Directed by Spike Lee
Review by Matt Heffernan <email@example.com>
Spike Lee couldn't have put out Bamboozled at a better time. Films featuring a strong, intelligent African-American in a leading role, like Remember the Titans, are incredibly rare. In fact, that is the only current example I can think of. When Hollywood wants to make a film with a black lead, without it being pigeonholed as a "black" film that won't make it to mainstream audiences, they resort to making the character a stereotypical buffoon, essentially putting on a modern-day minstrel show. Maybe Jamie Foxx didn't eat watermelon and sing "Old Virginny" in Bait, but it doesn't make the film any less racist. Films like this, and Big Momma's House, and The Ladies Man, try to mask their racism in humor, making it palatable to even today's audience. Lee is just as disgusted with this trend as I, but he had the courage to make a biting satire in an effort to bring the problem to light.
Damon Wayans stars as Pierre Delacroix, a top writer for a major television network. His boss, a young V.P. named Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), rejects his proposals of sitcoms featuring bourgeois black families, like "The Cosby Show". Dunwitty claims to have grown up with black people, to whom he freely refers with the N-word, and wants fare more akin to "Homeboys in Outer Space". He accuses Pierre of being a Harvard intellectual who is out of touch with his own culture.
Pierre is frustrated, so he comes up with an idea that he hopes will both make a point, and get him fired from this stupid company that has him under contract. Everyday, outside the office, he sees a couple of street performers: Manray (Savion Glover), a tap dancer with bottle caps pressed into the soles of his cheap shoes, and Womack (Tommy Davidson), his partner who works the audience with comedy. Pierre gives them the break they constantly ask for when he proposes his show to Dunwitty: "The Mantan New Millennium Minstrel Show". Manray will become Mantan (who has "educated feets"), and Womack will be his singing comic sidekick, Sleep 'n' Eat. The show will take place in a watermelon patch, and the all-black cast will wear blackface and red lipstick. Instead of being fired for such a horribly offensive idea, Pierre's show is picked up by the network and becomes a huge success.
The idea of this film is brilliant. Its touchy nature kept it from getting much funding, so Lee shot it using a handheld digital camcorder. It works pretty well for a satire on television, so it wasn't much of a compromise. The importance of the film is that society is not far from the absurdity depicted in Bamboozled. Lee's screenplay is shrewd and funny, and his points are well made.
The problem is that he didn't quite know where to stop. The third act seemed to go on forever, and the film struggled its way to an ending. Although, I did like the epilogue, which helped to cement the film's message. It is a montage of film clips from the last century that depicted the legacy of minstrel shows. Many were from cartoons, and some included such icons as Judy Garland and Bing Crosby, and of course Al Jolson, contributing to the sustained life of racism.
Will Hollywood learn anything from this? Will there be true equality in film and television? The people making those decisions are dictated by money. If people continue to watch this crap, they will continue to make it. The responsibility is ultimately with the public. We need to tell Hollywood that we will not stand for it. Buying a ticket for Bamboozled, and not for The Ladies Man, will send this message.
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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan