(2000) dir. Spike Lee
Spike Lee’s Bamboozled is a frustrating film.
The premise is brilliant. A frustrated African-American television writer, who is accused of being too “white” and lacking in edge, responds by creating a subversive-minded modern day minstrel show for his network. In his attempt to show the network that what it is asking for is essentially a throwback to classic stereotypes, his show ends up touching a different nerve than he was intending and winds up being a smash hit.
The idea is a harsh criticism of the corporate machine of Hollywood, as well as of the products that it creates. Lee names a number of shows in particular, so as to make sure that the viewer understands exactly who he is railing against.
Lee is nothing if not strong-handed in his delivery, execution, and message. Lee conceived of Bamboozled in the mode of classic satire, and he delivers his message right off the bat in no uncertain terms. Facing the camera and addressing the viewer, Damon Wayans’ character, Pierre Delacroix, offers a textbook definition of satire. Lee let’s the audience know, unequivocally, what he is aiming at.
Pierre Delacroix is the axis of the irony of the film. His affected speech and intellectualism poses him as a man who is criticized as being “black-on-the-outside, white-on-the-inside,” and who is seeking to work within the structures of the white media machine. His character is sympathetic though he concocts the horribly racist retro-styled entertainment. It is his intellectual background and awareness of the history of the black entertainment experience that allows him access to the ideas that spawn the show. And he creates it as an ironic statement, one that he hopes will embarrass the network and shame them. The show’s success is his downfall, as he laps up the adulation and popularity of his creation, despite its content.
Characters are archetypes in the film, representing “types” and generalities. Michael Rapaport’s corporate bad guy character, Thomas Dunwitty, represents the white American Entertainment industry, as prejudiced under the guise of understanding, and brash, myopic, and self-assured in its innate racism. Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson represent the raw talent of African-American artists that has been exploited by the machine. Dying to get a shot at using their talent, they submit to work that is demeaning. In doing so, they find employment and wealth, but have no control over how they are represented and utilized.
The film strives toward a complex portrait, representing varied African-American perspectives on the nature of the American entertainment business and the legacy of its relationship with African-Americans. At the same time, it attempts to act as history lesson for the viewer, offering context and imagery from films and genuine artifacts of past racial stereotype representation. Wayans’ character is increasingly shown surrounded by these caricatures that he has invoked.
Much of the film’s conception and rhetoric are potent. So, why did I find this film so thought-provoking, yet unsatisfying? I am not sure.
The film is pure Spike Lee, full of his strengths and short-comings as a film-maker (including more than one self-referential nod and even quoting directly from his previous work — the title Bamboozled is culled from a speech from Malcolm X (1992), with Denzel Washington delivering the line — it’s both poetic and a little ego-maniacal). In this case, I think that a couple of the problems might have been in the tone and in some of the execution of his ideas. Lee envisions the film as satire, but Bamboozled lacks the punishing wit that often characterizes great satire. Any humor the film offers lurks beneath a very serious intent, and often the seriousness outweighs the strengths of many of the films’ more striking qualities.
It just wasn’t as much fun to watch as it should have been…for whatever reason. And I think that is a shame. It is a conceptually rich film, articulate and perverse. It could have been stunning.