Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) lives in a swank New York City apartment where the bedroom “window” is a gigantic clock face: as the sun comes up, the space is filled with light and shadows cast by the clock’s hands and numbers. It’s like Samuel Jackson’s alarm clock in Do The Right Thing has turned enormous and inevitable: up your wake, up your wake! No one ever said Spike Lee was subtle. And yes, he knows what time it is.
As most everyone knows by now, Lee’s new film, Bamboozled, was making folks nervous long before its arrival in theaters, when word went round that he was tackling racism in television. Coming on the heels of the NAACP’s threatened boycott of network tv, reports that the New Spike Lee Movie featured performers in blackface and white gloves sounded almost ominous. Some expected sermonizing, others a weak-assed storyline, and still others, imperious finger-pointing at an industry that was just beginning to increase “black” and “multicultural” programming (on UPN and the WB, anyway). That Spike, you know, he’s so grumpy and sensitive, always picking on popular shows like In Living Color or The PJs. That Spike, you know, he just needs to lighten up.
As it turns out, in Bamboozled, Lee does work in some sermonizing and the script doesn’t quite keep its many complicated balls in the air. But the film’s extraordinary ambition and painfully clear vision more than make up for these snags. Messy, outrageous, and mostly brilliant, Bamboozled is bound to make trouble. And I can’t think of a more important trouble to make.
Shot in digital video which brings a sense of TV-immediacy the plot follows a couple of stories, entangled so they become part melodrama, part cultural critique, part grand spectacle. At the center is Pierre, a writer for a ratings-starved TV station. When you meet him, Pierre (whom Wayans plays so broadly that he’s less funny than disturbing) prepares to face yet another awful day at the office, where being the only black writer on staff he’s under pressure to come up with a new “black” show. (He’s also got daddy issues, being perpetually angry at his raucously old-school stand up comic father, beautifully underplayed by Paul Mooney). The camera circles Pierre as Stevie Wonder sings on the soundtrack: “1999, our colors fill the jails / It is through the grace of God, that we all were not scarred / From back then until now I see, no comedy / We have been a misrepresented people.” At this point, the Harvard-degreed Pierre still feels he has a chance to represent, not misrepresent, through his work at the station, but he’s about to come up against seriously ugly social, political, and economic forces.
Enter the second storyline, through Pierre’s smart, high-powered assistant, Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett-Smith). She serves as his combination conscience-and-goad, but has her own issues. For one thing, her brother Julius (Mos Def) has dumped his government name for a new one, Big Black Africa, and has become involved with a hardcore hiphop-activist collective, the Mau Maus (played by the slam poet Mums, and hiphop artists Charli Baltimore, MC Serch, DJ Scratch, Gano Grills, and Canibus). Sloan is skeptical of her brother’s underground methods, not to mention his drinking and dope-smoking, which the film repeatedly depicts in images close, smoky, dark, wide-angled that suggest it agrees with her judgment. But if she resents Big Black’s preaching at her, she also has questions about her own choices that she can’t admit to him.
These come to a head when she hears Pierre’s scheme to get back at his boss, Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), a white man who claims license to use the “n-word” because he’s married to a black woman (whom you never see), has two biracial babies, and keeps framed photos of black athletes Willy Mays, Hank Aaron, Mike Tyson on his office wall (it’s like Do The Right Thing‘s Wall of Fame turned back round on itself). When Dunwitty tells Pierre to come up with a new “black show” or else, Pierre catches a scandalous inspiration. Thinking he’ll educate the masses while ridiculing Dunwitty, he pitches “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show,” a variety show featuring local street-performers Womack (Tommy Davidson) as Sleep ‘n’ Eat and his tap-dancing buddy Manray (Savion Glover) as Mantan. They black their faces with burned cork, run Amos ‘n’ Andy-style routines, and dance with a back-up troupe called the Pickaninnys (whose members include Lil Nigger Jim, Aunt Jemima, Sambo, Jungle Bunny, and Rastus), while the Alabama Porch Monkeys (the Roots), wear ball-and-chains and provide down-home music while literally sitting on a porch right near a watermelon patch. Pierre figures he’s made such a monstrous show that its racism will be obvious even to the most dimwitted viewer or network suit. But no. “Mantan” is a through-the-roof hit.
But not before a major dose of media “controversy” makes it visible. And it’s in illustrating the show’s journey from concept to phenomenon that Bamboozled works its most potent, wily magic. Pierre and Sloan audition a series of potential players: when the Mau Maus perform their terrifically fierce “Black Iz Blak” (on the soundtrack cd and rotating as a music video), Pierre recoils in horror (“I don’t want anything to do with anything ‘black’ for at least a week!”), but when shuck-and-jiving Honeycutt (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) speaks his wisdom, “Niggers is a beautiful thing,” Pierre is thrilled by its awfulness (“‘Niggers is a beautiful thing!’” he smiles at Sloan. “Write that down!”). But all the while Pierre thinks he’s putting together a scathing satire, Dunwitty is hiring a whiter-than-white staff (the head writer is from Finland) and a combo black-culture/spin expert who advises that they publicize that they hire a black gaffer and best boy, and publicize that Pierre a black man came up with the idea, to answer charges of racism, all standard ploys in the business. Pierre sneers and calls her “Oh great niggerologist.” The blatantly made point that this expert is a Jewish woman has already raised eyebrows, but the choice seems of a piece with the rest of Lee’s ongoing critique of the industry and, even his own past use of stereotypes.
There’s not really an aspect of media-image-making that doesn’t get shafted, whether producers or consumers, black or white, young or older generations. From Timmi Hillnigger’s (played by Danny Hoch) jeans and Da Bomb malt liquor to Al Sharpton and Johnnie Cochran (played by themselves) leading much-publicized and arguably self-serving protests against the show, the film pulls no punches. It even targets memorably “poignant” moments: Pierre’s own Emmy acceptance speech (which looks to be a fantasy, but who can say), during which he sucks up to presenter Matthew Modine (he first mistakes him for Matt Dillon and then gives him his award, a la Ving Rhames giving his Emmy to Jack Lemmon) and dances wildly on stage like Cuba Gooding Jr. winning his Oscar. It’s hard to resist the feeling, as these images are intercut with those from the past that everyone agrees are racist minstrel dance numbers, blackfaced joy-joy moments that not much has change, or at least not enough. Quoting liberally from its most obvious precursors, A Face in the Crowd and Network, Bamboozled sets out to communicate in no uncertain terms heart-wrenching grief and fury at the way “things are.”
By the time “Mantan” has become a blockbuster sensation on the scale of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, with studio audience members coming in blackface and eagerly testifying as to how they’re all “niggers,” it’s clear that the satire of the tv show and to an extent, the movie is out of control. As Pierre puts it, he feels like “Dr. Frankenstein,” beset by his own creation. At the same time, stars Womack and Manray are having their own doubts, the latter’s increased by the instruction in the history of minstrelsy he’s receiving from Sloan. And for her, the burden of representation in the midst of so much misrepresentation and the roiling passions about it is heavy indeed. While Lee has long been presenting strong women on screen in particular, in Crooklyn (starring Alfre Woodard), Girl 6 (written by Suzette Lori Parks and acted by Theresa Randle), and Summer of Sam (Mira Sorvino and Jennifer Esposito) he also has a well-known early history of thinly-written and -conceived female characters. But if Pinkett-Smith’s Sloan has the hardest part in the film which she does, embodying and revealing everyone else’s anguish and aspiration, dread and desire she (character and actor) also rises to it with grace and subtlety. This is difficult, I think, in a Spike Lee Joint, where the point is never understated, where the rage and politics tend to come at you like a runaway train. But Pinkett-Smith does make it work.
Still, what’s going on around her is often train-like. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Critics are complaining again about Lee’s overkill representations and indictments (one has written that because “we” all know that minstrel shows are just not funny anymore, it’s hard to believe “Mantan”‘s prodigious success: this despite the film’s obvious concern over what is funny, and to whom). But most all are loving Bamboozled‘s dazzling climactic coda, on a videotape that Sloan prepares to teach Pierre about the legacy to which he is contributing, so lethally. This tape fills the screen with a series of famously racist representations, ranging from Hattie McDaniel and Bill Robinson (dancing with Shirley Temple), to Birth of a Nation‘s Gus and any number of big-lipped, oversexed, and slothful cartoon characters, to Al Jolson and Judy Garland in blackface, to Jimmie Walker and a whole string of characters reciting, “Yassir!” (many of these historical images and others are available in Marlon Riggs’ astute videotapes, Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment: see them if you haven’t). It’s reassuring, of course, to say that “we” have moved on from these past manifestations of racism, and that “we” should be able to appreciate the strides made and the hard work people have put in over the years to allow someone like Spike to make the films he makes now. I’m all for appreciating the work. But that doesn’t mean you have to ignore today’s realities.
It may be that with Bamboozled, he’s so dead-on-target that this is what’s making people uncomfortable. Sure, “things” are “improved” since Butterfly McQueen’s day. But that doesn’t dispel the urgent significance of the rallying cry “41 shots” or the image of that plunger used on Abner Louima, the prejudice and ignorance that continue to plague real people in real neighborhoods every day. It’s not even that there’s no place on the planet for TV series like The Parkers or movies like The Ladies Man (each distressing in its own way). The point is that Andre Braugher and Spike Lee and Denzel and Kasi Lemmons get work despite the shameful legacy of racism, not because it’s over and done with. Stereotypical images persist, in different, insidious, and dangerous forms. Bamboozled does not look away. As Prince puts it in his song on the film’s soundtrack, “Radical Man 2045,” “The day you wake up is when you get the real cream.”