Published Nov 01, 2000Prolific director Spike Lee's new film "Bamboozled" is a satire of the television industry in the same vein as "Network," looking at the representation of black people both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. The story revolves around Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a Harvard-educated television writer employed by a major network who is under extreme pressure to create a hit "black" show. Frustrated with his jive-talking white boss's (Michael Rapaport) rejections of his suggestions for Cosby-like series depicting middle class, professional African Americans, Delacroix pitches an over-the top, offensive and satiric minstrel show starring black actors in blackface makeup. He hires homeless street performers (Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson) to star as lazy, singing and dancing comedic fools who live in a watermelon patch on "The New Millenium Minstrel Show," which becomes an immediate success in the ratings, but has a lot of the black community up in arms.
The film is intelligent and funny in its examination of who is responsible for the images that we consume. It doesn't offer easy answers, but rather tries to expose hypocrisy and lay blame equally on everyone involved, from the white network heads to the black contributors, the sometimes counterproductive militant critics, and the passive audience. The satire seems at once an over-the-top exaggeration and scarily almost plausible. The movie is shot entirely on digital video, which gives it an appropriate television aesthetic. The dialogue has a loose, improvisational feel to it, and the script follows many sprawling storylines that all come together nicely in the end.
Some of the film's most affecting footage comes from historical accuracy and artefacts from the time of the original minstrel shows. Delacroix decorates his office with an ever-increasing collection of antique offensive posters and trinkets, which gradually overwhelm his office and his life. Scenes of the "new minstrels" using the traditional ritual of putting on blackface are absolutely compelling, as is a montage of cartoon, movie, and TV images showing depictions of black people in all too recent history. The major flaw of the film is Wayans' characterisation of Delacroix, whose seduction by the show's success and subsequent downward spiral should be the spine of the film. Unfortunately, Wayans' Delacroix is all surface affectations, making his journey as the film's tragic hero less believable, which prevents the movie from being truly great. Fortunately, the rest of the ensemble cast is stellar, particularly Jada Pinkett-Smith as Sloan, Delacroix's ethically torn assistant, Michael Rapaport as the cultural-appropriating network executive, Tommy Davidson as the show's sidekick whose inability to look himself in the eye while donning blackface is actually heartbreaking, and especially Savion Glover (best known as the dancer/choreographer of "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk") as the show's tap dancing star, whose fledgling political awareness is overshadowed by his urge to showcase his talents until it is too late. "Bamboozled" may not be a perfect film, but its entertaining and thought-provoking treatment of such bold subject matter makes it remarkably successful and utterly worthwhile.