As angry and polemical as “Do the Right Thing,” but not as powerful or accomplished, Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” is an ambitious satire on race and ratings, centering on the stereotypical imagery of blacks in American mass media as we begin the new millennium. Inspired by such seminal works as “A Face in the Crowd” and “Network,” this occasionally biting but excessively melodramatic narrative revolves around a black TV writer who, like Dr. Frankenstein, creates a monster — in this case, a TV minstrel show that unexpectedly becomes popular, setting off a cascade of both comic and tragic consequences. New Line faces a challenge in marketing a tough film that is not vital enough to generate extensive debate and not entertaining enough to draw large audiences, black or white, to theaters.
The topic that Lee tackles head-on here is hardly new. In 1987, motivated by his frustration over the lack of significant screen roles for blacks, Robert Townsend co-wrote, directed, and starred in “Hollywood Shuffle,” a witty lampooning of the ordeals of an aspiring minority actor. The late Marlon Riggs devoted his career to dissecting African-American stereotypes in numerous documentaries.
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What’s new about Lee’s satire is that it’s not so much about black performers as about black TV executive-writers, a profession still overwhelmingly dominated by white men. Title derives from a Malcolm X quote conveyed in a clip from Lee’s own biopic: “You’ve been hoodwinked. You’ve been had. You’ve been took. You’ve been led astray, led amok. You’ve been bamboozled.”
Protagonist is Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans, in a detached and unappealing perf), a bright, Harvard-educated writer who wants desperately to be taken seriously. Thinking of himself as a grand man, he affects an elite accent and dresses to the nines, but inside he’s seething with anger. As the lone black at a floundering network, Pierre is constantly under pressure to go with the flow — to predict public taste and boost dwindling ratings. Commanded by network exec Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) to come up with a show all America will talk about, Pierre delves into the history of blacks in the arts and revives a long-popular but now taboo form of entertainment: the minstrel show, of burnt-cork blackface and dance-comedy routines.
To that effect, he recruits Manray (Savion Glover), a tap-dancing street artist, and latter’s partner, Womack (Tommy Davidson), to become a 21st-century minstrel duo in blackface. Pierre changes Womack’s name to Sleep ‘N Eat and Manray’s to Mantan, after actor Mantan Moreland, known for his portrayal of the chauffeur Birmingham Brown in the 1940s Charlie Chan movies. “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show” is unexpectedly embraced by the press and the public as hip and funny, and becomes a top-rated program.
Dunwitty, the deluded network exec, thinks they’ve got their fingers on the pulse of black America, but Pierre and his ambitious, articulate assistant Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith), just like black viewers, aren’t sure how to respond to their successful show. In moments of ecstasy, Pierre fantasizes about winning awards, but ultimately he’s full of doubt and self-hatred.
Changing tones, text’s second half is disappointingly melodramatic, a recurrent problem in Lee’s films, which often stumble when they try to integrate personal stories into broader political canvases. Gradually, Sloan watches her dream of a hit show turn into an outrageous nightmare, and falling for Manray further complicates her life, as does pressure from her Afrocentric rapper-political terrorist brother, Big Black (Mos Def). While one admires the fact that Lee has written one of his rare strong, central women characters, Pinkett-Smith is asked to play a difficult, incoherent part.
Though “Bamboozled” centers on the TV world, Lee’s frame is broader, meant to rep all the arts. Obviously disappointed by the limited ways people of color have been portrayed in — and often altogether written out of — history, he provokes uneasy feelings in the audience, suggesting that the old minstrel stereotype can, and does, resurface in subtler ways, dressed in new garb to look modern, hip and politically relevant.
Thematically, “Bamboozled” bears resemblance to Elia Kazan’s ferociously prophetic “A Face in the Crowd,” in which a country bumpkin is discovered and turned into a TV celeb; Lee dedicates his film to Budd Schulberg, who scripted that 1957 picture. Dunwitty’s immoral exec, and several other characters and subplots recall Sidney Lumet’s “Network,” written by Paddy Chayefsky.
As brash and manipulative as “Network” is, it is a superbly entertaining, well-acted satire whose message was prophetic back in 1976; it also has a morally conscientious hero (William Holden) for whom the audience can root. In contrast, “Bamboozled” is a no-holds-barred film that skewers everybody on both sides of the racial divide; no one is a winner. And while the movie contains many emotionally effective moments, Wayans’ awkward performance, in an admittedly complex role, is problematic and exerts a negative effect on the film as a whole.
Pic was shot with multiple digital video cameras, impressively tracking the large cast through the winding story. Handheld cameras not only match the comedy’s breezy style, they also enable Lee to be spontaneous and move fast as he looks at the treacherous milieu of network television from as many angles as possible.
Lee’s richly dense film demonstrates a clash between honorable intention and level of accomplishment, between sheer preachiness and thrilling entertainment. Indeed, the exciting montages of historical clips, cultural artifacts and collectibles — Bugs Bunny, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in blackface, pens shaped like alligators with black boys in their mouths — suggest how deeply embedded racial hatred has been. Using Lee’s extensive research, a powerful documentary could be made about the misrepresentation and degradation of African-Americans in movies, cartoons and TV shows.