Let's be honest: As much as people may complain about Spike Lee's public pontifications on race, or his controversial stances, or his being a rabble-rouser, that's the way we like him. What first comes to mind when you hear his name mentioned? Certainly not Girl 6 or The Original Kings of Comedy. No, Spike will be remembered, quite rightly, for Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. Disagree with him if you want, but there's no denying that the problem of race is what fuels his most passionate work, and what makes his best films so memorable.
Which is why Bamboozled, shot on digital video because Lee was so impressed with The Celebration, holds as much promise as it does: It's Spike getting back to what we think of as being Spike, in this case taking on racism in television. Damon Wayans (paradoxically, the real-life brother of Shawn and Marlon Wayans, stars of one of the most derided black sitcoms on the air) stars as Pierre Delacroix, an upscale TV writer who speaks in a bizarrely bombastic "white" voice that sounds like Sammy Davis Jr. impersonating Dr. Evil. Despite being the sort of person many blacks might call a sellout, Pierre's been struggling for some time to get an intelligent show about black people on the air. He's thwarted at every turn by his homeboy-wanna-be white boss Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), who throws around words like "dope," "booty" and, of course, the N-word, which he asserts his right to utter because he's married to a black woman.
In a fit of desperation and indignation, Pierre comes back at his boss with a plan he's certain will get him fired, and thus out of his contract: an old-time blackface minstrel show (with black people, rather than white, in even blacker makeup), with a shuffling, watermelon-eating tap dancer at its center. Recruiting two homeless entertainers and renaming them "Mantan" (Savion Glover) and "Sleep N' Eat" (Tommy Davidson), he pitches the idea to Dunwitty as a social satire. Naturally, not only does Dunwitty love the idea, but so do the critics and the viewers. Soon blackface becomes a national sensation.
It's not as much of a stretch as it might seem to imagine such a show being defended as "satire." (A Jewish publicist insists to Pierre that "the show can't be racist, because you're black.") A side story dealing with Pierre's relationship with his father provides the movie some much-needed depth, although Pierre never does answer the question that his father asks on behalf of everyone in the audience: "Nigga, where the fuck did you get that accent?" When Pierre mentions that he'd rather his father not use that word, Dad fires back, "I say "nigga' a hundred times a day. Keeps my teeth white." Lee seems equally determined to keep his teeth white, as it were, somewhat undermining his criticism of Samuel L. Jackson's frequent use of the N-word in Tarantino films.
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Unfortunately, as the movie progresses, it gradually begins to lose focus. Pierre, who originally seemed to burn inside with anger at the racism surrounding him, becomes a defender of it, trying to justify his show and keep his job. Mantan, who is depicted early on as an easy dupe who only cares about money, suddenly develops smarts and a conscience. But the biggest narrative misstep is the elevation of an ignorant rapper who calls himself Big Black Africa (Mos Def), to the role of avenging angel. It's difficult to talk about the ending without giving too much away, but it does ultimately come across as an advocacy of violence.
The tonal shift from comedy to tragedy is a tough one to pull off, and Lee doesn't manage it well, although the minstrel shows themselves nicely straddle the line between funny and horrific. Compounding the problem is the drastic change of behavior in Pierre's secretary, Sloan (Jada Pinkett Smith), and Wayans's continual voice-over narration in his outlandishly fake accent that is impossible to take seriously; imagine watching Do the Right Thing as narrated by Jon Lovitz's Master Thespian character.
To guarantee that audiences won't leave the theater laughing, the film closes out with some extended montages of actual minstrel shows, and a collection of antique tin toys depicting African-Americans as hideous cartoons. Some of this footage is so revelatory that you wish Lee had made a documentary instead. Perhaps, though, it ultimately contradicts the director's point -- that racism is still marketable in today's world -- by showing that despite our racial problems, we really have come a long way since the days when it was acceptable to market a spring-action toy of a mule kicking a black man in the head.
There's no question that racism is still alive in America, and the lower-key jokes in Bamboozled take on the subject quite well, as in the scene where Pierre gets his all-white writing staff to get past their political correctness by tapping into their anger over the O.J. Simpson verdict. But the climax is so ham-handed that it almost negates the film's prior points.