*. 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.