stars out of five
Extremely heavy-handed satire from director Spike Lee – disturbing and
thought-provoking but ultimately lacking a sense of focus.
Damon Wayans stars as Pierre Delacroix, an educated black TV executive who
is sick of taking orders from his ‘down with it’ white boss (Michael
Rapaport). Ordered to produce a ‘hip new show’ or else, he pitches the
deliberately racist All New Millenium Minstrel Show, starring homeless
tap-dancer Man Ray (Savion Glover) as ‘Mantan’ and his partner Womack (Tommy
Davidson) as ‘Sleep ‘n’ Eat’ – two black men in black-face make-up,
resurrecting old-style ‘darkie’ song-and-dance comedy.
Once the show airs,
Delacroix fully expects to be fired: however, Mantan: The All-New Millenium
Minstrel Show becomes a huge hit, to the point where black-face make-up
catches on as the latest ‘hip’ new accessory. Meanwhile Delacroix’s
assistant (Jada Pinkett Smith) grows ever more horrified, and her brother
(who wishes to be known as ‘Big Black Africa’) plots a radical terrorist act
to put an end to the show.
As a satire, Bamboozled takes its cues from a rich tradition of films that
includes Network (which this film most closely resembles with its ‘I’m mad
as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore’ undercurrent), Mel Brooks’ The
Producers (‘Springtime For Hitler’ being the obvious model for the
deliberately offensive minstrel show) and even Elia Kazan’s 1950s classic A
Face In The Crowd. What Bamboozled lacks, however, is any sense of the
style, subtlety or humour that characterized those films – Lee makes many
valid observations in the film, but all too often they are delivered with a
sledge-hammer so that your eventual reaction is more likely to be ‘Okay,
okay – I get it! Enough!’ rather than righteous anger or uncomfortable
laughter whatever else Lee is going for, and in that sense, the tone of the
film is uncertain.
That said, there are some very effective and disturbing scenes, especially
towards the end where the white studio audience enthusiastically wear
black-face make-up and whoop along with the show – Lee’s point being that
all we need is televisual ‘permission’ in order for us to happily re-embrace
the racism of these stereotypes, permission in this case stemming from the
fact that the show is ‘written and acted by black performers so it can’t be
The most disturbing scene, however, is undoubtedly the montage of old
cartoons and movies featuring film stars in black-face make-up, everything
from Tom and Jerry to Judy Garland and Fred Astaire – this is the scene that
really makes you realise how close to the bone Bamboozled actually is, since
it basically says ‘You think this is over the top? Well look at how things
used to be…’
On the plus side, the acting is excellent, with Wayans’ mannered performance
particularly effective, especially later in the film when he meets his
father (whose stand-up monologue is one of the best things in the film).
Glover’s dancing is equally impressive, and there’s good support from
Pinkett Smith, Michael Rapaport and Mos Def as Big Black Africa. The style
is effective, too, with Lee’s decision to film it Dogme-style on digital
video giving it an added sense of hyper-reality.
Aside from the uncertain tone of the film, its main flaw is down to its
length – at over two hours long it feels like a relentless verbal assault
and one which could happily have been at least an hour shorter.
That said, the film is definitely worth seeing, though it clearly won’t
appeal to everyone and is bound to split critical opinion much the same way
as Lars Von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark did earlier this year. Masterpiece,
unmitigated disaster or something in-between? See it and decide for