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Spike Lee’s Bamboozled opens not with the director’s usually excellent credit sequences but with Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) quoting the dictionary. The camera spins around the insides of a clock tower as we watch Delacroix get ready to go to work writing for the CNS Network. As with his trademark people mover shots, Wayans remains stationary as the background goes round and round. Delacroix tells us that television is suffering because nobody’s watching, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the word he defines beforehand. Any movie beginning with a definition of satire is asking for a boot in the ass if it doesn’t live up to Websters’ words.
Lee’s opening credits memorably set the tone of his pictures. Harrowing and violent images of death put viewers of Clockers on notice about the film’s gritty realism. Do The Right Thing’s Rosie Perez clued us into how funky, forceful and loose her movie is. Crooklyn’s nostalgia-filled credits affected me so much I wrote an entire piece about them here at the Mumf. And School Daze’s opening credits visually take us through Black history accompanied by the Morehouse College Glee Club, fitting for a film dealing with “color-struck” Blacks relating to each other. I suppose Bamboozled’s opening scene also sets the tone of its movie: Delacroix’s fake accent sounds both contrived and constipated, and his lecture is completely unnecessary. Listening to that voice quickly becomes a chore, and Bamboozled spends 134 minutes with it.
More symbolic of Bamboozled’s ultimate failure is the song playing under Delacroix’s opening narration.
Stevie Wonder’s Misrepresented People recaps the history of Black people with Wonder’s usual brilliance. A companion piece to Songs in the Key of Life’s Village Ghetto Land, Misrepresented People ticks off several years and describes the fate that befell Black people at that time. It’s informative, catchy, musically inventive, and more than a little angry. In 4 minutes and 39 seconds, Wonder slyly sings his director’s thesis statement more eloquently than the film that follows it. It’s too bad we have that shitty narration spoken over the song. Coupled with the ghastly racist toys and imagery Bamboozled revels in, Misrepresented People would have made one hell of a credit sequence. It would rival Lee’s hilarious, shocking take on Wonder’s Jungle Fever.
Bamboozled is two parts The Producers and twelve parts Network. Lee makes no attempt to hide his main influence, paraphrasing lines from Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay and lifting plot developments like the militant group and a televised murder. Like the Oscar winning writer of Lumet’s 1976 Best Picture nominee, Lee is pissed about the images he sees on TV. Name-checking You People’s Network shows like Homeboys in Outer Space and The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, Lee wants to take Black TV buffoonery to its symbolic conclusion: a minstrel show. When I heard of Bamboozled’s intentions, I was fully on board; You should be damn sick of me bitching about BET by now. Despite some potent imagery shot by Ellen Kuras and directed by Lee, Bamboozled is robbed of its effectiveness by its sloppy, underdeveloped screenplay. There are some damn good ideas in this picture, and most of them are doomed by the script. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but sometimes director Spike Lee’s worst enemy is a writer named Spike Lee.
Pierre Delacroix and his assistant Sloane (Jada Pinkett Smith) are tired of having the quality Black shows Delacroix writes either rejected or cancelled by the CNS network. Delacroix’s latest show, a Black gumshoe yarn, was just cancelled due to low ratings. “They put it on against Seinfeld!” complains Delacroix. His boss, Mr. Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) thinks Delacroix isn’t Black enough (read: stereotypically ghetto enough). After Dunwitty drops the N-word, he tells Delacroix not to get upset about it because “I’m married to a Black woman and I have two bi-racial kids! Quentin Tarantino was right. Fuck Spike Lee!” Delacroix is the only Black writer on Dunwitty’s staff, and during this meeting with Dunwitty, all his ideas for Black dramas are rejected. “I know your people better than you do,” says the boss, a line I’m afraid to admit I’ve been told by more than one White person. Delacroix decides to get fired by using the fine art of self-fulfilling prophecy. “Dunwitty wants a coon show,” he tells Sloane, and sets out to give CNS one.
Outside the CNS building are two homeless entertainers, Manray and Womack. Womack, the “brains of the operation” is played by Wayans’ In Living Color colleague Tommy Davidson. Manray, owner of seriously gifted tap dancing feet, has the familiar dreds and attitude of choreographer Savion Glover. In dire straits after the apartment they’ve been squatting in is raided, Manray and Womack enter into an agreement with Delacroix to star in his latest pilot for CNS. When they hear Delacroix pitch it at the network meeting, Womack is shocked. Manray is down “so long as the hoofing is real.” Delacroix christens Manray “Mantan,” after Mantan Moreland, and Womack “Sleep ‘n Eat,” after Bob Hope’s costar in The Ghost Breakers, Willie Best. Dunwitty greenlights the pilot for Mantan: The New Millenium Minstrel Show. Manray and Womack agree to appear in blackface.
In the film’s best scene, Delacroix sets out to interview people to be Mantan’s house band, the Alabama Porch Monkeys. He is surprised by how many Black people show up, including the rap group The Roots and Thomas Jefferson Byrd as a Bard-quoting, singing master of ceremonies. Sloane’s brother, Big Blak Africa (Mos Def) also shows up with his militant group, the Mau-Maus. Featuring muMs from Oz, and rappers Charli Baltimore and MC Serch, the Mau-Maus are rappers who smoke weed and drink what looks like a 2-liter bottle of malt liquor called Da Bomb. (This is a holdover from the Lee-produced Drop Squad, and a damn funny idea.) Their militant rap scares the hell out of Delacroix, who says “I don’t want to have anything to do with anything Black for like a week!” after they leave. He does hire The Roots to be the Porch Monkeys, and Byrd as the MC.
Of course, the network picks up the pilot for “Mantan: The New Millenium Minstrel Show.” It’s a hit. Paging Bialystock and Bloom!
During Bamboozled, Lee uses clips of people in blackface from old movies, including Marjorie Reynolds. In 2008, I wrote a Mumf piece on my discovery of the blackface number featuring Reynolds in 1942’s Holiday Inn. I was stunned when I saw it, as it had been edited out of every screening I’d seen until it ran on PBS. I find blackface disturbing, and outside of a few comic instances (Silver Streak, Trading Places) , I’ve no use for it. Perhaps my tolerance of it in the aforementioned comedies stems from it being either applied by Richard Pryor or endorsed by Eddie Murphy. As bothersome as I find it, I believe that it should not be censored nor hidden from the general public. If an old film has it, or any kind of racial stereotype, it should not be removed. That changes nothing.
Best and Moreland were, along with Stepin Fetchit, stars in old Hollywood. They appeared in numerous films playing shiftless, lazy or “skeered” coon characters. They made a lot of money and, in most Black circles, are either forgotten or considered an embarrassment. Bamboozled sees them as the latter, supplying ample evidence via clips to support this. I’ve seen several of their movies, and I will not be Mr. Self Righteous Negro about this: I watched those movies with an odd mix of revulsion and awe. I cannot deny the comic timing, but the cringe factor always overwhelmed me. Bob Hope said Best was the greatest actor he’d ever seen, and director Melvin Van Peebles put Moreland in Watermelon Man. That latter one always intrigued me.
Lee doesn’t skimp on the coon imagery. Bamboozled offers scenes from the Mantan show, with tap dancing minstrels and scenes with the healing power of watermelon. Later, he parades a series of actual racist toys and other items that I wouldn’t have believed if they had been fiction. When the show is a hit, Bamboozled brings in an audience of people of all races in blackface. “The new fad was blackface!” Delacroix announces as images on shirts, faces, bags and magazines fly by. Thomas Jefferson Byrd’s Honeycutt interviews darkened audience members pre-show, asking them “are you a nigga?” They all respond that they are. Byrd is the best thing about Bamboozled, a truly committed role that evokes Joel Grey in Cabaret. His “niggas is a beautiful thing” slogan, and his delivery are truly inspired, and the actor is fearless, especially when dressed up as Uncle Sam and Abe Lincoln in blackface.
I can completely buy Bamboozled’s premise; an early scene shows a clearly uncomfortable audience obeying the “applause” and “howl” signs that light up during the first taping of Mantan. TV viewers are sheep who will watch anything that is considered “popular.” This explains Jersey Shore, the Kardashians and all the other talentless people you have made millionaires with your eyes.
So why did I dislike this movie so much?
Network may be the superior film, but it and Bamboozled have a problem in common. Chayefsky’s script is speech after speech after speech—it’s Hamlet where everybody seems to be playing Hamlet—and it gets tiring and one-note. He’s so angry that the speeches occasionally stop the movie. What saves Network is its matter-of-fact directing by Lumet, its acting and that a few of those speeches are fantastic. One of them won Beatrice Straight an Oscar. Lee is as angry as Chayefsky, and his actors are as game as Lumet’s, but the script leaves them flailing. Despite all the talking, we learn nothing. Motivations turn on a dime, people do things for no reason, and the film is sometimes forgetful in terms of what it has shown us.
First, Delacroix wants to do the show to get fired, then he wants to do it to prove a point, then he’s happy about the show despite several scenes of him being upset by what his White writers are putting into the mouths of his characters. Then we see him laughing at some of the Mantan show. When he wins awards, he dances around like the coons on his show. Why? Lee then throws in some late-movie love triangle bullshit with him, Sloane and Manray that comes out of nowhere. An intriguing, nearly supernatural occurrence of guilt on Delacroix’s part goes nowhere. A scene with Delacroix’s father, the great race comedian Mr. Paul Mooney, left me not only wanting more of him but wanting to see the film Mooney would have written with this material. How does his fate play into Delacroix’s inconsistent actions?
Manray and Womack are clearly stunned when first pitched the show, yet after Mantan gets picketed by Black leaders, Manray asks “Why is Al Sharpton outside my window?” He’s even more confused after the Mau Maus kidnap him and toss him on live TV to be murdered. His megalomania and his relationship with Sloane are woefully underdeveloped. Despite a good early scene with Mos Def, Sloane’s relationship with her brother is also left unexplored, leaving the ending of the film extremely unsatisfying. Her actions are mirror images of her brother’s, and it seems that Bamboozled’s solution is to shoot all the offensive stereotypes and their enablers.
And yet, some of Lee’s directing hints at what this film could have been. The scenes where the actors make, then apply the blackface makeup are mournfully scored by Terence Blanchard. Lee takes us through the entire process, shooting it almost like a drug making scene; the burnt cork looks like it’s heroin. Lee’s choice of shots, and how some of them are edited, made me wish I were watching a better movie. No matter how bad, Lee’s films are always visually interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever had a complaint about his direction; it’s always the writing that pisses me off. Especially when it ruins a movie I should have loved to pieces simply for its main idea. Instead, Malcolm X was right. I got hoodwinked and bamboozled.
Somebody's going to make this for real one day.