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Bamboozled


Spike Lee’s back, with a vengeance. After a string of forgettable joints, Lee finally gets his groove back with this no holds barred satire, his best film since “Malcolm X”. Here’s a movie that might make you angry or sad, a movie that will make you think, and a movie that will entertain you too, but in a perverse way. I laughed quite a bit throughout, but it always left a bitter taste in my mouth. For you see, the movie is about the not always appropriate use of black people in the American media. Back in the 18th century, and well into the first half of the 20th, racist stereotypes and imagery were obvious and commonplace. Minstrel shows featured actors in black face make up talking in exaggerated accents and acting as dumb, lazy buffoons to the “superior” white man. Lee argues that, if black face has disappeared, a lot of the attitudes are still the same.

Damon Wayans stars as Pierre Delacroix, a television writer who downplays his race to excess in order to fit in with the executives and producers of the network. He tries to push series about intelligent, dignified, middle class blacks, but he hits a wall. His boss (Michael Rappaport) tells him that he’s too white, that he should try to write more hip, funny and on the edge. Keep it real, brother. Delacroix bites his tongue, but he’s pissed. He can’t even quit, as he is under contract, so he figures he’ll just put together the most un-PC, offensive and racist show he can and get fired. “You want black, I’ll give you black!” This leads to the creation of Mantan : The New Millennium Minstrel Show, starring performers Dela picked up from the street as Mantan (Savion Glover) and Sleep N Eat (Tommy Davidson), two ignorant, lazy slaves who live on a watermelon patch in a plantation, joking in low brow humor, stealing chickens, singing and dancing. They’re accompanied by a live band, the Alabama Porch Monkeys (played by hip hop group The Roots!) and a backing pickaninny chorus featuring Jungle Bunny, Sambo, Aunt Jemima, Topsy, Rastus and Li’l Nigger Jim. Oh, and they’re all in black face make up and red lipstick…

To Delacroix’s horrified surprise, his plan backfires and, like Springtime for Hitler in “The Producers”, Mantan becomes a huge hit. But as shocked as he is at first, Dela soon caves in and enjoys selfishly the fame and fortune it brings him, despite the moralizing of his assistant Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith). Of course, she’s not the only one who ain’t taken by the Mantan sensation. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the show, and a lot of African Americans are outraged. Maus Maus for instance, a hardcore gangsta rap outfit led by Sloan’s brother Julius aka Big Blak Africa (rapper Mos Def). His posse and him are really pissed by the show, and they’re willing to stop it by any means necessary…

Phew! This is obviously not a lightweight movie, but you have to understand that Lee doesn’t just mean to offend us. He’s trying to make us remember that blackface and the such was still around just a few generations ago, and that it still is in spirit today. See how Lee juxtaposes images of blacks in make-up and costumes tap dancing with the current hip hop imagery, and you realize that rap videos can be as demeaning and stereotypical as minstrel shows. Is a bunch of badass homeboys in gold chains shooting each others and sipping on 40s all that better than slaves clowning around and eating watermelon? Lee also spoofs “urban” advertising, with ads for D-Bomb and Timmy Hillnigger malt liquors packed with booty shaking hoes and homeboys, awards show acceptance speeches by Cuba Gooding Junior and Ving Rhames, loudmouthed black stand up comedians who beat down on their own race and so on, and it all ads up to a rather crass image of blacks. Sure, a lot of it’s funny, but it also makes you kinda sick, especially during the Mantan shows. The blackface make-up and the slavery setting is offensive at first, but In Living Color alumni Tommy Davidson and Broadway star Savion Glover sure are charismatic and funny. And man, Glover sure can tap dance up a storm! Their characters can seem like sell-outs for taking part in such inappropriate material, but on the other hand, they’re pretty much doing the same act they did for pennies on street corners, only in blackface…

That’s something else that’s good about the picture. There aren’t really any good guys or bad guys. Everybody’s got his reasons. Michael Rapaport’s network exec is quite an asshole, with his belief that even though he’s white, he’s as black as the next guy because he hangs with Negroes and has a black wife. But wiggers like that are mostly just ridiculous, with their phony ebonics and demeanour. Damon Wayans is quite the opposite, a black guy who acts white, “unthreatening”, assimilated, and talks with an overtly mannered and precise accent. Jada Pinkett-Smith is good too, as maybe the only healthy character, sort of the film’s moral compass. And, again, let’s not forget Davidson and especially Glover, who are just wonderful and bring joy and fun through an otherwise rather bleak experience.

Spike Lee does a good job too; this is his joint, after all. He shot it in digital video, and though the resulting images don’t have the quality of film, this gives a loose, unrestrained, near-documentary feel to the piece. I also wonder whether or not Lee could have gathered the funds to make such a risky picture with costly 35 mm celluloid. In any case, he made a very good movie, maybe even an important one. His script pushes a lot of buttons, his direction is inventive, the score by Terence Blanchard is effective as is the use of all kinds of black music from jazz to funk, soul and rap. Some critics felt the violent climax undermined what came before. I didn’t think so. To me, this is just Lee wanting to end his movie with a bang. Sure, it would be better if we got constructive solutions out of it instead, but Lee can’t do it all for us. It’s up to each and everyone to revisit his attitudes and his response to racist stereotypes. Lee is already making a big step by reminding us of what once was and sometimes still seems to be. Betcha’ll never look at your box of Aunt Jemima the same way…