Bamboozled

on October 06, 2000 by Tim Cogshell
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"Bamboozled" is a darkly satirical comedy that speaks to the disgraceful, generations-long history of African American images in media (Stepin Fetchit, blackface performers, humiliating buffoonery and the like) juxtaposed against contemporary portrayals in network television programming that often hearken back to those old stereotypes. It is an inspired but difficult film that poses many questions and takes almost everyone to task, yet offers few suggestions as to what is to be done with this infamous legacy.

Damon Wayans of the ubiquitous Wayans clan stars as Pierre Delacroix, a young, Harvard-educated network executive with an affected mode of speech and cultured mannerisms. Delacroix has yet to see any of his mainstream concepts produced and finds himself pressured by his ratings-obsessed boss, Mr. Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), to deliver an edgy urban comedy for the 40-oz. crowd with crossover appeal. In what begins as a ploy to make a point about the inequities of network programming, Delacroix sets out to give the network what they want in spades.

With the help of his bright but skeptical assistant, Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith), Delacroix develops a show that pushes political correctness backwards 100 years to the era of the minstrel show, burnt-cork blackface and all. He taps two talented but struggling street performers, Manray (Savion Glover of "Bring in the Funk, Bring in the Noise") and Womack (Tommy Davidson of TV's "In Living Color") to star in his new show. He changes their names to Mantan and Sleep N' Eat, and dubs his creation: "Mantan, the New Millennium Minstrel Show." Mantan Moreland was the actor who became known as the bug-eyed chauffeur Birmingham Brown in the Charlie Chan movie series. It's these sorts of images that permeate Delacroix's New Millennium Minstrel Show. Each night, Mantan and Sleep N' Eat perform in blackface, singing and shuffling to the delight of millions, both black and white. The show becomes a massive hit, dividing society along lines that are much more complicated than race alone.

Writer/director Spike Lee and the word "controversy" seem to have become synonymous. Thus, it would be easy to call "Bamboozled" controversial and dismiss it. But that won't work. This innovative, often funny, more often painful look at historical and contemporary issues of race and mass media isn't really controversial at all. Indeed, the ideas, arguments and images are all quite long-lived, but they resonate. "Bamboozled" might better be described as an "experimental" film, complicated in the way satires should be, rather than just a hackle-raiser. Lee and his director of photography Ellen Kuras have shot their movie on mini-digital cameras (transferred to film), which creates a compelling voyeuristic effect that heightens the deliberate sense of absurdity the director is courting. Damon Wayans and Savion Glover, along with hip-hop artist Mos Def (as an irate anarchist leader), all give intriguing performances, though Lee's script leaves their motivations and political positions ambiguous and difficult to reconcile.

The question is often asked, "What does Spike want?" It's a good question, and "Bamboozled" may offer some insight. Here, Spike seems to want us to remember the past as we move through the present and into the future. He plainly wants us to take it with us, which raises a new question: to what end? Starring Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Tommy Davidson, Michael Rapaport, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Paul Mooney and Mos Def. Directed and written by Spike Lee. Produced by Jon Kilik and Spike Lee. A New Line release. Satire. Rated R for strong language and some violence. Running time: 135min

Tags: Starring Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Tommy Davidson, Michael Rapaport, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Paul Mooney, Mos Def, Directed, written by Spike Lee, Produced by Jon Kilik, Spike Lee, New Line, Satire
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