My 2000 review of Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” – Thursday at Oriental Theater


(Update: “Bamboozled,”2000 film by “BlackkKlansman” director Spike Lee, shows Thursday at 5:50 p.m. at the Oriental Theater.)

November 5, 2000


Journal Sentinel film critic

Sunday, November 5, 2000


The title character in “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” a golf caddy played by Will Smith, is either a smiling stereotype or a morally superior metaphor. Whether his deferential mannerisms are a benign period affectation or some negative archetype is in the eye of the beholder.

Other racially charged images, however, are less open to interpretation, and modern variations of them persist on television and in film. You know their names, but in his incendiary new film “Bamboozled,” Spike Lee names them anyway — from “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons” to “In Living Color” and UPN black-themed sitcoms, linked in a line that runs straight back to Aunt Jemima, Stepin Fetchit and Uncle Tom. He even takes an almost subliminal swipe at Smith, husband of “Bamboozled” co-star Jada Pinkett Smith.

If history is written by the victors, you’d think the South won the Civil War.

Before and ever since, the majority culture has cast in clay, cork, celluloid and cathode ray the vulgar physical and intellectual caricature of African-Americans that became “Amos and Andy,” and which Lee argues persists today with the cooperation of the artists involved.

The relationship between the white-owned entertainment industry and black artists and executives — like the acquisition announced last week of the Black Entertainment Network by Viacom — raises troubling questions about who calls the shots in the struggle between artistic integrity and profits.

For instance, an embarrassing vaudeville like “Big Momma’s House” is distributed widely, but few outside of large cities were given the chance to see “Bamboozled.” New Line Cinema, the movie’s distributor, sneaked the film into Milwaukee on Friday, a month after its debut — and then without preview screenings or publicity, showing it in only two theaters. It’s just as likely this strategy was determined by the fact that audiences elsewhere didn’t embrace the film as it is that New Line wishes “Bamboozled” would just go away.

But blockbuster or not, this provocative film deserves to be seen by the largest possible audience.

Like much of Lee’s work, “Bamboozled” is ambitious but imperfect. Lee used digital video, which makes the film look thin and flat but reflects the television milieu. He is in full control of his toolbox, and techniques that were distracting in his other films are a subatomic part of a collision of imagery and ideas that creates tension and momentum.

Narratively, “Bamboozled” goes in so many directions that it unravels rather than unfolds. Lee’s firmly held point of view drives audiences rather than leads them, and it obscures conclusions they might draw on their own.

It would make a fascinating and important documentary, and Lee borrows from that form by using archival footage to illustrate points (including Denzel Washington from “Malcolm X” warning blacks they’ve been bamboozled.) But the film is not all that far-fetched as fiction.

“Bamboozled” is Lee’s “Network,” and is as current as the new issue of TV Guide. Damon Wayans plays the lone black executive at a TV network who blends in with his bland white co-workers like a potted plant. His French name and affected accent are signals that he has reinvented himself. His white boss, played by Michael Rapaport — who is married to a black woman, casually uses the “N” word and fills his office with photos of black athletes that hang on his walls like trophies — dares Wayans to develop a dangerous, cutting-edge show.

Hoping to get fired, Wayans comes up with the most racist program imaginable, a modern minstrel show set in a watermelon patch, with a dancer (Savion Glover), a comic (Tommy Davidson) and a house band called the Alabama Porch Monkeys. The more outrageous the ideas, the more Rapaport loves it and incredibly, if inevitably, it becomes a cultural phenomenon. Pinkett Smith plays Wayans’ assistant, whose brother, played by Mos Def, is a chillin’ and swillin’ revolutionary.

The pain all this causes the characters is palpable but not contagious. “Bamboozled” paints a portrait of a corporate plantation where the slaves now have stock options.

But Lee never connects the dots between the decision-making and the consequences. As a result, “Bamboozled” is like an indictment without an accused. Who’s at fault? The artists? The networks?

Or the audience?

Bamboozled * * *

Cast: Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tommy Davidson, Michael Rapaport, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Paul Mooney, Mos Def

Behind the scenes: Produced by Jon Kilik and Spike Lee. Written and directed by Spike Lee.

Rated: R; language, violence

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