Monday, February 06, 2012

Spike Lee's Modest Proposal

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, go here)

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.


Steven Boone said...

I think you nailed why this film doesn't work. But direction, particularly casting the lead role, has a lot to do with it, too.

You know I love to play armchair producer, with 20/20 hindsight, and so if I could go back into a time machine to be Spike's financier, I would refuse him even Bamboozled's tiny budget unless he cast, in the role of Pierre Delacroix (<---what a silly and shallow attempt at mocking uppity nigro pretension, that name, btw) that cool satirical genius Wendell B. Harris. And, while I'm at it, I'd insist that Harris be allowed to re-write the whole damn thing. OR, even better, let Harris take over as director and Spike fall back into executive producer position, for marquee value.

Bamboozled is a brilliant idea hobbled by Spike's unpredictable fits of shallowness. It's like he was stuck between the everybody's-Hamlet garrulousness of Network and the anarchic deviltry of Putney Swope, with far less conceptual or dramatic focus than either.

Wendell B. Harris would have lent Delacroix so much quiet, menacing and mysterious intelligence in the middle of all the film's absurdities that it wouldn't have mattered if his behavior was inconsistent and strange. His presence would have given the movie a center. I sense Spike reaching for that thesis: To be negro, intelligent and American all at once is to be constantly reeling, conspiring, self-sabotaging and defending. But with him and Wayans expressing only (haha) token respect and insight into the character while making cheap jokes at his expense, the film becomes as flimsy as its subject matter is weighty.

Spike can put together a film in any genre at any budget level, no doubt, but his weakness has always been a habit of keeping his characters at arms length (even when he shows them doing the nasty) and believing that the tabloid-headline premise plus a few visually striking moments are enough to drag along lazy storytelling.

As I've probably said in the comments sections of every great Spike piece you've written, he is aiming for Sam Fuller's kind of broad tabloid humanism but only occasionally gets there. (Do the Right Thing, Summer of Sam, 25th Hour, Clockers.)

So I'm with you on the screenplay gripe, but not so much with the direction pardon. This movie could have been a sinister assault on Ho'wood, with a more dangerous mind than Spike's on the job.

odienator said...

Boone, thank you for your superb comment. Wendell B. Harris would have indeed been a perfect choice to direct this material. I am especially taken by this:

I sense Spike reaching for that thesis: To be negro, intelligent and American all at once is to be constantly reeling, conspiring, self-sabotaging and defending.

Agreed! But he gets in his own way often, as if he can't help himself. But I think his movie's visuals (esp. those by Ernest Dickerson) are so interesting that I have forgiven a lot. Sometimes, however, not even the best visuals can make me forgive Lee his cinematic trespasses.

You are right about the arm's length distance he keeps from characters. Might I throw in how light-skinded people in Lee's films tend to be confused? Someday I will have to explore that.

I neglected to mention that OTHER movie on Bamboozled's topic, with Mr. Paul Mooney and a Wayans brother: Hollywood Shuffle. Townsend's statement is far more hilarious and heartfelt than anything Lee throws on the screen. Lee may give us the actual Stepin Fetchit, but Townsend gives us his flawless imitation of Fetchit, AND the Black Acting School. Mooney himself sums up the topic even better than Stevie Wonder does in that song: "We won't play the Rambos til we stop playing the sambos!"

lrobhubbard said...

A bit late to the party this year, but I did get here...

A more adept handling of satire is CSA - THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA by Midwestern filmmaker Kevin Willmott... which I'm surprised hasn't come across the radar of BHM as of yet. Matter of fact, a good hard look at Mr. Willmott's work to date would be worth several postings.

Just sayin'...

Soren Hough said...

You made a very compelling argument in this piece, Odie - nicely said. My only bone to pick is with this criticism:

"First, Delacroix wants to do the show to get fired, then he wants to do it to prove a point... Why?"

I might be wrong about this, but I think Lee created this strange, inauthentic character out of Wayans in order to criticize not just pop media and the white demographic, but the section of the black community that remains complicit in the BET-era of exploitation.

This change from angry, creative Delacroix to passive, inculcated Delacroix is representative of the rappers, fashion designers, etc. who all allow white producers, businesspeople, and string pullers to use their image for profit.

I think Lee would find someone like Dave Chapelle to be the very opposite of Delacroix. I don't know if you heard about this, but Chapelle was scheduled to perform in Hartford, CT, (my hometown), not long ago. It was meant to be part of his big return to standup, but it was a disaster.

After the end of The Chapelle Show, which treaded a line between racial and racist with unprecedented deftness, Chapelle became aware that there was an entire demographic of white people from the suburbs who watched his program not because they understood the jokes, but because it was (to them) essentially a modern day minstrel show.

Note that this wasn't a conscious decision for them, but I grew up in those suburbs right next to those white kids. I never watched the Chapelle show growing up because, surprise, I had mostly found myself surrounded by white people and therefore the brilliant satire was lost on me. But to my peers, whose houses ran red with the undercurrents of racist sentiment, the show was hilarious... For all the wrong reasons. There was no experiential context for them, so Chapelle's buffoonery existed simply as clown-like entertainment.

So when these same yahoos from the suburbs (now all grown up) showed up to his show in Hartford and started shouting things like "White Power!" (in reference to his infamous Black White Supremacist sketch) without context, Chapelle was horrified and refused to perform. For him, it was unconscionable to accept that his fame and fortune was to be made at the expense of his own dignity, something this audience had taken away through their hoots and hollering.

Delacroix, on the other hand, seemed to be okay with that (and even enjoyed it after awhile, as shown through Lee's surreally satirical lens). He represents the other end of the spectrum, so to speak: a person who accepts that the only path to success is at the hands of the white man's machine. He seems to say: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em!

There was a brilliant Onion piece some time ago entitled "Sale Of BET To White Supremacist Group Results In No Changes To Programming." Not only is that very on-point, but it also reveals that anyone, white, black, etc., who sees no issue with things like BET also supports the status quo in all its subliminally racist glory. That's Delacroix.