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With: Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tommy Davidson, Michael Rapaport, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Paul Mooney, Sarah Jones, Gillian Iliana Waters, Susan Batson, Mos Def
Written by: Spike Lee
Directed by: Spike Lee
MPAA Rating: R for strong language and some violence
Running Time: 135
Date: 09/18/2000

Bamboozled (2000)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Off-Color Television

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Spike Lee's Bamboozled is a passionate movie bursting with ideas. But it's also a huge mess, lacking the discipline and order to streamline its various parts into a workable whole. Still and all, I wouldn't swap Bamboozled for ten of Big Momma's House.

The premise of Bamboozled is similar to that of Mel Brooks' The Producers (1968) in which two play producers attempt to raise money for a guaranteed flop so that they can close the play early and skip town. Needless to say, the play ("Springtime for Hitler") becomes a huge hit. In Bamboozled, Damon Wayans plays Pierre Delacroix, a television writer with a absurdly straight-laced accent. Delacroix gets the idea to create the most vulgar, most ridiculously wrong-headed show he can think of so that he can get fired and get out of his contract. He comes up with "Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show," in which poor street performers Tommy Davidson and Savion Glover agree to perform in blackface, playing two dull-witted "coons" who live in a watermelon patch. Network V.P. Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) falls in love with the idea, and it becomes a sensation.

What is Lee saying here? We can assume that he's speaking out against the many dumb African-American sitcoms that air on UPN and the WB network. I agree with him. Those shows are insulting not only to blacks, but to everyone. But Bamboozled contains no actual clues to support that assumption. Lee begins the movie giving us the definition of "satire," so we know that he's not actually into the notion of a modern-day minstrel show. But he also dedicates the movie to Budd Schulberg who wrote the screenplay for the scathing A Face in the Crowd (1957) in which a country bumpkin (Andy Griffith) is made into an overnight TV star and becomes corrupt and power-hungry.

And Lee also brings up other points. He delves into the history of blackface performing itself, showing us endless images of performers who were forced to degrade themselves (including, unfortunately, images of Hattie McDaniel and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson), as well as endless images of trinkets and figurines depicting racist images of blacks. He makes fun of malt liquor and clothing advertisements targeted at blacks, brings up the fact that many blacks still don't own computers and can't participate in a nationwide web broadcast, and brings up the phenomenon of black people acting "white" and white people acting "black." These issues are all interesting, but none are tied into the narrative.

Supposedly, Jada Pinkett, as Delacroix' assistant, is the voice of reason in this scenario. She's the one that seems to have a cool, logical head. She's aware of the history of blackface (she even explains the old-time and presumably real ritual of burning and mashing up wine corks to use for the makeup). Yet, even she comes apart at the end and performs an unnecessary act of violence.

Bamboozled was shot on digital video, and it's exciting to know that major artists like Lee (and Lars von Trier who with Dancer in the Dark) are embracing the new medium. It will allow for more experimentation for less money. Likewise, I was glad to see Savion Glover in a role worthy of his amazing talents (he gets several dance solos). Glover is a dancer like no other, and he deserves to be a star of Fred Astaire's caliber.

After watching Bamboozled, one gets the idea that Lee is angry and has something important to say, but he hasn't calmed down enough to make his point clear. He's screaming unintelligibly at us for 135 minutes. Some of his points stick and many don't. Yet as scattershot as it is, Bamboozled made me think and it made me feel, which is an improvement over some of Lee's recent, more passive films like Jungle Fever (1991), Clockers (1995), and Summer of Sam (1999).

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