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 characterof Bamboozled, an outwardly successful, but inwardly self-hating,African-American TV executive, recite in voice-over narration at thebeginning of the film the dictionary definition of "satire": "a literary work inwhich human vice or folly is ridiculed or attacked scornfully." I guess it justgoes to show that Lee has become so accustomed to stirring up controversyand inciting the wrath (and misunderstanding) of conservative critics thathe feels the need to explain himself before the film hits the two-minutemark. It's a defensive move, to be sure, but if there has been a movie of latethat is in need of defense, it is Bamboozled.

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

Those not familiar with the history of black representation on screen andstage (or those who have purposefully chosen to forget it) will likely arguethat Bamboozled overshoots its target. After all, Lee's centralconceit, the repopularization of blackface, veers deep into dangerousterritory. Blackface was a common practice prior to the mid-1920s, whenonly white actors portrayed African-Americans by painting their facesblack with paste made from burned cork and water. It has long beenconsidered one of the most demeaning ways to portray African-Americans,especially because it is inextricably linked to racist depictions of blacks ascomical, lazy, and ignorant.

Lee's point throughout Bamboozled is a strong one, and the use ofblackface, while extreme, serves as a readily inflammatory symbolicgesture of how the racism of yesterday still exists, but in different forms. Hefloods the screen with black representations in entertainment over the past100 years, from D.W. Griffith's vicious black rapist in Birth of aNation (1915), to comical caricatures like Amos 'n Andy and StepinFetchit, to racist Bugs Bunny cartoons, to the white-meets-black upwardmobility of The Jeffersons.

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

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

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

For the two key roles in Mantan, Delacroix pulls two young blackmen from the streets where they earn nickels and dimes performing onsidewalks. Manray (Savion Glover), the gifted tap dancer, is renamedMantan, and his partner, Womack (Tommy Davidson), is renamedSleep'n'Eat and turned into his sidekick. They go along with the blackfaceminstrel show because they need the money, but it is obvious from the startthat 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'stortured conscience.

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

The question of who is black and who is white is one of the interestingsubtexts of Bamboozled. Lee has often been unjustly accused ofbeing a reverse racist because his art is so intricately bound up inuncomfortable questions about the role of race in America, but it should bemade clear that Bamboozled is in no way a diatribe against whitepeople. In fact, Lee seems to go out of his way not only to question thedividing lines between blackness and whiteness (especially in the tenserelationship between Delacroix and Dunwitty), but also to show that bothblacks and whites are responsible for making Mantan a hit show.When the camera pans out into the television audience, all of whom aregleefully made up in blackface, it is quickly apparent that there are peopleof all races happily partaking in the demeaning humor of the minstrelshow. In fact, one of Lee's most scathing critiques is that African-Americansare often involved in their own degradation in the media.

What Bamboozled shows most clearly is the wayAfrican-Americans have been, and continue to be, commodified inAmerican culture. As blacks in America were once literalcommodities--properties to be sold and owned--the cruel logic dictates that,since the end of slavery in 1865, mainstream culture would have to findnew ways to commodify them. Lee stresses the persistence of this trend, ashe makes strong connections between caricatured black trinkets and toysfrom the turn of the century and modern-day advertising for malt liquorand "Timmi Hillnigger" apparel, which is a thinly veiled attack on fashiondesigner Tommy Hilfiger.

Bamboozled is not, however, without its flaws. I have somereservations about the performances, most notably Damon Wayans'decision to play Delacroix in an overly stiff, almost cartoonish manner thatresembles his imitation of "white people" on In Living Color. It mayhave looked good on paper within the framework of a satire, but the starkimmediacy 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 pushthe envelope harder than drama or straight comedy would have allowed.However, he gets caught up in the same logic that drove Do the RightThing (1989), which demands that the movie end in violence. InDo the Right Thing, it worked because that was the entire point ofthe movie: how actions and words that seem so insignificant in isolationbuild and build upon each other until they have to explode. InBamboozled, everything is so over-the-top from the outset thatthe devolution into violence at the end seems like a desperate bid to assertsignificance. Lee doesn't seem quite comfortable with the idea that the satireitself is enough, even though it is precisely the jarring nature of his satirethat makes the points most saliently.

Bamboozled Platinum SeriesDVD

AudioDolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Dolby 2.0 Surround
SupplementsAudio 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 NoLove"
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 EllenKuras shot Bamboozled on digital video (mostly with a tiny SonyVX-1000, a consumer camera), which was then transferred to film. Thedigital transfer for this DVD was taken from the film element, rather than adirect digital transfer, which is wholly appropriate considering thateveryone who saw the movie in theaters saw it on film (the transfer to filmdoes change the image slightly by softening the inherent harshness of thevideo image). The result is of expectedly lower quality than pure celluloid,but it increases the immediacy of the film and works well with the satiricaljabs at television. The anamorphic transfer on this DVD, which is in thedirector's preferred 1.78:1 aspect ratio, is excellent throughout. Theinherent limitations of digital video are apparent, but they are kept incheck by the transfer, which maintains the hard edges and the slightlyflatter 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 inthe film betray quite a bit of grain and pixelation, none of which is theresult of the transfer.

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

Spike Lee's feature-length, screen-specificaudio commentary is definitely worth sitting through in its entirety, as hegives a great deal of insight into the film and what he was trying toaccomplish. Because Lee's films are complex and controversial, critics andaudiences often misinterpret his intentions. In this commentary, heattempts to set the record straight on Bamboozled, while alsodiscussing more light-hearted matters such as his relationships with all theactors, the various cinematic influences that helped shape the movie, andan amusing anecdote about his running into fashion designer TommyHillfiger on the streets in New York after the movie came out.

The included making-of documentary, aptly if boringly titled TheMaking 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 ofbehind-the-scenes footage, the documentary includes interviews withwriter/director Spike Lee, actors Daman Wayans, Tommy Davidson, JadaPinkett-Smith, Michael Rapaport, and Savion Glover, cinematographerEllen Curas, production designer Victor Kempster, and several notablewriters and critics. The documentary depicts the production process, tracessome of the movie's influences in A Face in the Crowd (1957) andNetwork (1976), and also allows for a number of people involvedboth inside and outside the production to expound on what they think themeaning of the film is.

The disc includes 19 deleted scenes, most of which are fairly short. You cansee why the majority of them were cut, although a few of them help fleshout underdeveloped plot points. Of these deleted scenes, only 11 would haveactually fit into the film's narrative; the rest are variations on the MauMaus music video and the advertising parodies of Da Bomb malt liquor andTimmi Hillnigger clothing.

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

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

Copyright ©2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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