Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: Bamboozled (2000)

Bamboozled (2000)
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Spike Lee.
Starring: Damon Wayans (Pierre Delacroix/Peerless Dothan), Savion Glover (Manray/"Mantan"), Jada Pinkett Smith (Sloan Hopkins), Tommy Davidson (Womack/"Sleep 'n Eat"), Michael Rapaport (Thomas Dunwitty), Mos Def (Julius Hopkins/"Big Blak Afrika"), Thomas Jefferson Byrd ("Honeycutt"), Paul Mooney (Junebug), Gano Grills ("Double Blak"), Canibus ("Mo Blak"), Charli Baltimore ("Smooth Blak"), MC Serch ("One-Sixteenth Blak"), The Roots (The Alabama Porch Monkeys).
I cannot think of many films as controversial as Bamboozled – as likely start passionate debate among lovers and haters of the film – that so few people have actually seen. The film came and went quickly from theaters in 2000 – inspiring a lot of critical hand wringing and debate, but few people actually showed up to watch it. It’s not an easy film to track down – it’s not really available for streaming anywhere, there’s never been a Blu-Ray released – and the DVD has long since been out-of-print (I’ve owned a DVD for years – long live physical media!). And yet, bring up the film and those who have seen it remember it. It angered many – offended almost everyone in one way or another, and still inspires passionate feelings 18 years after its release. To me, it’s one of Lee’s best films – one of his most vital and alive, a film that encompasses many of his concerns into one long, messy package – lashing out in anger in a thousand directions at once. Do I agree with everything Lee argues in the film? No – but I also don’t necessarily go into a film like this wanting my views to be validated. I like to be provoked and challenged, poked and prodded – and that is precisely what this film does. Love it or hate it, Bamboozled is a film that once seen, will never be forgotten.
In the film, Damon Wayans stars as Pierre Delacroix, a TV writer for a struggling network, whose white boss Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) doesn’t think he’s black enough. Pierre – who wasn’t born with that name, and certainly not with the clipped, precise accent he has affected is tired if not having his ideas respected. He decides that he is going to give Dunwitty exactly what he wants – the most offensive “coon” show he can give them. Enlisting two street performers – Manray (Savion Glover), a talented tap dancer, and Womack (Tommy Davidson), his motor mouthed friend, he pitches Dunwitty “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show” – a show that will indulge ever negative stereotype about black people in one horrible offensive package, set in an Alabama watermelon patch, and featuring its all black cast wearing black face. Pierre’s goal is to be fired – that is how he convinces his principled assistant Sloan (Jada Pinkett Smith) to go along with it. What happens instead, of course, is the show becomes a huge success – with both audiences and critics. And success feels good. Of course, some are offended – horribly offended, Sloan has a brother who goes by the name Big Blak Afrika (Mos Def) – and his rap group the Mau Maus decide to take matters into their own hands.
Bamboozled is, of course, a satire – and in case you didn’t know that walking in, Lee helpfully has Pierre read the definition of the word satire in the first scene of the film, directly to the audience (no one is going to accuse Lee of subtly in this film). Lee is using the most offensive imagery possible to lash out in anger at the way black people have always been portrayed on TV and in the media, and still were at the time Bamboozled was made (and really, still are, now).
Visually, the film is one of the most interesting of Lee’s career. He was one of the first major American directors to shoot a film almost entirely on digital video. He and cinematographer Ellen Kuras would use up to 10 cheap video cameras, and capture scenes from sorts of weird angles, which are then stitched together in a deliberately jagged way by editor Sam Pollard. The effect is often disorienting and strange. The only parts of the film shot on film was the scenes from Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show itself – and the bright colors pop in a way they otherwise wouldn’t, because of the mostly dull colors of the digital video scenes. The effect is that the blackface is even more jarring than it otherwise would be – because it’s so much more in your face. Whether deliberate or not – Lee had said he used digital cameras because he wanted all those different angles, and the ability to shoot quickly – it works wonderfully.
The scenes of the show itself are also key. Lee deliberately cast two extremely talented performers to play his version of Mantan and his sidekick Sleep N’ Eat. Glover is one of the best dancers in the world, and the skills he shows of are genuine. Davidson is a comic performer with impeccable timing – and Glover raises his comic game to match them. Taken strictly as performance, they are wonderful. And that makes them all the more insidious, because of how racist the caricatures are.
Most of the characters, it must be said, operate more as symbols than real people. Lee is presenting a world without heroes – and opens everyone up to mockery during the course of the film. Dunwitty is an out and out racist – who thinks his love of all things black culture excuses it (he mentioned his wife and bi-racial children, as if that excuses anything). Everyone else in the film has some instances where they may be right, they may well question what they are doing, but they go along anyway. Everyone has their breaking point though. I do think that Lee tries to make Pinkett Smith’s Sloan into the conscience of the film – but she’s still a deeply flawed character.
Lee lashes out in anger for two hours and fifteen minutes of Bamboozled – attacking depictions of African Americans in the media the whole time. His most effective sequence in the film though may well be near the end – where he simply cuts together clips of old movies and TV shows, to show the different depictions of black face, and racist caricatures throughout history. It’s damning all by itself – as are all the black face toys and trinkets that all there throughout the film, as Pierre starts collecting them, and then they seem to close in on him. Bamboozled then is an angry, but it’s a sad film in its way – lamenting the country America is, and indicting it for not dealing with its past in order to move into the future. It is also a funny and entertaining film throughout. It is all of that – and more – crammed into one hugely ambitious package. This is one of the key films of Lee’s career – and sooner or later, it will get the full attention it truly deserves.

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