a film that is in need of defense, it is Bamboozled, which is arguably Lee’s most incendiary attack on the treatment of race in America. Bamboozled is a sharp-edged, if somewhat heavy-handed, satire about popular 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 potentially dangerous territory. Blackface was a common practice of the 19th and much of the early 20th century, when 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 century, from D.W. Griffith’s vicious black rapist in The 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. This is an issue about which Lee has thought for a long time and has informed his art from the very beginning (his first film as a graduate student at New York University, The Answer [1980], was a rebuke to his professors’ teaching the aesthetic and narrative innovation of The Birth of a Nation without addressing its racist content).

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 film’s 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 100 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 performers from the street 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 (their stage names are references to the black comic actors Mantan Moreland and Willie Best, the latter of whom was credited throughout the 1930s as Sleep’n’Eat). Manray and Womack, like the actors from whom their stagenames are derived, 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, who is white, 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 vexed question of who is black and who is white is one of Bamboozled’s most interesting issues. 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 implicated 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—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’s decision to play Delacroix in an overly stiff, almost cartoonish manner that resembles his imitation of “white people” on In Living Color, the late ’80s comedy sketch series where he first made his mark. It may have looked good on paper within the framework of a satire, but the stark immediacy of the film (enhanced by Lee’s use of digital video instead of film) makes the performance seem showy and out-of-place and takes away from the character’s complexity and emotional resonance.

Lee’s making the film an overt satire was a smart move because it gives him room to push the envelope in ways that drama or straight comedy would not have allowed. However, he gets caught up in the same logic that drove Do the Right Thing (1989), which demands that the narrative end in violence. In Do the Right Thing, it worked because that was the entire point of the film: 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 point most saliently.

Bamboozled Director-Approved Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.77:1
Audio
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary from 2001 by writer/director Spike Lee
  • Video conversation between Lee and film programmer and critic Ashley Clark
  • Video interviews with choreographer and actor Savion Glover, actor Tommy Davidson, and costume designer Ruth E. Carter
  • “On Blackface and the Minstrel Show,” a new interview program featuring film and media scholar Racquel Gates
  • The Making of Bamboozled (2001) documentary
  • Deleted scenes
  • Music videos for the Mau Maus’ “Blak Iz Blak” and Gerald Levert’s “Dream with No Love”
  • Alternate parody commercials created for the film
  • Poster gallery and trailer
  • Essay by critic Ashley Clark
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateMarch 17, 2020

    COMMENTS
    Bamboozled was shot primarily on digital video (mostly with a tiny Sony VX-1000, a late-1990s consumer-grade camera), which was then transferred to film. Unlike New Line’s 2001 DVD (in a snapper case!), the digital transfer on Criterion’s new Blu-ray was taken from the original SD PAL DV footage, rather than a 35mm film element to which it was transferred for theatrical screenings. The footage of the Mantan television show was shot on Super 16mm film, and the original footage was scanned under the supervision of cinematographer Ellen Kuras and approved by director Spike Lee. Of course, the resulting image from the digital footage looks pretty terrible—soft, with muddy detail and washed out colors—but that is inherent to the medium on which it was shot, so from what I can tell this is an accurate presentation of the film’s aesthetic. 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. It is striking how much better the 16mm Mantan footage looks—with bright colors, fine detail, and great clarity—but that is, of course, part of the point. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack, which was transferred from the 35mm magnetic track, sounds incredible. Lee has an innate feel for the use of music in his films, and Bamboozled is no different. From the bass-heavy rhythms of hip-hop, 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.

    Given that it has been two decades since Bamboozled was first released on DVD, Criterion has assembled some excellent new supplements to contextualize the film, starting with a 26-minute video conversation between Lee and film programmer and critic Ashley Clark (who also contributed the liner notes). Clark is clearly fascinated by the film (he wrote a whole book on it), and he asks great, pointed questions that get Lee talking (and often laughing) about the film’s ideas, themes, and controversies. We also get a new featurette that includes interviews with choreographer and actor Savion Glover and actor Tommy Davidson, both of whom are extremely thoughtful in reflecting on the film’s significance and their experiences making it; a video interview with costume designer Ruth E. Carter; and “On Blackface and the Minstrel Show,” a new interview with Racquel Gates, associate professor of media studies at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, who speaks about the history of blackface, race and Hollywood, and the significance of Lee’s daring use of blackface performance in Bamboozled.

    The rest of the supplements all appeared on New Line’s previous disc. We have Spike Lee’s feature-length, screen-specific audio commentary, which 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 so 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 aptly, if boringly, titled The Making of Bamboozled, is an extensive, 60-minute exploration of the film’s production, from initial concepts to its premiere and critical reception in October 2000. Along with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, the documentary includes interviews with 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. We also get 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’s music video and the advertising parodies of Da Bomb malt liquor and Timmi Hillnigger clothing. The disc also contains two music videos, Mau Maus’s “Blak iz Blak” and Gerald Levert’s “Dream With No Love.”

    Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)



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