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Grade: C+Bamboozled (2000)

Director: Spike Lee

Stars: Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Tommy Davidson

Release Company: 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks

MPAA Rating: R

Spike Lee: Bamboozled

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I vaguely remember seeing Little Black Sambo restaurants and hearing the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show in the 1950s, the happy days of innocence. The adolescent '60s exposed these items, along with Aunt Jemima pancakes and Jack Benny’s servant, Rochester, as blatantly racist and demeaning. They were an embarrassment to American ideals of justice and equality.

We have progressed over the years in achieving racial equality, belatedly integrating baseball in 1947, desegregating schools in 1954, and passing civil-rights legislation in 1964. But America, despite its cultural diversity, still remains one of the most race-divided countries on Earth. Though it's true that numerous African-Americans have achieved recognition and status in many visible fields (including music, television, and movies), Spike Lee asks us to examine this closer with his dark satire.

Bamboozled begins promisingly enough, but it is more likely to bewilder and befuddle by the end. Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) plays the "house nigga" for the CNS television studio. Their ratings are going straight to the dumpster, and producer Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) blames the downfall on the general lack of creativity by his mostly ivory-colored writing staff. Dunwitty’s biggest hopes rest with his lone African-American writer.

But can this Harvard-educated "Oreo" return to his roots and create the kind of fresh, urban show that Dunwitty demands? Delacroix has created sitcoms involving black characters, but his creations have all been educated, middle-class characters. They don’t represent the true urban black experience that his boss wants. After all, he has to please the boss, who claims to be more down with blacks than Delacroix (he’s married to a black woman and has "two interracial babies at home").

Over the objections of his assistant and voice of reason, Sloan (Jada Pinkett Smith), Delacroix decides to create the most outrageous and offensive idea possible to get fired and get out of his contract. Why not take the idea behind The Jeffersons and The Cosby Show to ultimate absurdity, and return to the disgusting minstrel shows of yesteryear, starring black actors in blackface?

Dunwitty falls in love with the idea, seeing it as brilliant satire, and they take it even further over the top by placing the setting on an Alabama plantation, in the middle of a watermelon patch. They even add a host of supporting characters: an Aunt Jemima and dancing pickaninnies. Of course there’ll be a chicken coop on the premises to get those fried-chicken jokes worked in. But who will star?

Delacroix has the answer for that. He finds a couple of talented homeless guys, earning their eating money by tap-dancing on the streets of New York. They are eager for regular work, even if it involves changing their names to “Mantan” (Savion Glover) and “Sleep ‘n’ Eat” (Tommy Davidson), dressing in outrageous costumes, putting on blackface and fire-engine-red lipstick, and doing the “shufflin’ for the massa” routine to portray real "coons."
Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show takes off in ways Delacroix never imagines, just as Lee’s film ends up in directions that the audience might not foresee.

No other director tackles race issues head-on like Spike Lee; most of his films are sure to be controversial. Bamboozled should generate the most discussion of any of Lee’s films since his masterful Do the Right Thing. But Bamboozled is far more uneven than that seminal work.

Lee begins Bamboozled as satire, throws in his patented race-themed news references (like the O.J. Simpson glove image), complicates the plot with an undeveloped love triangle, and muddies the waters by adding a nonsensical kidnapping and some pointless violence.

For all the promise Bamboozled shows, I left the theater disappointed. Yet it has its merits. The satire generally works, and Lee even pokes fun at himself in the opening. The premise combines the ideas behind two "white" films directly: Network (with the falling television ratings and the creation of a new concept to give them a boost), and Mel Brooks' farcical The Producers (with its idea of deliberately creating a flop, only to see it blossom into a hit). Both of those movies worked, but Lee’s doesn’t hold together.

One reason rests with finding a suitable character to follow. The Delacroix character is undeveloped, a one-dimensional caricature of a middle-class, professional black man with no soul--at least no soul that we are allowed to see, despite his narration, and the meeting with his father (Junebug, played by Paul Mooney), a comedian who doesn’t shy away from confronting race issues directly.

Although we suspect that Delacroix has feelings towards Sloan, it came as a surprise when the stiff-acting character declares that he has a “relationship” with her. Where does that come from?

Sloan could be a sympathetic character, but we never get to see inside her world, and Lee has her get wacky at the end. The most sympathetic characters are the two homeless guys. Lee allows them to change. At first, the street guys approach their starring roles on the minstrel show with eagerness; later, as they apply their blackface, they show their uneasiness with the stereotype. Especially well-done is the tearful scene Tommy Davidson delivers before he breaks away from the show. Unfortunately, Lee doesn’t stay with these characters long enough.

Lee slings the mud of Bamboozled on the wall and lets the audience decide what sticks. Though this makes for a real roller-coaster ride, it does inspire thinking and dialogue, and it gets other movie geeks to talk with each other. As soon as I logged on to my computer after returning from the theater, I was instant-messaged by another reviewer who had seen Bamboozled a couple days earlier. Neither one of us thought that Lee’s ending worked that well. Both of us were uncertain how we felt about Bamboozled overall, and we only began to get clarification as we talked about it.

Bamboozled is that kind of film: a provocative, challenging, discussion-starter.

One encouraging sign is that Bamboozled is Lee's experiment with a digital camera. This means he can produce movies at a faster pace now.

Lee’s films are often a hit-and-miss affair. Bamboozled takes us in multiple directions. Much of the actual satire; and the archived footage of blackface performers Lee places alongside parallel characters such as Hattie McDaniel, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Sherman Hemsley; works quite well. Other portions don’t work so well. If Lee turns to making more digital movies, the odds go up for worthy footage to add to his body of work.

I still harbor mixed feelings about Bamboozled. But I do like Lee’s concept of leaving open-ended conclusions (most successfully rendered in Do the Right Thing) on his race-themed films. This latest creation just left me confused, and it took me a day to sort through my feelings. I think I was supposed to alternate between feeling amused and outraged, but I ended up feeling ambivalent. I was already aware of many of Lee’s points (the media treatment of African-Americans, for one), so that didn't phase me.

I felt beat over the head so much by the fact that the satirical "keep ‘em laughing" reference in Bamboozled is used in a way obviously not intended for amusement (in case we didn't "get" that from his U-turn near the end). If Lee’s purpose relies on creating a confusing menagerie to promote thinking, he succeeds. For that, give Lee the benefit of doubt and check out the film.
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