Bamboozled (2000)

*. Bamboozled doesn’t hide its debts to a storied tradition of media satire. The most obvious precursors are A Face in the Crowd and Network, but you’ll also be thinking of The Producers for its plot conceit of trying to construct a Broadway bomb and then having to deal with a hit. Then the satire is amplified with Spike Lee’s critique of the marketing of Black culture.
*. The film tanked at the box office, which isn’t that surprising. I say that not because of the subject matter or politics so much as because of the film’s oddity. Filmed, for example, on a Mini DV camcorder (which was mainly a budget decision) it has the cheap feel of video, which was thought suitable because it was about television. I think it works, but at the same time it does look rough, which probably didn’t help it find an audience. Also the star Damon Wayans is saddled with a strange accent meant to show his unsureness with his identity but which I just found off-putting.
*. I think it’s very well done, but at the same time it’s a movie that left me frustrated. I like satire that’s not afraid to show some anger, and obviously there were a list of things that had been pissing Spike Lee off and he vents on all of them here. The “wigger” Dunwiddy claiming to know Blacks better than Pierre Delacroix (Wayans). Delacroix riffing on Ving Rhames giving his Golden Globe to Jack Lemmon. The marketing of “ghetto” culture. That said, I was frustrated at trying to discern what he was targeting more generally here.
*. The basic point, made very strongly, is that there is a through line from the Black minstrel shows and today’s presentation of Black culture. But I thought Lee needed to be a lot more specific in making the argument that blackface had only become more sophisticated, that in the new millennium we were still getting the “same bullshit.” This is the same problem that bothered Roger Ebert when he interviewed Lee. Ebert wanted specifics but Lee didn’t want to give any, saying “I don’t think it does any good to say ‘Spike Lee doesn’t like this artist or that show.'” That’s fair enough, but clearly he is indicting TV shows, movies, and music and I wanted a clearer idea of what he thought was minstrel-like and what wasn’t.
*. In interviews Lee has suggested some specific examples of stuff he might have had in mind. Gangster rap, for one thing (though I’m not sure what acts in particular), also the TV shows Homeboys in Outer Space and The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, and the movies The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance. But none of these are referenced, or even discernible, in Bamboozled, leaving me to wonder what the exact connection was between old minstrel shows and pop culture circa. 2000.

*. Let’s take a couple of examples. First there are the Mau Maus, the militant Black rap band headed by “Big Blak Afrika” (Mos Def). Obviously they mirror the role of the terrorist Ecumenical Liberation Army in Network, but are they meant to be seen as a twenty-first century minstrel show? The gangsta rap that Lee cited as specifically what he mean to condemn in his interview with Ebert? But Lee respects Mos Def and I don’t think he has anything against rap music. I don’t see how this fits into the satire.
*. A second instance is more incidental. At one point Delacroix is rhyming off the names of Black television comedies that we’re meant to take as fitting the minstrel stereotype and he mentions the series In Living Color. This is an in-joke because Damon Wayans (who improvised the line) was one of the stars of In Living Color. On the commentary track Lee expresses surprise that people thought he was targeting In Living Color as being a latter-day minstrel show, saying that he actually liked it.
*. So Mos Def is good, but gangsta rap, or at least some gangsta rap is bad. Black comedy of the kind you see on network television is bad, but In Living Color was actually pretty good. How can you sort this out? What is today’s minstrel culture? What are the connecting threads between Amos ‘n’ Andy and rap music? Good Times? The Cosby Show? The satirical TV commercials we get here for Bomb drink and Timmi Hillnigger urban fashion are harsh, but how big a tweak are they of Lee’s own Michael Jordan ads for Nike (“It’s gotta be the shoes”)? Was Lee a minstrel shilling for Nike? Or look at the closing montage of racist depictions of Blacks at the end of the movie. Wouldn’t it make more sense for these to be contemporary depictions? Because what’s the point of showing us clips that are fifty-plus years old in a movie like this?
*. All of this suggest to me a movie that isn’t entirely sure of itself. There’s a scene in Bamboozled that echoes a similar one in The Producers. In that movie Max and Leo tear off their Nazi armbands after meeting Franz Leibkind, throw them in the trash bit and spit on them. I don’t like that scene because it’s heavy-handed and tells us how we should really feel. In Bamboozled the complementary scene is where Delacroix is looking at images of slave ships online when his mother phones him. Again this feels too heavy, a way of poking us and saying “Are you getting this?” Did we need such a scene? Did Lee think he needed to include it? Why?
*. With all of these caveats I still liked Bamboozled. It’s very well done in ways that are both risky and effective. The editing in particular is brilliant. The way that Michael Rapaport’s Dunwitty character is both the biggest stereotype and totally believable is a score. Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson are both great as the new minstrel team. I really miss Damon Wayans not being given a chance to play Delacroix in a more relatable manner, as I could never get on board with his accent, but that’s the only part I balked at.
*. I had the feeling though that Lee had left something on the table. Not out of any timidity but because he wasn’t quite sure where he was going. And twenty-plus years later I’m not sure the picture has gotten any clearer with the benefit of hindsight.

15 thoughts on “Bamboozled (2000)

  1. film-authority.com

    I guess Spike has his mojo back now, but it was very boring for a good while watching him fail to dramatise the issues he saw around him. I’m not sure a feature film is the right medium for this kind of discussion. That’s a great pic of you at the top, your smile is very natural.

    Reply
      1. film-authority.com

        I was surprised to read last week that over a half of the UK still watch scheduled tv, something that I doubt I’ve done for anything other than sports and news for a decade. I can’t imagine key social media influencers like ourselves have opinions that could be satirized. But while I’m interested in Lee’s opinions, it’s a lot to ask people to sit down for 90 mins and watch. Particularly when his opinions are about a world two decades old.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I don’t think you could satirize opinion writers. You’d have to satirize people who are selling their personalities by videos (or parents doing that to their kids, or even pimping themselves out on OnlyFans). But even there reality outstrips anything you could do in a scripted drama. How do you one-up the Live Fyre documentaries for exposing influencer foolishness?

        Somebody should be working that anyway, given how many kids see this as a career path.

      3. film-authority.com

        The Danny Legend God film I reviewed about a month back had a terrific bit about a girl doing influencer stuff, and it was ace satire. I’d like to think that the Billy Wilder of today would be able to fashion a proper comedy/drama from this kind of material. Influencer culture is something ripe for satire. IMHO. YOLO. BFFF!

      4. film-authority.com

        I guess influencers are part of modern life. I was amazed after my bear-baiting incident, how many emails I got offering money as an influencer. It’s hardly attractive from a moral stand-point, and seems like something of a mug’s game. But is the world of pull-quotes and paid Paetron reviews so different?

      5. Alex Good Post author

        No, I don’t think there’s a big difference. And to give them all the credit I can, I think a lot of the most successful do work really hard at it. It’s a full-time job. Just doesn’t seem like much of a calling. The number of influenced are more of a sign of how bad things are.

      6. film-authority.com

        I guess it’s a way to exploit ‘celebrity’, but the number of reality tv suicides suggests that it’s no great comfort. The social media rubric seems to be x is the number of followers, x/10 is readers, x/100 are interested. So you really have to work to make anything real out of it. The bottom line is that it’s just another tier of communication, but one with little cash or status attached.

  2. Bookstooge

    If I made movies that were the reverse, in terms of white and black, of what Spike Lee does, I’d be labeled a bigot, a racist and hounded out of popular culture faster than if Hitler tried to make a movie nowadays.

    Glad to know racism is alive and well 😦

    Reply
    1. Alex Good

      Lee isn’t really targeting white people so much in this movie as he’s taking a swipe at the way the media represents blacks. I don’t actually see too much reverse racism going on in film (though I haven’t made a study of it). Reverse sexism (men are all sexual predators) is more popular.

      Reply

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