The trouble began when Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a television executive near the top of his game, was late for a meeting one morning, because nobody had informed his secretary Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett-Smith) about it. He still gets the idea what is up after catching the end of the lecture from his boss, Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), and he is angry that their station's ratings are slipping. He calls Pierre into his office and says he wants a brand new African-American show, but when Pierre suggests a sitcom or a drama about the middle classes, he is shot down in flames. I'll show them, he thinks, I'll come up with something so offensive it'll never be comissioned...
Such is the idea behind writer and director Spike Lee's Bamboozled, his uncompromising tackling of racism in the American media which points out that, in his eyes, the problem has never really gone away. And however correct he may have been in that view, the manner in which he put it across suggested that his fury had driven him round the bend because the modern media as portrayed here was a mixture of the outrageous and the hard to believe. We're supposed to accept that a network would broadcast a show that purposefully harkened back to the days of Amos and Andy, but Lee never convinces us.
Pierre's concept is to take a couple of willing street performers, Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson) and place them on primetime television as stars of "Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show", a return to the bad old days of blackface performers and outmoded stereotypes - but, thinks Pierre, he'll get away with it by calling it satire. Dunwitty (Rapaport once again Hollywood's guy to go to to play stupid white men) loves the idea and runs with it, and soon the all-white (except Pierre) and initially reluctant team of writers are coming up with material: absurdly, Pierre fires them up by mentioning O.J. Simpson, a sure way of getting whites in touch with their inner racist, according to this (and let's not mention the evil Jewish executive character if you're challenging stereotypes, Mr Lee).
With everyone aboard the pilot is filmed, but already Pierre is suffering reservations, as the audience do on the night. As if this wasn't hard to swallow as it is, when the pilot airs the show takes the nation by storm and provides the network with the ratings it desires. However, if you weren't laughing before then you certainly won't be feeling too hilarious when you see what the broadcast involves, as apparently America would welcome a show that comes across as positively ancient in its values - and that includes production values. Presumably Lee meant this to be so out of order it was funny, but his anger has drained all his humour.
Never one to let a chance to send up something he despises go by, Lee also has a go at modern African-American culture, with fake ads patronising the consumers and a radical rap group called Mau Mau who are led by Sloan's brother Julius (Mos Def) who can only see violence as a method of getting their own back against those who have offended them. As the creative team behind Mantan falls apart, with much soul searching along the way, Pierre feels a weight of guilt on his shoulders, but his success has corrupted his mind and he cannot walk away. Eventually you're left wondering whose side we in the audience are supposed to be on, with nobody escaping Lee's vitriol, but the fact is that nothing in the film matches the montage of vintage racist footage that closes the film for being disturbing. Shouldn't we at least be relieved Hollywood has moved on from that? Or will it always be looming in the background, as this rambling work proposes? Music by Terence Blanchard.
Talented, prolific American director who has courted more controversy than most with his out-spoken views and influenced an entire generation of black film-makers. Lee made his impressive debut with the acerbic sex comedy She's Gotta Have It in 1986, while many consider his study of New York race relations Do the Right Thing to be one of the best films of the 80s.
Lee's films tend to mix edgy comedy and biting social drama, and range from the superb (Malcolm X, Clockers, Summer of Sam) to the less impressive (Mo Better Blues, Girl 6), but are always blessed with passion and intelligence. Lee has acted in many of his films and has also directed a wide range of music videos, commercials and documentaries. Inside Man saw a largely successful try at the thriller genre, Oldboy was a misguided remake, but he welcomed some of his best reactions of his career to true crime story BlacKkKlansman.
Given that cynical, cruel humor is so popular on Comedy Central nowadays, is a minstrel show revival that far-fetched? What struck me as hypocritical was Spike Lee's attitude to advertising. This is the guy who sold Malcolm X merchandise like it was Mickey Mouse and who still makes commercials for Nike.
22 Jul 2008
I must admit I'm at a disadvantage because I don't watch much U.S. T.V. comedy so can't really judge it, but I just didn't buy the minstrel show comeback as portrayed here. Any irony appeared to be in the mind of the director.