Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Birdman, as well as David Cronenberg’s upcoming Maps To The Stars, has us thinking back on other showbiz satires.
Among great filmmakers, Spike Lee is uncommonly hit or miss: He seems capable of making both masterpieces (Do The Right Thing, his HBO Hurricane Katrina documentary When The Levees Broke) and steaming piles of cinematic garbage (She Hate Me, Miracle At St. Anna). Ask most people and Bamboozled, his Y2K screed against the insidious persistence of racism in America, belongs firmly to the latter group. It’s no mystery why the film was a flop, commercially and critically. For a satire, it’s almost perversely unfunny, even in the rare instances when it’s aiming for humor. It’s ugly, both in content and in hideous, turn-of-the-millennium digital form. And Lee uses his platform to take petty swipes at his rivals, explicitly referencing his war of words with Quentin Tarantino and awkwardly wedging in a potshot parody of Tommy Hilfiger. Bamboozled is self-indulgent, unsubtle, and inelegant—a righteous howl of rage from the bully pulpit.
There is, however, value to Lee’s anger, and it seems fair to wager that the overwhelmingly negative reaction to this particular effort is proportional to the film’s own negativity. The most confrontational joint Spike has ever made, which is really saying something, Bamboozled rubs its audience’s nose in a chapter of history most people would prefer to conveniently forget, then dares to suggest that the era’s most racist images—actors in blackface, buffoonish caricatures of black culture—are still deeply ingrained in the fabric of American pop culture. As one character puts it: “New millennium? It’s the same bullshit.”
Eager to get out of his contract with a major television network, pretentious writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans, whose deliberately affected performance was another turn-off for the detractors) devises a kamikaze plan, casting two street performers (Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson) as the singing-and-dancing stars of a horrifying modern-day minstrel show. Imagine his surprise, and the audience’s, when the show turns out to be a hit, America embracing it as daring and edgy “satire.” The tapings, which Lee shoots in vibrant 16mm (in contrast to the harsh pixelated textures of the rest of the film), are disturbing throwbacks to an old-but-not-that-ancient era of dehumanizing entertainment. He offsets those scenes with ones of the two stars in their dressing rooms, blotting their faces—and their shame and humiliation—with a thick, dark tar. (In their anguish, and a damning final clip reel, the film dramatizes a Hollywood history of black actors finding success only by agreeing to embody offensive stereotypes.)
Bluntly colliding The Producers and Network, with none of the laughs of the former and twice the cynicism of the latter, Bamboozled is a bitter spill to swallow. But it’s also rich with agenda: Lee’s exaggerated premise is his means of exploring how racism survives in mainstream American culture—as irony, as nostalgia, as “politically incorrect” humor. Would Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show really be a hit? Probably not, but Spike recognizes that even as blackface has gone out of vogue, Hollywood continues to find new ways to perpetuate offensive stereotypes. Lee, so often accused of “playing the race card,” made a movie that takes aim at the type of folks who use the expression “playing the race card.” No wonder the film’s unpopular.
Availability: The DVD of Bamboozled is out of print, but it can still be obtained from Amazon or Netflix.