Some failed films burrow their way deep into the subconscious, lingering furtively in the psyche long after better, more accomplished films have faded completely. Tom Twyker's Perfume, one of the inspirations for My Year of Flops, was one such film. So is Spike Lee's 2000 flop Bamboozled, which I initially found to be an intermittently fascinating but mostly maddening jumble of strained satire, ham-fisted sermonizing, and schizophrenic tonal shifts, undone by a phenomenally ill-conceived lead performance by Damon Wayans as uptight TV writer Pierre Delacroix.
Yet time has been kind to Bamboozled. Bamboozled railed passionately, though semi-coherently, against a world that tolerated Homeboys In Outer Space and The Secret Diary Of Desmond Pfeiffer, yet doomed Frank's Place to an early grave. Satirists seemingly can't go wrong by predicting that the world will grow ever more stupid and cynical, that it will plunge lower and lower in its zeal to reach the lowest common denominator. Hope and optimism inevitably look foolish and myopic, not their opposites.
Eight years later, we're inundated with films and television shows that make Homeboys In Outer Space look, by comparison, as noble as a film of Ossie Davis reciting the speeches of Martin Luther King. Not a week goes by that I don't think of Bamboozled in one context or another. It's the most prescient recent satire this side of Idiocracy.
We are living in an Idiocracy world, just as we are living in the grim pop-culture landscape Bamboozled predicted. Only this time, affronts to the dignity of black culture have names like Who's Your Caddy? and Soul Plane and Norbit and My Baby's Daddy and From G's To Gents instead of The New Millennium Minstrel Show.
In one of life's bitter ironies, the shameless, lucrative new minstrelsy Lee critiques in Bamboozled is personified by a core member of the hip-hop group Lee is most intimately associated with: Public Enemy, the cultural-revolutionary outfit whose "Fight The Power"—complete with Spike Lee-directed video—powered Do The Right Thing. I think of Bamboozled whenever I see the grinning visage of Flavor Flav. The trickster spirit of Bamboozled haunts The Surreal Life, Strange Love, and Flavor Of Love 1 through 3. Its brutal, unsparing satire anticipated that halcyon day when Flavor Flav decided to name two of the hapless wannabes on Flavor Of Love 3 "Thing 1" and "Thing 2." It predicted the soul-crushing buffoonery of Flav's Under One Roof.
That last Flavor Flav abomination was the subject of an exquisitely ambiguous, uncomfortable moment during Public Enemy's set at the Pitchfork Festival this year, when the legendary hype man pimped his latest embarrassment to a chorus of boos from the overwhelmingly white crowd. Flav seemed shocked. Who were these white hipsters to tell a core component of the most important hip-hop group of all time that his second career as a sitcom stooge and reality-show fixture was hurting his race? Who gets to decide when goofy entertainment crosses a fuzzy line and becomes unacceptably racist and offensive?
I suspect that Spike Lee would answer that last question by pointing proudly to himself. Lee long ago appointed himself the indignant conscience of black America, a role that has won him countless detractors. The irony, of course, is that after Do The Right Thing, his magnum opus and a film defined as much by its ambiguity as its rage, Lee's best films have had primarily white casts: Summer Of Sam, The 25th Hour, Inside Man. Lee has shown infinitely more mastery as a filmmaker and storyteller than as a polemicist. It's his films that try to say something profound and sweeping about Black America—She Hate Me, He Got Game, School Daze, Girl 6—that have gotten him into trouble.
With Bamboozled, Lee channeled the ornery, muckraking spirit of Peter Finch in Network and hollered, "I'm mad as hell about television's treatment of black America, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" Finch's legendary catchphrase is referenced repeatedly in Bamboozled, a film that joins Network in Movie Jail for crimes against subtlety. Having just suffered through the 213-minute director's cut of Nixon, I can assure you that Oliver Stone deserves eight consecutive death penalties for his even more egregious crimes against subtlety. Bamboozled is as subtle as a jackhammer. But sometimes you have to yell just to make yourself heard.
Bamboozled's contempt for understatement is evident in its very first lines of dialogue, as Damon Wayans' Ivy League-educated poindexter rattles off the definition of "satire." Mmmm, that's good subtlety! This is a tactic familiar to any slacker elementary-school student who ever padded a report by cribbing lines from Monsieur Webster and company. It's also the dumb-ass technique that begins every chapter in The Unusual Suspect, Stephen Baldwin's deliciously dumb-ass treatise on Mountain Dew-slamming, bungee-jumping Christianity for the devout and totally X-treme.
Spike, bubbeleh (can I call you bubbeleh? I can? Thanks!), you're one of the greatest filmmakers of your generation. Do you really want to share literary conceits with the stupid Baldwin? I didn't think so. The point is to illustrate devastating satire by example, not to define it upfront for the mouth-breathers in the audience.
Wayans recites the definition of "satire" in the sort of pinched, nasal, gratingly unnatural voice that third-rate black comedians employ to illustrate that white people be acting all uptight and shit. Sadly, he maintains this annoying mannered speech pattern throughout the film. Wayans peppers his speech with SAT vocabulary words and anachronistic references to "Negroes," and illustrates his foppishly chosen verbiage with florid, theatrical hand gestures. He over-e-nun-c-i-ates every word. He sports a pencil-thin mustache and a weakness for the kind of flamboyant purple suits favored by pimps, preachers, and Steve Harvey.
It's a bold, grating set of acting choices that slathers a thick gloss of artifice over every word and gesture. I still find Wayans the weakest aspect of Bamboozled, but I warmed up slightly to his performance this time around. It's a burlesque of whiteness every bit as phony and unconvincing as the ridiculous African-American affectations of his racist boss Michael Rapaport.
As the film opens, Rapaport's network is in trouble. The ratings are down, Wayans' pitches for new shows are rejected as hopelessly dignified, and desperation has set in. After an emergency staff meeting, Rapaport reads Wayans the riot act in his office, which is decorated with giant pictures of black sports stars and arty African masks. Rapaport casually drops racial epithets and heaps abuse on his underling. When Wayans objects, Rapaport brags about his black wife and biracial children and sneers, "I don't give a goddamned what that prick Spike Lee said. Tarantino was right. Nigger is just a word."
In many ways, Rapaport, with his fetishization of black culture, represents something more insidious than blatant racism. Rapaport doesn't realize he's racist. On the contrary, he considers himself culturally black, littering his talk with hackneyed slang ("I'm 'bout it, 'bout it") and hailing Kenan & Kel as "the stupidest shit on TV, yo."
With his job on the line, Wayans tells strong-willed assistant Jada Pinkett Smith of his plan to pitch Rapaport a pilot idea that "will be so negative, so offensive and racist. Hence, I will prove my point. The point being that… the network does not want to see Negroes on television unless they are buffoons." (Negroes being buffoons on television these days constitutes the scheduling strategy of both VH1 and BET.)
Wayans' genius idea is to get fired by pitching an impossibly insulting old-fashioned minstrel show starring a pair of street performers (dancer Savion Glover and Wayans' fellow In Living Color alum Tommy Davidson) in blackface as Mantan and Sleep'n Eat, ignorant, dull-witted, unlucky ignoramuses who've left the big city behind for the comfort and security of the watermelon patch.
Instead of firing Wayans, Rapaport loves the idea and green-lights a pilot, giving Wayans an all-white writing staff and a Scandinavian director. Glover and Davidson are skeptical and ambivalent but hungry for work, so they sign on. In the film's most haunting scene, Glover and Davidson painstakingly burn cork in the manner of their minstrel-show predecessors, coat their faces in cocoa butter to protect their skin, then smear the burnt cork on their faces and paint their lips trolley-car red. Driven by Terence Blanchard's haunting, omnipresent jazz score, it's a lyrical scene that taps into the juju of blackface, the way it subverts and masks identity while pretending to evoke a universal, one-size-fits-all blackness. At the height of the minstrel show's popularity, black performers as well as white performers slathered on burnt cork to darken their skin. The legendary Bert Williams was famous for conveying humanity and vulnerability behind a mask of total darkness; he and his partner were billed, like Glover and Davidson here, as "Two Real Coons" to differentiate them from their white competition.
At the first taping of The New Millennium Minstrel Show, a baffled audience is unsure how to respond. But the show soon becomes a cultural phenomenon. Bamboozled exploits the visceral, unnerving power of blackface in minstrel-show sequences that are simultaneously entertaining and harrowing. It's easy to see why the film failed to recoup even its tiny, $10 million budget. Moviegoers understandably weren't eager to pay $8 apiece to have Spike Lee pour salt in our country's racial wounds for 135 loose, rambling minutes. Lee's reputation as a blowhard and provocateur belie his formidable gifts as a sensualist. Even at his worse, (She Hate Me, cough, cough) his films look and sound fantastic, but Bamboozled eschews lush cinematography in favor of rinky-dink digital video shot on home-video-quality cameras.
Paul Mooney has a magnificent supporting role as Wayans' comedian father, Junebug. He's essentially playing himself, a bemused, regal stand-up comedian with the beatific smirk of someone forever enjoying a private joke at the world's expense. Wayans only lets his aristocratic façade drop in Mooney's presence; Mooney calls him on his bullshit, asking him where he picked up that ridiculous accent. Wayans considers Mooney a broken man, a loser reduced to playing rinky-dink dives, but he's perhaps the only free man in the entire film.
Mos Def co-stars as Pinkett Smith's brother and the leader of the Mau Maus, a group of cockeyed rap revolutionaries spouting empty slogans while guzzling malt liquor. In their own way, they're just as phony and ridiculous as Rapaport and Wayans. In Bamboozled, nobody's innocent. Racial politics taint everyone.
Though it owes an enormous debt to The Producers and Network, Bamboozled is powered by a singular, strangely hypnotic combination of broad comedy, sledgehammer satire, melancholy and rage. In its last 40 minutes, however, Lee loses control of the film's oft-wavering tone, giving it over entirely to incoherent rage and leaden solemnity.
As his show conquers the world and spirals out of control, Wayans becomes everything he professes to despise, surrounding himself with ghoulish trinkets of our collective racist past and slathering himself in blackface. The film's characters never emerge as anything other than show-business constructs, so when Lee introduces a love triangle between Wayans, Glover, and Pinkett Smith late in the film, it falls flat. The prissy, narcissistic Wayans seems asexual, and there's no sexual tension between Glover and Pinkett Smith.
As it lurches to a close, the film grows increasingly dark, and the comedy disappears. The Mau Maus kidnap Glover and murder him in front of a massive television audience. In a creepy bit of irony, The Mau Maus are massacred to Public Enemy's "Burn, Hollywood, Burn," a devastating, poignant reminder of a time when when Flavor Flav was something other than the poster boy for post-millennial minstrelsy.
A distraught Jada Pinkett Smith kills Wayans, who leaves audiences with parting words from James Baldwin, a black man infinitely wiser and more comfortable in his own skin: "People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply by the lives they lead."
The film ends with a marathon reel of shame cutting together powerful images of blackface and minstrelsy from the first half of the 20th century, set against Blanchard's melancholy horns. The images are ostensibly comic and lighthearted, but the music is despairing. If Lee were to release a director's cut that included in its closing montage every sad, ugly, de-humanizing image of African-Americans on television or in film since 2000, it would last another couple of hours. This devastating final section is Bamboozled in a nutshell; the tragic rendered comic and the comic rendered tragic.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success