Bamboozled: Spike Lee Ambitious but Flawed Racial Satire

As angry and polemical as Do the Right Thing (arguably Spike Lee’s best film and most significant to date), but not nearly as powerful, Bamboozled is a severely flawed ambitious satire of 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 on TV’s mercilessly greedy machinations as Network and A Face in the Crowd, this occasionally biting but excessively melodramatic narrative revolves around a black TV writer (played by Damon Wayans in a detached and unappealing manner) who, like Frankenstein, creates a monster, a minstrel TV 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, on the one hand, is not exciting enough to generate editorials and heated discussions, and, on the other, is not entertaining enough to draw large audiences, black or white, to the theater.

The topic Lee tackles head-on in Bamboozled is hardly new. In 1987, motivated by his frustration at the lack of significant screen roles for blacks, Robert Townsend co-wrote, directed, and starred in Hollywood Shuffle, a witty lampoon of the ordeals of an aspiring minority actor (told in auditions that he’s not dark or Murphyesque enough). Additionally, the late Marlon Riggs devoted his entire career to such documentaries as Black Is…Black Ain’t, Tongues Untied, Ethnic Notions, and Color Adjustment, which, among other things, dissected stereotypes of African Americans, taking aim at racism, sexism, patriarchy, and homophobia as they besiege the black community from within and without.

What’s new about Lee’s satire is that it’s not about black performers as about black executive-writers, a profession still overwhelmingly dominated by white men. Title derives from Malcolm X (a hero of Lee whose life he celebrated in a 1992 biopicture): “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 (Wayans), 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 a lone black at a floundering network, Pierre’s constantly under pressure to go with the flow, namely, to predict the public taste and boost the dwindling ratings. As he says in his opening narration, “our audiences have eroded like rats fleeing from a sinking ship.” Delving back into the history of blacks in the arts, Pierre unwittingly revives one of the earliest, most popular forms of entertainment: the Minstrel, the burnt-cork, blackface dance-comedy routine.

To that effect, he recruits Manray (Savion Glover), a tap-dancing street artist, and teams him with Womack (Tommy Davidson), who become a 21st century minstrel duo in black face. Pierre changes Womack’s name to Sleep ‘N Eat and Manray to Mantan, after the 1940s actor Mantan Moreland, better known for his portrayal of the chauffeur Birmingham Brown in the Charlie Chan movies. Rather unexpectedly, “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show” is embraced by the press and the public as a hip, funny, top-rated program.

Central female character is Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith), an ambitious TV writer’s assistant, who had a brief affair with Pierre. Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), the corrupt network head, thinks he’s got his thumb on the pulse of black America, but Pierre and Sloan, just like the viewers in the audience, aren’t sure how to respond to their successful show. In moments of ecstasy, Pierre fantasizes about winning awards–he goes onstage and starts break-dancing a la Cuba Good’s performance when he won an Oscar. Ultimately, though, he’s full of doubts and even self-hatred.

Changing tones, the 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 a broader political canvas. Gradually, Sloan watches her dream of a hit show turn into an outrageous nightmare, and falling for Manray further complicates her life. Lee’s pics have not done much for women, and while one admires the fact that here he has a strong female at the center, Pinkett-Smith is asked to play a difficult, incoherent part.

Though Bamboozled centers on the TV world, Lee’s frame is broader, meant to encompass all the arts. Obviously disappointed by the limited ways people of color have been portrayed–and often altogether rewritten out of history–he raises uneasy feelings among the audience, suggesting that the old stereotype of minstrel can–and do–resurface in subtler ways, dressed in new garb to look modern, hip, and politically relevant.

Thematically, Bamboozled bears resemblance to Kazan’s ferociously prophetic, A Face in the Crowd, in which a nobody, a homespun hobo (Andy Griffith), is discovered and promoted into a successful TV celeb. Lee dedicates his film to Budd Schulberg, who scripted that 1957 picture, as well as On the Waterfront. And, of course, Dunwitty’s immoral exec and several other characters and subplots consciously recall Lumet’s Oscar-winning Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky.

However, as brash and manipulative as Network was, it was a superbly entertaining, well-acted satire whose message was prophetic back in 1976. Network can be charged with being sentimental at its core (dealing with male menopause) and showing a sexist attitude toward its female star (Faye Dunaway), but it also had a morally conscientious hero (William Holden) for whom the audience rooted. In contrast, Bamboozled is a no-holds barred film that skewers everybody on all 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, exerting a negative effect on the entire experience.

Bamboozled was shot with multiple digital video cameras, impressively tracking the large cast through the windy story. Hand-held cameras not only match the comedy’s breezy style, they also enable Lee to be spontaneous and move fast as he looks at the treachery milieu of TV as a bottom-line industry from as many angles as possible.

Lee’s dense film demonstrates a clash between his undeniably honorable intention and level of accomplishment, between sheer preachiness and thrilling entertainment. Indeed, the exciting montages of historical clips, authentic artifacts and collectibles from black history–Bugs Bunny, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in black-face, black dolls with holes in their mouth one can hit with a ball, pens shaped like alligators with blacks boys in their mouths–suggest how entrenched hatred must have been to create such cultural products. Using Lee’s extensive research, a powerful documentary could be made about the misrepresentation and degradation of African Americans in cartoons, movies, and TV shows.